Fighting Fires

By Mark Fretz of Scribe Inc.


Many publishers spend all their time putting out fires. Like other companies, publishers can fall behind and get so used to being behind that they simply accept putting out fires as the new normal. As a rule, publishers are aware of and can quickly explain why they are in this fix. See if the following example hits close to home:

A typesetter (or editor) went on maternity leave, and her workload was parceled out to two full-time colleagues and one part-time employee. Each of these people already had more on their plates than they could handle because of recent budget tightening and staff cuts. To manage the extra work, these dedicated employees willingly came in early and stayed late so they could meet impending deadlines. Despite the extra time spent, the projects fell behind. Standard duties required more time than expected because they needed to get up to speed with their colleague’s projects to understand what was required. On top of that, people made mistakes and missed obvious errors due to short turnaround times and tight deadlines. These mistakes were caught late in the production process, which cost all the more to fix. The staff had to put out these fires, thus requiring even more effort, with neither time in the schedule nor money in the budget to cover the extra work.

How Publishers End up Fighting Fires

Firefighting is an exhausting and ineffective mode of responding to pressing problems. This type of trouble often sneaks up on a company either because known problems appear insignificant and are therefore overlooked or ignored or because a small problem is tangled up with, and perhaps a symptom of, a much larger issue than any single employee can resolve. The justification for overlooking what is right in front of us is that, although important, the problems do not seem very urgent or too big to tackle. If something is not absolutely urgent, we don’t (think we) have time to address it. Unfortunately, by not addressing the important but nonurgent issues that arise, those very issues eventually become extremely urgent and never diminish in importance. Further, instead of improving things, firefighting compounds the problems, which seem to multiply faster than they can be resolved, resulting in a vicious, never-ending cycle.

When the staff member went on maternity leave, inevitably it was assumed that the company could not afford to hire a replacement; plus, three months didn’t seem all that long to be short one person. As it turned out, the direct costs of overtime and extra time spent fixing mistakes—as well as the indirect costs of missed deadlines, unhappy authors, stressed staff, and the delay of the on-sale date of several titles—far surpassed what the company would have spent on temporary staff.

Exchange Hindsight for Foresight

We see clearly in hindsight, which is annoyingly accurate, what we fail to see in the heat of the moment as we are putting out fires. Although the solution is painfully simple—pay attention to important issues now even if they are not urgent—it is equally hard to implement because we get so consumed with and focused on solving our most pressing and highest-priority problems.

It takes a real corporate effort to devote time and energy to long-range plans and issues on the horizon when you don’t feel like you have any time to spare in the present. Looking ahead is one positive step that requires acting on that foresight to transform from a firefighting company to a forward-thinking publisher.

The benefits of some big-picture solutions can far outweigh the costs of trying to fight fires indefinitely. In fact, when you add up the real costs of firefighting, you can actually pay for the long-term solution and get out of the bad habit of firefighting with no additional cost. From the company as a whole to each individual employee, staff on all levels must shift from a mentality of scarcity of time and resources to one of prioritizing time and resources.

Cynics may be skeptical about the practicality of carving out time to formulate and implement a long-range plan. “Where in the world am I going to find time to do that,” asks the cynic, “on top of everything I’ve already got to do?” Indeed, if we are locked into the tunnel vision that comes with a firefighting mode of operation and cannot raise our line of sight to see outside that tunnel, then we are stuck fighting fires. But if we can step out of the tunnel even momentarily—long enough to survey the bigger picture and see our activities from the perspective of the operation and well-being of the entire publishing house—then we might be able to see the logic and value of taking the time to figure out how to do things differently.

Getting Away from Firefighting

So if a key staff member will be out on maternity leave for three months, what adjustments must the rest of the organization make to function efficiently until her return? Simply being mindful of the publishing process can, at the very least, help us notice our tendency toward firefighting and hopefully cure us of falling back into that mode of operation.

Rather than concluding that we have no time or money to deal with all the problems and tasks at hand, thus leaving us no choice but to shift into firefighting mode, we should take a moment to consider how the publishing process we’ve developed and implemented can help us address these issues. Run the numbers to evaluate which alternative is the most cost effective on a purely financial basis. Factor in not only staff capacity in terms of hours but also staff stress load.

Presumably, we will have a measure of advanced notice about maternity leave and can budget accordingly. Since maternity leaves are not uncommon, we can formulate a game plan for the absence of any staff member in this or similar situations going forward. This game plan could include cultivating relationships with service providers in which they become trustworthy partners who are not only competent to perform the required tasks on individual projects but are also so familiar with your operation that they can step in and function seamlessly, as if they were in-house employees rather than occasional vendors. Better still, we could share the same workflow so that there would be no difference between our publishing partner and us performing any given task.

On any given project, the benefits of implementing such a plan are evident on several levels. Personnel will be empowered and encouraged to approach what had normally been considered crises from a more disciplined and reasoned stance. The pressures of impending deadlines will be viewed from a larger corporate perspective rather than piecemeal, where decisions are made in isolation from everything else going on within the company. The stress placed on individual staff members will be reduced when they are no longer convinced that only the firefighting mode can pull us through the crisis. Pressure breeds stress, stress breeds distractions, and distractions lead directly to mistakes and missed deadlines, ultimately resulting in a financial cost and perhaps even the cost of a tarnished reputation.

It is time to hang up our firefighting gear and start balancing the important and urgent with the important but not so urgent. Publishing houses that devote time and resources to long-range planning reap the benefits that discipline affords. Most immediately, they save themselves the true cost of trying to engage in a nonstop firefighting frenzy. This could be your new reality.