4 strategies for putting out fires at work

All business owners or managers will tell you that their job description includes the line item of “firefighting.” Things happen. Systems fail. Deadlines or time-sensitive issues can be affected by outside influences. Every business has days like this. It’s Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will.”

These little fires can come in the form of a late delivery that keeps a customer waiting or an emergency appointment that means cancelling an important meeting. No matter what starts the fire, someone has to put it out.

One way to prepare for these kinds of glitches is to have a fail-safe plan in place. A fail-safe plan can include a system that limits choices to reduce errors, or a quality-control station to make sure a product doesn’t leave before it’s tested. It can be a second pair of eyes doing the proofreading of a sales letter or marketing brochure. Carpenters measure twice and cut once. Their fail-safe plan consists of making sure they’re doing the right thing before they do it.

A local management expert told me about a few things any business owner can do when Murphy pays a visit and “starts a fire”:

  1. Communicate. Customers are more understanding when they are kept in the loop with regard to their purchase or service project. Tell the truth. Make sure they are the first to know about any change or alternate product or service.
  2. Ask for help. Find someone who has already worked through or solved this same kind of challenge. Get team members involved with solutions. Two or more heads might be better than one.
  3. Focus on the positive. Ask, “What’s important here? What’s the worst-case scenario?”
  4. Make a plan to be better prepared for any future glitch. As the E-Myth Blog notes, “While it’s true that no amount of planning or preparation can account for everything that might happen in your life or business, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. The good news is that if you’re doing smart strategic planning, you’re well on your way for preparing for the unexpected.”



System failures and glitches happen, and they can be very costly. Not handling the situation immediately and correctly, especially when it involves a customer, can result in the loss of that customer — and probably that customer’s contacts.

I know of a business that goes straight into catastrophe mode whenever the least little thing goes awry. It seems like they change and update the company’s systems way too frequently. It’s confusing to that company’s customers.

In his book Beware Those Who Ask for Feedback, Richard A. Moran said, “Adding more systems to a bad system makes a big bad system.”

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