Solving your business challenges requires both ‘short-term firefighters’ and ‘long-term heroes’

Susan Jones is a name in manufacturing circles that most people recognise for her more than 20 years of industry experience, and for her oftentimes insightful and practical approaches to better business practice – she also happens to be a senior quality systems specialist for Tata Steel Europe.

True to form, Susan delivered a compelling seminar entitled, Problem-Solving: The Role of Firefighters & Long-Term Heroes, to a packed room of industry leaders and technicians at the Manufacturing People and Skills Summit 2019, held as part of Digital Manufacturing Week.



One of the underlying messages Susan was keen to impart was the importance of ‘empowering your people’ and the theme ran through both her keynote and the four roundtables she co-chaired throughout the day.

The thrust of her empowerment message also ran through the summit’s entire agenda like a beating drum.

Susan drew on her own experiences and sought to dispel the seemingly at odds approaches to problem-solving typified in this case between ‘firefighters’ (those who get things up and running again in no time at all) and ‘long-term heroes’ (those who provide solutions that last forever, but that take a great deal of time to implement).

Both, she noted, were equally useful and worthy of harnessing as part of a far wider range of skills that should be present in any workforce.

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Unconscious bias

Unconscious biases are prevalent in every workplace and decision-makers have a tendency to recruit or favour those who closely share their own values and strategies for tackling an issue, noted Susan.

However, she added that this sort of mentality can blinker a person to solutions outside their own wheelhouse and create unforeseen pitfalls such as denial and a misalignment of desired outcomes among individuals.

While generally well-meaning, this sort of blissful ignorance or “siloed environment” actually creates more harm than good and causes a collapse in potentially enlightening communication because people are simply “blocked out”, she said.

In turn, Susan said she had witnessed people altering the nature of a problem to fit one kind of solution they liked the idea of; or in some cases, individuals resorting to ‘blame culture’ as a means to distance themselves from the problem, rather than learning the skills to challenge an idea for a more mutually beneficial result.

Talking points

Co-chaired with Jamie Thums, chief operations officer of Lintott Control Systems, Susan’s  roundtable discussions focused on Health & Wellbeing.

“As manufacturers, we often emphasise Health & Safety in the workplace, and rightly so. However, psychological factors and mental health often are often under-considered. At the same time, it has been shown that improving mental health in the workplace can boost productivity by as much as 17%. We cannot afford to ignore these factors, and the impact they can have.”

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She recommended a tried and tested two-pronged attack for arresting this sort of conflict when it arises, by having the company itself determine precisely which resources are appropriate for the task at hand, creating a culture of ‘support’ – and an ‘awareness’ on the part of the persons undertaking the duty of their own individual contribution to seeing the matter through.

This approach can offer a more structured means of helping the entire workforce feel they have the confidence of leadership teams  to tackle a problem, while enabling different ideas the freedom to be exercised.

“As managers, we need to understand the contribution from various people within our businesses. Oftentimes we are taking a personal bias and applying it to a scenario where it focuses on the wrong problem,” she said.

“In a multidisciplinary team, you must rid yourself of biases that serve you to get the viewpoint you need. Unless you get these issues out on the table and really define them, people will run off in different directions and you simply will not get the solutions you’re looking for,” she added.

Employee empowerment 

Susan has witnessed some firms pitting Firefighters and Long-Term Heroes against each other assuming them both to be right in the face of a single problem. “For me, it needs to be a diverse team that has to be involved,” she said.

“People are sometimes pushed into scenarios at work where they are expected to be like the people who are making the decisions. But we must always consider the views of everyone involved, even the person who will turn around and tell the emperor he is wearing no clothes.”

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If these opinions and ideas aren’t given the room to flourish, blame culture continues to be a common practice, people revert back to biased thinking and denial of the real problem, and the workforce is less likely to feel they can challenge the dominant thinking, Susan continued.

“If we don’t trust people, then we just block them out; what we need is to hear from people who are out there and who live it every day,” she added.

Susan concluded by saying: “People need to be brought into the conversation from the top down, and we are starting to listen to them.

“I am intrigued by one approach by Google and I think it’s worth thinking about – allowing team members to work 20% of the time on their own interests and projects.

“At Tata, we noticed conversations opening up about efficiency and productivity because we discovered at least three people across the business were trying to accomplish the same outcome using different approaches.

“In turn it gave people networks and touchpoints they could go and contact, and we have to consider what the long-term cost to business might be with regards to retention if people do feel marginalised.”

Susan said she was convinced this attitude would ensure a better response from the workforce, especially from long-standing employees, and that it could also serve as a useful tool to spark a dialogue between newcomers and graduates.

By Rory Butler, Staff Journalist