A couple of weeks ago I had a friend, a career firefighter and paramedic, ask for help in his ongoing interview process with hopes of being promoted to the fire chief. He had already advanced through many steps (tests, interviews, exercises) to become one of the final three candidates. His next step was to write a 500-600 word paper describing how he would improve some problem within his current responsibilities (as shift supervisor at the fire station). He asked for my help, not from a “lean thinking” perspective, just as a friend who had more experience in writing papers and reports.
In truth, he had already written his paper and was merely asking me to review it mostly from a grammatical and formatting perspective. The problem he identified was that the poorly organized medical supplies at the two fire stations (where he had responsibility), were resulting in excessive time spent looking for supplies, which allowed for the stock to become potentially contaminated. His paper went on to offer a detailed solution including which supplies should be stored at which station, how they should be stored, and finally an overview of a cabinet to be constructed. I imagine his solution had merits and would make the process of finding supplies easier, but it would be his solution pushed down onto the teams at both stations, this might not be the leadership approach desired by his superiors within the fire department.
Now for lean practitioners the 5S (Workplace Organization) method comes immediately to mind as another solution. Though before pushing him towards my solution involving the 5S, which might only entail swapping my solution for his, I felt we needed to begin by reviewing the problem statement. I shared how a good problem statement likely includes the quantifiable gap between the current and the desired situation, so that's where we began. It became apparent there was neither data showing lost time finding supplies nor the instances when items had been dirty or contaminated. I questioned whether there were any established standards that were not being met, though we also came up empty on this as a quantifiable gap. In reflection another issue occurred to us: the unorganized medical supplies are partially responsible for periodically experiencing a shortage of supplies (this was in addition to my friend’s initial problem identification of both losing time looking for supplies and the potential for contamination).
After we honed in on a better problem statement, we spent time discussing whether a leader should offer specific solutions or instead coach team members through identifying solutions, resulting in them becoming engaged and assuming ownership of implementing and maintaining. Naturally this discussion led to the conclusion that he would be a better leader (and in a better position to be consider for the fire chief position) with a coaching style instead of offering a subject matter expert solution. This was not only going to change my friend’s paper, it was changing how he thought about his possible new role as fire chief.
We discussed determining a structure in which to lead the team in resolving the disorganized medical supplies. At that point, I couldn’t resist sharing the 5S method. I Googled a few sites explaining 5S and waited as my friend read through them. Now with some excitement he saw how he could lead the team through the 5 steps and proceeded to utilize this as the outline for his paper. From there, the paper basically rewrote itself. Now we had a document that clearly showed how he could help identify a problem that affected the team, and better yet, lead (via coaching) people to coming up with their own sustainable improvements to the work.
The paper itself wasn’t the important thing; what really helped my friend was a dialogue about understanding the difference between the push style of a manager and the pull style of a leader. Likely my friend’s final judgment will be influenced by whether or not he gets the job.
Now we’ll have to wait and see!
Epilogue: This week my friend informed me that he received the highest score on his paper by a long shot and moves on to the final interview step. I guess the fire department’s leadership recognizes the value in a coaching approach towards problem solving!