Are Your Teams Stuck in “Firefighting” Mode? Here are 3 Ways to Get Out


Since 2020, and even longer for some, the global electronics value chain has been trapped in survival mode. Across industries like automotive, consumer products, industrial manufacturing, and many others, teams have been fighting fires at every turn. 

It’s all in the name of preventing factory shutdowns, delays, or other worse-case scenarios. In the case of Volkswagen, factory shutdowns cost the company $2.2 billion per week. Teams should never stay in firefighting mode for longer than necessary, but how can leaders reconcile the fires in front of them with a long-term strategic focus? Join us as we explore three ways to strike this crucial balance. 

Are Your Teams Trapped in Firefighting Mode?

Roger Bohn’s Harvard Business Review article Stop Fighting Fires from August of 2000, describes a universal truth in its opening paragraph that still rings true over two decades later: businesses will always face more problems than they have time to deal with. 

In these situations, teams will either ignore minor problems, or they will become consumed by the litany of challenges before them and expend all of their resources to keep themselves afloat. The article goes on to outline some symptoms of “firefighting” mode: 

  • There’s isn’t enough time to solve all the problems
  • The solutions you do have are incomplete
  • Problems reemerge worse than before
  • Urgency overtakes importance
  • Small problems evolve into larger fires
  • Overall performance drops

If these statements sound familiar, you’re not alone. It’s time for leaders to take a step back and accept that fighting fires is a real part of our current global climate, but they should not consume the equally critical long-term focus that will come into play when the immediate issues subside. 

3 Ways to Balance Firefighting With a Long-term Strategic Focus

Survey data from 2020 showed that executives spend 44% of their time on non-strategic activities. This includes day-to-day tactical items, meetings, politics, and the ever-present “firefighting.” 

If a CEO is in the trenches trying to keep everything moving, they’re not maximizing their time, and ultimately it’s the rest of the organization that will suffer as a result. Here are three ways to change the narrative: 

#1 – Become a Strategic Leader

Far too often, CEOs play the wrong role in their organization. In some cases, they’re the “firefighter,” focused on stabilizing functionality across the company. In other cases, they are the “implementer,” working at the management level to clarify goals, policies, or initiatives. 

In still other cases, they play the role of the “counselor,” delegating important tasks to others while they focus on business relationships and managing conflicts. There is value in this role, but only when balanced with the true purpose of an executive leader, which is to act as the strategic voice of reason. 

As a strategic leader, the CEO aligns senior executives to customer needs and defines company-wide priorities. At times, the strategic leader also plays the role of an implemente, firefighter, or counselor, but never as their priority. 

By focusing on customer needs, the strategic leader connects the dots between the senior leadership, employees, and customer needs to define and focus on the key value drivers for the organization. 

#2 – Rethink Your Approach

It’s no secret that our industry has been stuck in its ways for decades. We adhere to the established way of doing things because it’s always worked. Now, in these last two years, we’ve learned that those old ways aren’t going to work going forward. 

During a Supplyframe Executive Insights roundtable discussion on the digital transformation of customer engagement, TTI Semiconductor Group President, Michael Knight, summarized the situation perfectly: 

“We need to find other ways to repurpose people and redefine how they engage with the customer. The only thing I’m absolutely dead certain of, is that going forward, it’s not going to work the way it used to.”

– Michael Knight, President, TTI Semiconductor Group

From outdated methods of sourcing, to intelligence that’s limited to the four walls of the organization, to industry-wide burnout and a lack of cross-team collaboration, digital transformation has truly come for us all. 

Supplyframe’s CEO and Founder, Steve Flagg, recently offered three ways for teams to stay afloat during the ongoing supply chain storm. In his article, he defined three opportunities to rethink the approach: 

  • Acknowledge the reality of burnout
  • Encourage and facilitate cross-team decision making
  • Employ new forms of intelligence to build resilience 

In the context of our discussion here, burnout is a logical conclusion to the “firefighting” narrative, and it’s an outcome CEOs want to avoid. There’s no simple solution to the problem, but an awareness of it is important, and it’s alleviated by the other two points above. 

Breaking down silos within the organization can relieve pressure on individual teams. While everyone is focused on reducing cost, new opportunities emerge when decision-making happens across engineering, procurement, and supply chain teams. 

A deeper understanding of supplier risk and alternate sources of supply, for example, can lead to downstream cost reduction and higher resilience for products throughout their lifecycle. All of this is bolstered by external intelligence that gives teams context to make decisions without the need for guesswork. 

Establishing these types of strategies in the near-term will ultimately pay off in the coming years as existing issues abate and new ones inevitably come along to replace them. 

#3 – Uncover The Source

At the heart of every fire is a deeper issue. In today’s world, there are numerous factors outside our control. It’s easy to point to lockdowns, shortages, or numerous other factors as the root problem, but these issues go beyond the two years. 

Leaders should step back and look at where the pressure points are in their organization. What mistakes in the past lead to issues later on? How are you mitigating the inevitable risk from things like component shortages? 

Often the issue comes down to a lack of visibility and external intelligence. Decisions based on limited data are risky at best, but it’s how numerous teams around the world operate in the midst of ongoing fires. 

Your teams are the best in the business, but without the proper capabilities and resources, they cannot perform at their best. 

Supplyframe’s Design-to-Source Intelligence (DSI) solutions give your teams the intelligence, insight, and functionality to make better decisions both now and into the future. 

If your teams are stuck in firefighting mode, discover a smarter approach to every aspect of the electronics value chain. Learn more about Design-to-Source Intelligence today! 

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Bradley Ramsey
Articles: 101