Fluffy the Cat

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

In our recent columns, we have conducted a fairly lengthy discussion that has centered on what is involved in both defining and then delivering high-quality, positive service that the customer describes as being “nice.” I related how we looked in detail at how our troops treated Mrs. Smith and her family and identified the basic behaviors of respect, kindness, consideration, and patience.

As we observed these behaviors, we quickly identified how critical it is for the boss of that company (officer) to take a lead role in modeling positive customer treatment. When we are the bosses, we cannot escape being a role model, and the troops really know what that person stands for and what that person will not stand for.

The workers know their boss in the most realistic (many times brutal) way. A major management function for the boss is to ensure that crew members are all ready to respond to and solve the problem that is complicating Mrs. Smith’s life when she calls us to come help her. We call that capability being “fit for duty.” A major part of my fit-for-duty continuing education necessitated that I develop an understanding of and an appreciation for how the emotional part of service delivery must be combined with the technical part of problem solving.

I described that I was a “late bloomer” in getting the personal message that the customers who receive our service mostly remember how they were treated and not so much about the technical part of what we do. I was the result of being assembled at the firefighter factory where they loaded in all the operational/tactical stuff, mostly left off the emotional part, and sent me on my way to work on a six-member (!) downtown, two-piece engine company.

Our crew visited, prefire planned, and became familiar with every building in our first-due response area. I memorized the location of every fire hydrant, sprinkler, and standpipe connection in the principal business district: We measured, recorded, and remembered how many lengths of hose it took to reach from the stairway/standpipe connection down the hallway to the room (I still have a fairly heavy 50-foot cord that I kept in my turnout coat pocket to measure hallway distance in multiple lengths of hose). Although we were always nice to the victims (1960s word) mostly because of the stature of my boss (A++), I now hate to remember that mentally I then regarded buildings that were on fire as my customer and the humans somehow related to the building just came along with the event.

During the front half of my career, I learned, practiced, and applied the standard performance management model we have talked about (over and over) in this column. Combining and connecting the steps involving standard procedures/training/application-execution/critique/revision includes all the pieces necessary to produce overall, long-term operational physical performance effectiveness.

I learned and used the steps in this model early and throughout my career, and the process caused me to do a better job of doing and managing tactical activities. Looking back, I now realize that not only did I apply the five steps, but I depended on it so much that I was probably preoccupied with the approach. It seemed that the model produced the answer to most of my firefighting questions that were generally directed to holding the fire’s head under water. I was consciously conditioned to suppress my emotions because they would disrupt my ability to “effectively deploy” on a tactical and strategic level.

During the performance preoccupation period of my career, I was mentally “stuck” in creating and improving tactical performance. During this period (20 years), I was continually beating the “laying hose and raising ladders” drum. During my drummer period, I was going up through the ranks and finally landed in a place where I got to read the response we got from customers who had recently received our service; they pretty much never said anything about hose and ladders. What the customer did comment on, over and over, was how nice we were to her, to her family, and to her cat (Fluffy).

My reading Mrs. Smith’s letter over a period of time required me to make a necessary addition to the traditional five-step model that describes the steps in the process that produces effective performance. What the “squares” (boxes) in the performance model lacked was anything that described the human relationships that connect what the players do as they go through the steps in the process. The basic model is made up of really neat, symmetrical (process) boxes that contain the five separate steps, arrows that connect the separate steps to form a flow chart direct to the boxes.

What we added to the model is what we called “blobs” because they contain the human relationship part of what actually goes on inside the process model. The process boxes are drawn very square (like processes), and the blobs are drawn very irregular (like human behavior). The boxes are regulated by management activities that are more scientific; how the human blobs behave is more a function of leadership and is a lot more artistic. A smart guy recently observed that the connection of the boxes can over time develop “organizational arthritis” where just the boxes (alone) can have painful bone-on-bone contact-the blobs become the WD-40 that lubricates the connections within the model.

The boxes represent the steps we take to load in, maintain, and then over time improve how our humans perform the operational tasks and functions that physically deliver service. These simple five-step performance activities are absolutely critical, simply because they mobilize our human, physical/hardware and system resources into an actual core service problem-solving capability. This is where we become action oriented (which we love). Thankfully, we are attracted to doing the manual labor steps contained in the boxes. Bosses create this capability by connecting knowledge and action to the physical problems present that we (hopefully) solve.

The blobs represent the pieces and parts of the model that fit in between the boxes. They contain human stuff like culture, history, organizational genetics, lasting impact people (both + and -), winners/losers, traditional humor, formal and informal leaders, organizational folklore and myths, department superstitions, happy celebrations and sad ceremonies, heroes/villains, leaders/followers. The blobs contain the pictures that are on the walls of the tribal cave that describe the ongoing story of our family. A lot of what is inside the blobs influence how the “homeys” feel about themselves, the organization, and the customers-simply, bosses influence and affect how the workers treat the customers by how the bosses treat the workers. This equals a pretty simple equation.

Bosses have a huge impact on what we know (boxes) and how we feel (blobs), and both parts are critical to maintain the capability to effectively respond to the complete physical performance and emotional support needs of a typical tactical situation. I became aware of both parts (boxes/blobs) as I developed the basic comprehension and understanding skills that came from reading a ton of customer response letters. As I reflected on the fairly consistent response from the Smith Family about how they were treated by our firefighters, I began to pay more attention to how the members of our department were treated by their bosses (including me).

It became fairly clear that the same method we used to describe, teach, execute, evaluate, and keep current in how we actually did hoselay #3 was not the same as the process where we engaged our troops in how they emotionally supported those who were going through a really sad/bad day. Simply, it called on the bosses to extend the same human support (respect/kindness/consideration/patience) to the workers that the organization expected the workers to deliver to the customers. This required we as an organization had to become a lot more versatile in managing and combining the boxes and the blobs.

This versatility required us to examine what we did on the inside of the department and how that inside performance influenced how we behaved and reacted to outside. It became clear fairly early in the process that the emotional support we wanted the firefighter to deliver to the customer we had to deliver also to the firefighter. If we wanted Mrs. Smith to trust Firefighter Smith, we had to treat the firefighter in a highly trustworthy way. If we wanted our workforce to make the customer comfortable, we had to make them comfortable. If we wanted our troops to be quick and responsive, we had to be the same. If we wanted the firefighter to act in a good-natured (nice) way, we had to act in the same way-that basic revelation redirected how I approached being a fire chief during the last half of my career.

You now see where all this inside/outside talk is headed, and I won’t hang up your reading routine by listing another dozen or so Chief Smith/Firefighter Smith/Mrs. Smith connections. You get the point, which is really pretty simple but very critical. On the day bosses realize that for whatever reason the major effect the troops have on the customer is based on how nice the bosses are to the troops, it will basically and profoundly change the way bosses must manage-simply, what the boss gives, the customer gets.

Mrs. Smith has a huge dose of confidence that we will get the top of the ladder right side up and that we can effectively hook up to the hydrant, but pay attention to what she says in her letter where she writes a page and a quarter about how we treated Fluffy, her cat (which she dearly loves). What she says fits into the shape of a blob simply because the way she feels is not regulated by a standard operating procedure. My trip to developing a more balanced understanding required me to become a lot more “blob literate.”

Although I have lived my entire life with a cat [now three: Baby Cat, Jimmy Hoffa (he hides out a lot), and Hot Wheels], I have never fooled myself into believing that I (as a cat-loving boss) could successfully legislate that all our firefighters actually love cats, but they seemed to take care of Fluffy during the time they were together. I have always admired feline affection whether it was authentic or artificially created, and Mrs. Smith seemed to think that it was authentic.

It became clear fairly early in the process that the emotional support we wanted the firefighter to deliver to the customer we had to deliver also to the firefighter.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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