You’re caught in a vicious cycle: The constant need to do fire fighting doesn’t give you any time to avoid fires in the first place. This is a pretty typical scenario not only in operations, but in development as well. Even though you seem to be stuck in a downward spiral and your team is desperate, there is a way out.
Make The Situation Visible
Usually, everybody can see when a team is drowning in critical incidents. But what is often not seen are all the important tasks being postponed because of those urgent fixes. To raise the urgency of the important things you need to prevent fires in the first place. You need to prioritize them up in the backlog. Use a google spreadsheet, PivotalTracker or any type of kanban board to track the stuff that is on everyone’s mind. The team members usually know exactly what needs to be done to improve the situation. Start by bringing that knowledge to the surface. This alone will already lift some of the perceived burden off of your team members.
Talk About The Root Causes
For some of your recurring issues, the necessary permanent fixes are well known (but maybe not voiced). Other emergencies happen without anyone having a clue why the heck they happened. While putting down all the things which should be done grab the worst issue of last week and try to find out the root cause for it by asking the “5 why”s. Put a mitigation action for every reason on your backlog. By solving those points, you’ll make sure that this issue will not happen again (and maybe even a big batch of newly related issues you don’t even know of yet).
Weekly Planning Despite Of The Fires
No matter how bad your critical incidents are flooding your schedule, it’s important to do at least a “what if” planning: What would you do if there would be enough time? What’s the most important (not most critical) thing, which needs to be addressed? To achieve that order in your backlog, put the most important stuff on top of the list. If you’ve discussed the importance of these issues, your team will feel a deep urge to work on these things because they know it will make their lives easier. Now, come to an agreement that the top most issue will be addressed this week whenever there’s a gap in fire fighting.
You Won’t Achieve Anything In The First Week
Unfortunately, even making the necessary long term fixes visible, prioritizing them and agreeing to fix the worst one might not be enough: Fire fighting may prevent your team from addressing any of those things in the first week. That’s pretty normal. Don’t stop now. Do the root cause analysis and the prioritization again next week. Try to find out why you were not able to meet your self-set goals of addressing at least one important thing. Do a root cause analysis for your failure. Plan for addressing at least one of the points which led to the failure in the coming week.
Slowly, You’ll Begin Digging Yourself Out Of The Trouble
Your second week might already be better. By focusing on addressing a small part of a big problem, you’ll drive home your first success. This will be a huge motivator for yourself and your team. Suddenly, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. By keeping the rhythm of weekly planning and root cause analysis (not only of incidents, but also of reasons why certain planned things did not work out), you’ll slowly but steadily improve your situation and team morale.
After a couple of weeks, your team will look back and wonder what took them so long to work the way they do today!
Have you tried to break the vicious, fire-fighting circle yourself? What was your worst issue? What happened? Please let us know in the comments below!