Peter Ulintz Peter Ulintz
Technical Director


September 26, 2022

Early on during my Die Maintenance and Troubleshooting technical seminars, conducted for the Precision Metalforming Association (PMA), I define the differences between repair and maintenance, and then ask attendees, “How many of you have a formal die-maintenance program at your facility?” Most hands in the room go up. I follow with, “Now that you understand the differences between maintenance and repair, how many of you would say that your organization spends sufficient time maintaining your dies and equipment?” Few, if any, hands remain up. 

The main reason cited by attendees for the lack of die maintenance: “There is no time, we’re always putting out fires (making repairs).” Most of their daily interactions revolve around events taking place that day, such as delivering a hot order to a customer, getting a machine running, or repairing/replacing a broken die. Anyone having experienced these interactions understands the intense focus on today's performance with little regard given to what will happen tomorrow, next week or next month. Management’s attitude: “Get it done now, we can’t miss today’s shipment; we'll worry about tomorrow later.” In these cases, supervisors respond by pulling out all of the stops—ignoring protocols, reassigning responsibilities or performing other people's tasks for them—to get the job done. This creates two possible outcomes: They extinguish the fire, or they justify why they couldn’t. 

The first outcome earns glowing praise from management for being an excellent firefighter. The second leads to questioning and a defensive position, but in the supervisor's eyes it avoids a reprimand, and so is perceived as a success.

Symptoms of Firefighting

“Most supervisors earn promotion to their roles due to their strong technical aptitude and extensive experience—the exact skill set required to fight fires! But this differs greatly from the skill set required to identify and resolve systemic problems.”

According to an August 2000 Harvard Business Review article, “Stop Fighting Fires,” firefighting can be characterized as a collection of symptoms. Chronic presence of three of the following linked elements define your organization as suffering from firefighting:

  • Not enough time to solve all problems—more problems than the problem solvers (engineers, managers, or other knowledge workers) properly can handle. 
  • Incomplete solutions—many problems are patched, not solved, i.e., superficial effects are dealt with, but without fixing the underlying causes. 
  • Problems recur and cascade—incomplete solutions cause old problems to reemerge or create new problems, sometimes elsewhere in the organization. 
  • Urgency supersedes importance—ongoing problem-solving efforts and long-range activities, such as developing new processes, repeatedly are interrupted, or deferred, because fires must be extinguished. 
  • Many problems become crises. Problems smolder until they flare up, often just before a deadline, then require heroic efforts to solve. 
  • Performance drops. Overall business performance plummets, with so many opportunities forgone, due to inadequate resolution of so many problems.

Causes of Firefighting

Most supervisors earn promotion to their roles due to their strong technical aptitude and extensive experience—the exact skill set required to fight fires. But this differs greatly from the skill set required to identify and resolve systemic problems.

Administering and auditing processes require the ability to gather and interpret data, clearly communicate what is required, and challenge individuals whose performances do not meet expectations. In many cases, strong technicians earning supervisory positions do not possess these skills.

Furthermore, technicians that routinely fight fires often feel a sense of immense accomplishment and heroism in addition to receiving constant reinforcement that they are appreciated and needed. These feelings can perpetuate the cycle of firefighting in businesses because these employees—consciously or unconsciously—are not willing to sacrifice the ”high” that comes with saving the day for the company. 

A business culture that reinforces firefighting behavior compounds the imbalance of technical skills over leadership ability. During a crisis, upper management will call upon the same list of directors, managers and technicians that successfully extinguish fires, not those who search the market for new opportunities and ways to improve the business or create new, untapped value. In fact, people who take initiative on new ideas, particularly ones not focused on the day’s fire, seldom are noticed. Even worse, management may view this type of proactive effort as a liability, and chastise employees for not focusing on the most pressing challenges.

Some companies hire outside supervisors specifically due to their leadership abilities, despite their gaps in industry-specific knowledge. Unfortunately, these supervisors also become fire fighters if management practices are not altered to encourage them to lead, or they are indoctrinated with “how we do things here.”

Little will change unless management provides support for the resulting outcome, whether it’s success, failure or a change in direction. The knowledge gained from a strategic attempt that did not achieve the expected outcome should be viewed as a success.

Finding Root Cause

The first step in finding root cause: Develop an accurate problem statement, and the problem is not that you're too busy. Viewing being busy as the problem delivers no solution—you always will be too busy. 

Here’s a problem: behaving like a firefighter instead of a fire marshal—constantly rushing from one fire to the next and never slowing down or making time to install smoke detectors.

This leads us to the biggest problem: You're really good at fighting fires.

Interested in learning more about die maintenance? Consider attending (live or virtually) PMA’s Die Maintenance and Troubleshooting seminar in Cleveland, OH, on October 19-20, 2022. Contact Marianne Sichi to register or for more information. MF

Industry-Related Terms: Die
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms


See also: Precision Metalforming Association

Technologies: Tooling


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