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Putting out fires versus solving problems

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Putting out fires versus solving problems

Scott Miker

We all have probably been so busy at some point in our lives that we simply try to put out as many metaphorical fires as possible.  It could be at work, at home, at school, or anywhere else where problems surface and it is up to us to fix them.

I’ve worked at places where people treat any problem as a five-alarm fire.  They become chaotic and stressed.  They get nervous and frustrated.  They scramble around trying to find the quickest, easiest way to alleviate the stress caused by the problem. 

Many times this means a quick fix that stops the symptoms quickly.  We do whatever we can to make it look like the problem is solved.  But really when are just running around putting out fires, we aren’t addressing the real problems.

The real problems usually involve deeper systematic evaluation.  Why did the fire happen in the first place?  Most people would simply say, “We had this fire because customer X had this problem,” or they would say, “so-and-so make a mistake.”

But if we dive deeper into the systems, we usually see that the reason the customer had the problem was due to a recurring, systematic issue that surfaced.  And because it is recurring and systematic, that means that it can crop up again in the future, likely with a different customer but a similar problem due to the same underlying issues. 

It can be very challenging to switch from the mode of just running around putting out fires to solving problems systematically.  It means we have to dive deeper and spend more time.  It means we will likely uncover more uncomfortable issues that need addressed.  It means the symptoms will probably remain and not be immediately quieted. 

But in the systems and habits approach to improvement, we take the time to dive into the systems and create systematic fixes, rather than surface-level fixes.   

In Work the System by Sam Carpenter, he promotes this idea of diving into the systems.  He says, “The focus must be on the proactive management of systems, not on coping with random system results.”

I love that concept.  It shifts to be more about the systems than the symptoms.  The symptoms that surface aren’t the only factor and we shift our focus to be on creating better systems.  With better systems we can start to eliminate the root causes of the problems.  This is the only way to solve the problems and eliminate the symptoms from recurring.

So learn to shift your focus from constantly jumping from putting out one fire after another, to keeping your eyes on the systems and continuously working to improve the systems.  Use the problems as clues that there is a system problem.  Then do the hard work to fix the system. 

Problems will always arise.  Even if we have perfect systems today, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  With this constant state of change and flux, we will have to constantly be monitoring and adjusting our systems.  We won’t do it randomly, but will notice when a problem gets created due to something wrong in the system.