They say that a writer should select a title that intrigues the reader and makes the reader want to look at what the author has written. I am certain that you regular readers of this column have long ago given up trying to guess how my most current mental biorhythms are going to show up in the latest installment, particularly when you read this column title. In fact, this month’s title really looks a lot more like an eye chart than anything else. The title actually fits into the journey we have taken through trying to vertically arrange the activities and capabilities of a boss doing his job. Breaking down the acronym is going to require a brief history lesson.
A long time ago as a young firefighter, I was going to school to try to understand the details of the fire service and to somehow prepare for being a boss who managed a fire company (captain). A major focus of educational programs in those days involved an academic and very literal discussion of the process of “management.” We would look at the current material of the day that had been developed in the areas of organizational sociology and public administration. A lot of the content of that focus was not at all exciting—in fact, most of it was pretty dull, but when you were on the receiving end as a student, you went through it and hoped you just graduated out the other end of the process. A lot of the human relations, motivation-based developments had not yet emerged, so we focused on what we would now describe as “old-fashioned” techniques. We then called all the material “management.”
Let me connect this history lesson (and the eye chart) with the progression of our recent installments. We have already covered some topics that form the basic foundation of our readiness—topics like attendance, appearance, and the maintenance that the mechanical part of our readiness resources require. These activities require the very routine attendance and capable attention of an effective boss, but they don’t require a huge leadership skill level. While they are absolutely necessary, they set the stage (launching pad) for that boss to exert a higher level of skill to go on up the scale of personal capability and, hopefully, accomplishment.
As I have developed the vertical scale (hierarchy of capability) and have pondered that scale, it occurred to me that I left out a critical category that exists in the middle of the list and involves the process of basic management. Simply, as we look at organizational behavior, it becomes very clear that an effective boss must do some basic management to keep the lights on and to order toilet paper before we run out (bad day). Electric bills and toilet paper are not very exciting unless you run out of either one. For that not to occur, some boss somewhere in the system must do a fairly mundane set of chores so that the “Top Guns” have the required day-to-day resources so they can hop on Big Red and go out and fearlessly assist Mrs. Smith.
In the prehistoric days when I was a student, we were taught a basic management system. This is where POSDCORB comes into our current conversation. Being able to dredge up the acronym is only evidence of my long-term memory capability (I now can’t recall what I had for breakfast this morning). What POSDCORB stands for is Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, COordinating, Reporting, and Budgeting, which add up to basic, day-to-day, routine organizational management. The concept (and “eye chart”) was developed by Luther Gulick and Lyndall Urwick (very smart guys) in the 1930s. Gulick was a political scientist who advised bosses how to more effectively structure their systems to create a balanced organizational approach to better address the basic functions needed for effective system performance.
I realize that reading the very basic list of POSDCORB functions seems pretty old-fashioned, which it is, but in those days, we had not been through the development of management and leadership theory and doctrine that occurred during the next 50 years. I was present during that period and worked in a very progressive system that continually engaged in teaching its managers the latest (and greatest) “flavor of the month” management programs that had been developed and generally delivered by a color-coordinated expert with a briefcase from 50 miles away. This training was an incredible experience because although we didn’t absolutely adopt all the new stuff, it created a huge amount of energy in the organization and became an important part of continuous improvement within the organization. Attending the program kept everyone thinking all the time.
It was interesting to see how accurately Gulick identified the basic functions needed to keep an organization going and how critical it is when we skip one of them. Since he developed the list, many of the modern techniques we used to accomplish them have advanced but not the basic management area itself. We have developed progressive, up-to-date ways to manage our humans, but they still require a continuous supply of electricity and “paper.” Note: I was facetious when I mentioned paying the electric bill. In an earlier time, not doing so would have caused the lights to go out. Now if they cut the power, all the computers would crash, and we would be absolutely disabled and would have to actually use paper/pencil.
Beyond what has already been covered in our monthly “meetings,” the basic eye chart list includes many of the critical (routine) functions a boss must do to create effective day-to-day organizational support. Doing these fuctions develops the capability that will allow us to ascend the scale to get to the level we will cover in future installments. I hope the complete hierarchy (from the bottom to the top) will create fire service operational excellence. The POSDCORB functions make up a connected pattern of activities that form the core practice of “administration.” It seems we have not paid much attention to the process of administration in our current conversation about organizational dynamics because we have been preoccupied with the discussion where leadership generally comes out ahead of management; perhaps, administration actually occurs in the middle.
In large organizations, some of the POSDCORB functions are managed by a single division that specializes in that function. In smaller systems, managers would combine multiple activities under their command. Let’s quickly look at those functions.
- Planning. This is a major function that requires a boss to develop an outline for tasks that need to be done and a method for doing them. Effective fire service bosses do planning in a variety of administrative and tactical areas that range from routine and everyday tasks on up to planning for emergency service operations. Officers on every level must develop and manage plans for their area of responsibility: senior levels must do strategic level planning, mid-managers must do tactical level projections, and preparation and task level bosses must anticipate and prepare for delivering street level service. The organization operates effectively when all the levels do their part and then are aligned with the other levels. Much of the tactical/operational capability depends on staff planning and support to have the resources required to effectively deliver service. The political process can either support or fragment the planning process either inside or outside the organization.
- Organizing. A fire department is typically an interesting combination of centralized and decentralized. Each end of the process must establish a structure of authority where subdivisions are arranged, defined, and connected to achieve their organizational objective. Fire companies are spread out across the community so they can get to Mrs. Smith quickly; administrative support is generally located in an office-type environment where administrators can quickly get to other support functions quickly. A major (and challenging) task is to align both ends (centralized/decentralized) so they can do what they do best and then help the other end.
- Staffing. We are effective to the extent that we have sufficient personnel (firefighters) to overwhelm the tactical problem (fire) because what we do tactically requires quick; integrated; and, many times, dangerous manual labor. On the career side, staffing is the most expensive part of our system, so that’s a big deal. On the volunteer side, the basic challenge is to assemble an adequate crew coming from wherever they are when the incident occurs; that is also a huge deal. The topic of staffing is probably the most politically driven labor-management issue in our service. We have created national staffing standards, have developed tactical operations that require a standard crew, and generally operate within the framework of a long-standing and highly developed and practiced operations manual. I wish I could offer some “secret bullet” that could solve the eternal staffing challenge. I’m certain that Gulick never heard of the words we all now hate: “browning out.”
- Directing. In the last column, I told a story (as usual, an old one) about receiving some advice a long time ago from my troops in which they coached me with a very simple but effective boss routine: “Tell me what to do. Give me the training and tools. Get out of my way. When I’m done, tell me how I did.” I took their advice pretty literally at the time. When I followed their direction, things went well. When I skipped a step, I always had to go back and painfully fix the miss. Since then (50 years), we have all added a lot of new bells and whistles. Along with those changes as a boss, I shifted from a boss-centered approach (me) to a lot more of an us-centered (inclusive) relationship, but that original advice is still pretty timeless. To a major extent, how a boss extends direction will determine his effectiveness more than any other thing because the workers must live with the heaven or hell of that direction every day.
- Coordinating. Fire service bosses work in a system that has lots of moving parts. A big part of their role on every level is lining up those parts so they work and do what the system is designed to do. A lot of that coordination process (alignment) shows up when we perform in a hazard zone where those operations must be linear (has a beginning/middle/end), simultaneous (lots of stuff going on all at once), sequential (critical order to some stuff), performed in a highly compressed time frame (must be done quickly), and with the probability of high risk (life/property loss). The function of effective coordination at show time will define how well the POSDCORB list is accomplished.
- Reporting. It is interesting to have been involved in organizational reporting starting with ancient paper and pencil and now progressing up to modern electronic-driven data development, analysis, and then automatically sending it all up the line. Despite this, we are still using regular humans to collect and enter the record of whatever we are reporting on. There has been a lot of political confusion when some piece of reporting is out of balance or there is some disagreement in the political system over the accuracy of the numbers. Very expensive decisions depend on accurate data, and this can create huge issues in every system with very active competition for those resources. Generally, firefighters are action oriented and are not huge data wonks—to say the least. They are thankfully a lot more inclined to deliver the service than to produce detailed reports on it.
- Budgeting. The limiting factor in developing and maintaining our capability in just about every way is the amount of our financial resources. It is a lot easier to produce a good idea than it is to pay for it. The recent recession we have just endured has created cutbacks we never imagined in the past. Many experienced observers maintain that it will take an enormous amount of time and political gymnastics to recover what we lost; the experts also observe sadly that we might never get those people, places, and things back. This recovery period has created the need for boss performance that goes way up to the top on the capability scale simply because services that used to sell themselves now require skillful action by a boss who “gets it” and can effectively play the political game. Now, they shoot real bullets in the “who gets the bucks” process. I wonder what advice Guilick would offer to the latest generation of fire officers.
Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.
Fire Engineering Archives