“It might look like we have our act together, but let me tell you, back here, everything’s a fire drill.”

I hear some version of this with nearly every client I worth with. It’s usually why they make the choice to start working with me to improve their ops.

Not only is it the top pain point — it’s almost always that exact phrase. Fire drills.

“Why do we make everything a fire drill?!”
“Fire drills are killing us.”
“Our fire drills come with a circus music soundtrack.”

(^^ My personal favorite.)

There’s lots of things that can go wrong with internal business operations, but the fire drill specifically focuses on one thing:

Too much rushing around.

Even among aggravations like:

  • lack of clarity on tasks
  • confusion over responsibilities
  • the too-many-cooks syndrome
  • budget issues

…the fire drill botheration is almost always the trigger that prompts a business to Finally. Get. This. Shit. Solved.

So they come to me — or my brothers & sisters in the revolution — demanding a roadmap for change.

And yet

And yet…

I spend a significant part of my work with them, after the fact, attempting to pry fire-drills from their cold, unyielding hands.

They cling to these hard-to-die rally-points as if they forgot what they just were complaining about.

Some think fire drills mean they’re nimble — think fast, move fast.

Some feel the invigoration of performing in a clutch.

Some are stuck in a love/hate relationship with fire drills. The love the rush. They hate the error rate, their team hates the burnout.

But they miss them when they’re gone. And they go back to the fire-drill well, time and again. They make choices during the course of a project — small but significant — that force a fire drill by project’s end.

And it’s not that they don’t know — at the moment of the decision — that a fire drill is coming. It’s familiar territory. And strange as it may seem, it’s welcome territory.

Is this you & your team?

If you think it might be, read on…


1. Not everybody thrives during a fire drill.

You might secretly love the rush, but chances are most of your team members do not. Team members who implement the work (such as operations or production) often do not find midnight oil to be particularly fun to burn.

Those who are “last to touch” something before it ships universally do not like fire drills. Usually their time to execute work is significantly compressed during a fire drill and “easy errors” can worm their way in. The unfairness stings.

2. Fire drills are usually the result of a mismanaged project (or business):

  • Specs that weren’t declared on time
  • Work plans that weren’t fully scoped beforehand: tasks forgotten, unclear or incorrect
  • Delays in the earlier phases of the project, where the later phases are expected to “make up” the slack
  • People or teams not communicating effectively
  • Systems not fully tested before go-time

3. A spectacular fail (or near-fail) tends to sober everyone up.

But while many teams will investigate why the particular error (almost) happened…many times the inherent fire-drill nature of the work might not be addressed.

4. Moving to a non-fire drill culture is hard.

It’s not just finding the right software or widget, or documenting procedures (although those are elements that need to be in place) — clearing this habit is just plain hard to do. In fact, Bill Anderson, CEO of Montessorium.com says it’s “95% habit, 5% widget.” You can have the cleverest process in the world — or a pencil and paper — and without actual buy-in, moving away from fire drills will elude you.

5. Fire drills don’t scale.

…and your business won’t scale, until fixes are found. Errors will get made, team members will turnover, you’ll spend way more than you needed to, and your smartest people will burn out and go elsewhere.

Fire drills don’t scale — and your business won’t scale until fixes are found.