BY MARK WALLACE
There are several ways to make qualitative distinctions between fire departments. One such distinction is whether a department is considered a rule-driven organization or a value-driven organization. Each has its own management style and philosophy.
Most “traditional” fire departments are rule-driven. They are identified by an extensive standard operating procedure (SOP) manual. Nearly every conceivable procedure or policy is documented in minute detail so that no confusion will arise about the expected behaviors and required procedures. The SOP manual is often several inches thick. In some cases, the SOPs of a rule-driven organization are contained in several volumes.
I call a rule-driven system of management the “be no” system of management. Whenever someone does something that is considered wrong or not desirable, a new SOP is produced, explaining in detail that there shall “be no” more of this or there shall “be no” more of that. The new SOP is added to the others that have been developed over the years, and the manual becomes thicker and thicker. Each one adds a new rule or procedure that limits the choices of “approved” decisions. The more rules there become, the more difficult it is to comply with every one at the many incidents we face.
This is not intended to imply that all rules and regulations are bad or undesirable. We cannot operate consistently or meet many of the specific legal requirements we face without them. However, there is a difference between complying with legal mandates or “self-imposed” rules and regulations and using SOPs as a mechanism to prevent unwanted behaviors. There is a need for some of these “self-imposed” policies and procedures to maintain coordinated efforts and a reasonable degree of uniformity within the department. They should, however, be imposed in a reasonable manner. They must result in desired behaviors and favorable outcomes. All too often, they are simply imposed to prevent undesirable behaviors, placing negative consequences on those who violate the specifics of the rule. Rules and regulations often do nothing to promote the desired behaviors or the ability to be innovative and creative.
Some progressive departments have taken a different approach to providing their services. They base their operations around a shared set of common values. Their value system has been clearly established and widely disseminated. Their primary concern is whether the outcome was deemed a success and whether the actions taken or decisions made were consistent with the the values.
The organization’s common values are desired behaviors that everyone is committed to and will not violate. They are the most important controls the organization places on its members. Each member of the department self-imposes the same set of values. The department’s values are specific to that department but normally contain behavioral descriptions that are common throughout the fire service. Among these are behaviors including honesty, integrity, pride, courage, professionalism, and service to the community. It may be acceptable for decisions or actions to be outside of the department’s system of operating guidelines as long as the value system is not violated and favorable outcomes are achieved. Outcomes are the focus of performance evaluations within the department rather than a person’s history of complying with the processes stipulated in the department’s policies and procedures.
A value-driven department bases its decisions on its values rather than detailed rules and regulations. Its members are encouraged to make innovative and creative decisions. They are encouraged to take reasonable risks and make decisions that use their common sense under the specific circumstances. Flexibility is greatly increased. Members’ knowledge, skills, and abilities are used to the greatest extent possible. Personnel are encouraged to use their heads and their hearts to do the right thing to the best of their abilities.
This does not mean that there are no rules or regulations but rather that they are limited to a small set of policies, rules, and regulations. The majority of written materials are simply guidelines, often called standard operating guidelines (SOGs). These provide the best information available about the best-known practices or the most successful procedures from past similar incidents.
The focus of a value-based system is on outcomes rather than process. Although the SOGs may provide suggested procedures, the organization recognizes that every situation has a certain degree of uniqueness and encourages personnel to use their creativity and innovative ideas to achieve the best possible outcome. This way of thinking recognizes that there are many possible paths to reach the same outcome. Some may be better than others. Some may be tried and true, others may be new approaches.
Even if the outcome is not as good as it could have been, the organization encourages its personnel to take reasonable risks to find better methods to serve the community. The idea is not to worry about making mistakes but to hope that any mistakes made are small and not repeated. As the saying goes, you can’t create an omelet without breaking some eggs. If an outcome is not exactly what is desired or is less than favorable, that was not the intent. No one begins their day by proclaiming that they are going to go out and be average today. Quality employees want to do a good job and will do their best to have good outcomes. That is why you can anticipate, more often than not, that outcomes will meet or exceed previous results when personnel are given the opportunity to use their best judgement as well as their knowledge, skills, and abilities to obtain the desired results.
MAKING THE TRANSITION
For some chiefs, the idea of going from a rule-driven organization to a value-driven one is quite scary until you take a critical view of the firefighting force. The people hired today are generally more educated, have higher levels of previous experience, and are even more physically fit than when the current chief was first hired as a firefighter. If you among the current “decision makers” of your organization, how would you like to compete for a new firefighter opening on your department with the people you are now hiring? I am sure that I wouldn’t. And I am confident that most chiefs today are glad that they had a head start on the recruit firefighters of today. If you consider that one of your primary jobs as a fire service leader is to make the department better than it was in the past, you are successful.
One of the peculiarities of the fire service is that it is very typical to treat new members as ignorant until they “pay their dues” and gain experience. It doesn’t matter what they have done before, what level of educational degree they may have earned, or how many good ideas they have to offer. Most departments have a specific “probation” period before firefighters can test for promotion or before they are considered worthy of listening to. If they are as good as you hope, they will be promoted as early in their career as possible. Suddenly, upon promotion, you expect them to be leaders and to make highly accurate yet complex decisions. You now seek their opinions and accept their ideas for the first time. But the problem is that these people have had good ideas and suggestions from the start, and if you put off tapping into their creativity and innovation and instead rely on the rules and regulations of the rule-driven organization, you will miss important opportunities to advance in your goal of providing the most effective service delivery. Like a spectator on the sidelines at a sporting event, even the newest recruit can sometimes see the next best move for the organization.
New firefighters may have some knowledge from their initial training and experience and may have experience and training that does not obviously relate to the situation at hand. Still, the correct decision or next move can seem very clear to them. If they are given the chance and are really listened to, they can provide some excellent ideas that are outside of what may ordinarily be decided because they are not constrained by decisions of the past, including rules, procedures, standards, or policies.
Personnel must live and breathe by the organizational values-the same values that they hold dear individually. The newest recruit and the senior firefighter have the same set of core values that are held dear by the chief and other officers. Core values will never be compromised. When this is understood and communicated within the organization, a value-driven organization is possible.
When the organization trusts its members to obtain the best possible outcomes while not compromising its values, the need for extensive rules and procedures vanishes. The members of the organization can be innovative and creative. The members who are given the authority to be flexible to get the job done in an excellent manner will commit their discretionary work effort (the extra effort an employee gives above and beyond what is required to stay employed) for the good of the organization. They soon feel that they have the power to make a real difference in the outcome of the tasks they perform and the services they deliver. They develop the pride of ownership in their work effort. As a consequence, the quality of their effort improves and the effectiveness of their outcomes increases. Their outcomes are soon viewed as excellent. And the snowball of excellence begins to grow and grow as the organization rolls along.
At the same time, there must be sufficient consistency so that multicompany operations can function effectively. That is seldom a problem with sufficient multicompany training drills. If an effective values audit has been conducted, as described in step one of the Fire Department Strategic Planning Model (see my book Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence, Fire Engineering, 1998), the task of coordinating all companies of an organization in the creation of a value-driven organization will be fairly easy. If a thorough understanding of the mandates of a department is commonly held within the organization, those informal mandates necessary to meet legal obligations and strongly held service demands of the community can be written into the department’s policies.
In a value-driven organization, the manual of rules, regulations, policies, and procedures encompasses less than 100 pages total. The SOGs may require a large binder to contain all of the desired information. But the absolutes of the department are based in the few pages that describe the value system of the organization, simply and succinctly. And it becomes that system of values that drives the organization’s actions, decision, tasks, and outcomes.
If you become a value fanatic, you will succeed at creating a value-driven organization, whose possibilities for future excellence are endless.
MARK WALLACE is chief of the Golden (CO) Fire Department. He is the former chief of the Sheridan (CO) Fire Department and past president of the Denver Metro Fire Chiefs Association and the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association. Wallace has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in public administration. He is the author of Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence (Fire Engineering, 1998).