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Do what the FDNY does – Part 2

October 4, 2007

For much of its lifetime, the majority of the FDNY’s firefighters had been in the military and so understood the chain of command. They even understood the unwritten rules of when to salute the uniform and not the person wearing it. You could easily see it in the way they marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade – they had obviously been trained by the best drill instructors around. Times change, and for a number of years now, the number of vets has seriously declined but the respect for the chain of command has firmly remained. And yes, they still march during the parade, only a bit more, shall we say, freestyle.

So how does a sort of military discipline organization get 360 degree feedback, especially when they work in public and their daily job is life threatening? I call it the Firehouse Kitchen Table concept, and I’ve seen it, used it and it works even in our world.

Upon returning from a fire, trucks are backed in, hoses set to dry, gear removed and stowed. OK, that’s 10 minutes. Then, acting on an unspoken cue, everyone adjoins to the kitchen. Now a Firehouse is both a home and a workplace. Furniture in the kitchen is at best, highly used, but very comfortable. Duck tape is a major source of furniture repair and decorating element. Some sit at the kitchen table, some slouch in this collection of repaired couches and recliners. Then all freak*&% hell breaks loose.

For a short period of time, all ranks are gone and only fellow firefighters remain. “How could you $%^& put us in there? How come I went in and you didn’t have my back? Can Man – thanks for pushing me out of the way on 4. Tommy, good job on irons!” No one is exempt and it’s straight, from the heart and dead-on accurate. If you don’t give and take, as it truly is and was, you’re no longer fully trusted. After a fast and intensive few minutes, everyone has their feedback and “Bill” returns to Chief, “Angel” to Firefighter. Of course, the underlying common denominator is respect for the person, their skills and commitment to being in it together.

Here’s an interesting story of how not telling it like it was can kill trust.

During a post 9/11 lung treatment session where I was the sole non-firefighter, Big Mike and several others were furious. This was during the early hearings on why the FDNY lost 343 brave souls and a Chief was on record and videotape as saying that he had not allowed anyone into the obviously fatally damaged buildings. Only problem was, he had held the door open while Big Mike and other firefighters ran into the buildings in full gear. So he saved his butt that day, but lost the respect and trust of firefighters, Department wide. A bit later he was reported to have ‘decided’ to retire, but the truth was, “no one would follow him into a fire”.

In the business world, here’s a great example:

A CPG company was having forecasting issues. Big issues. Process goods factories shut down, in entirety, at least once per year, and in the case of some refineries twice per year, for maintenance and seasonal adjustments. Raw materials, packaging, additives and flavoring all have long lead times. Get the 6-month forecast wrong and you either can’t produce all you can sell, or you’re looking for broom closets to store pallets of unsold product.

A serious ‘we mean business’ sales meeting was the only solution. Everyone flies to HQ. Only the cafeteria had enough chairs and tables. Not nice talk. Warehouses full of lawnmower oil, not saleable in the off-season. True, no spoilage problem, but they had a lot of cash tied up for at least 5 months and they missed their Revenue guidance so the Board and Wall Street were, let’s call it, “curious”. Nodding heads, background hums of total agreement and general acknowledgement of Management’s wisdom. Seems everything was awesome; time for a nice group dinner.

Until Angie stood up. The admin from a mid-west sales office started with “I can’t take this anymore” and let it rip. Professionally, passionately and from the heart talking of getting orders entered into the systems without the sales reps review, of being pressured into meeting Monthly and Quarterly forecasts no matter what at the expense of accurately planning with the customer, of shipping merchandise and then processing credits into unrelated systems so “no one really knows how much product actually sticks”. That last part was not accurate – the warehouse knew because they had to make room for it in both directions, but they weren’t in the loop on this issue.

Suddenly, it was the Firehouse Kitchen Table. Specific incidents, both venting and seeking underlying reasons, flew across the room. Not just one or two rabble rousers. All ranks were lost and they got down to identifying and solving the real problems. Hours later they parted a better team than they ever had been, ready to do this again, albeit under happier circumstances. PS – going forward, forecasts were dead-on, everyone made more money and the cafeteria remained dedicated to haute cuisine.

The takeawayEach company, from a few employees sitting around a table to a cafeteria full, has to build a Firehouse Kitchen Table culture where during regular meetings we bypass ranks and get honest feedback – both to win as individuals and as a team. Like any other form of relationship, unless there is open and honest communications, it can never work in the long term. And that means no reprisals or lasting hard feeling or grudges. Just don’t wait until there’s a fire.

Rich Eichen is the Founder and a Managing Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, who’s website is http://www.growroe.com and is one of their senior turnaround leaders/CROs, Program and Interim Executives with over 25 years’ experience reshaping companies, Operations, IT and key initiatives. He can be reached atrichard.eichen@growroe.com

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