In Thriving on Chaos—Handbook for a Management Revolution, Thomas J. Peters says there are only three sustaining strategic distinctions: superior service, superior quality of product, and constant innovation. However, there is a fourth point, and that is the first three are built on a base of participation by all hands.

Peters says, “We [as managers and leaders of the fire/EMS services] must be guided by the axiom: There are no limits to the ability to contribute on the part of the properly selected, welltrained, appropriately supported, and, above all, committed person.” Your personnel always have risen to the expectations. You do not need evidence that they can move mountains. You already have seen them do it. They are intelligent, and in many cases they helped you become chief and/or support your programs. Why don’t you just ask them to help move the mountain? You need to construct a supportive environment and then get out of their way!

You must aim for an increase of 100 percent in productivity via participation-led programs over the next 36 months. Yes, you can be productive in the fire sense of the word. You can start or increase fire prevention inspections by your companies, prefire planning (use the NFA system), a private-dwelling voluntary inspection program, and increased accountability for maintenance.


Do the people in your stations have power? The power to be involved from the bottom up? In Thriving On Chaos the Delco-Remy plant in Fitzgerald, Georgia provides a good list that shows how far involvement can go. The average workers there:

  • handle all quality control.
  • do all maintenance and make minor repairs on machines.
  • keep track of their own time.
  • handle the housekeeping.
  • participate in a pay-for-knowledge program (for learning almost every job in the plant).
  • are organized into teams that engage in regular problem-solving activities.
  • are responsible for safety.
  • have full-time access to the lock-free tool room.
  • do budget preparation and review.
  • help determine staffing levels.
  • advise management on equipment layout and generate requirements for new equipment.
  • are in charge of all recruiting and run the assessment center for new recruits.
  • decide on layoff patterns or shorter work hours when needed.
  • rotate as leaders of work teams.


You need to change your attitude concerning employee participation. Get out of your office and into the stations and see what your personnel are doing. Observe the jobs done by your supervisors. Find out what interferes with their ability to initiate improved service or procedures. Then establish a team made up of a crosssection of chiefs, captains, lieutenants, and firefighters. Review your procedures, policies, and rules to see what bureaucratic hodgepodge is interfering with effective initiative taking to solve problems and improve customer service.

The worker must become wholly involved. There is no other way to achieve quality, superior customer service, and innovation. As we learn from Thriving on Chaos, “The selfmanaging team should become the basic organizational building block. We need to train our people, recruit on the basis of team work potential, pay for performance, and (most important) clean up bureaucracy around them. This will change dramatically the roles of your middle managers and staff experts.”

There are many examples to learn from and analyze. The General Motors Cadillac engine plant in Livonia, Michigan reorganized in the early 1980s. A planning team consisting of two management and two union leaders, as well as several hourly workers, worked full-time for almost a year (yes, it takes commitment) on plant reorganization. Visits were made to other sites. The secret accounting books were opened, an operating philosophy was hammered out, and a team structure was arrived at. Every person in the organization became part of a group of 8 to 15 people (sure sounds like a firehouse to me). Each group is an autonomous team responsible for scheduling, training, problem solving, and many other activities. They developed their own quantitative performance standards. Individual performance standards emphasize support for the team. Job specialization virtually has been eliminated; there is only one job category at Livonia—“quality operator.”

Given the changes that we have described here, Peters takes a look at the possible pitfalls to self-managing teams:

  • Misunderstanding of the concept by upper and middle management, creating false expectations.
  • Resistance to the concept and process by middle managers and first-line supervisors, often with outright sabotage.
  • Empire building by the team development office.
  • Poor and “one-shot” training for
  • members, supervisor-leaders, and managers.
  • Failure to provide incentives for participation in the team concept.
  • Failure to implement team suggestions and proposals.
  • Failure of the organization to measure the impact on productivity, attrition, accident rates, grievances, and absenteeism.
  • Moving too fast—creating more self-managing teams than the team development office can effectively train.

There will be a great impact on the first-level supervisor. The person used to schedule work, enforce rules, plan, transmit management needs down, and provide new ideas for the workers. In the new role, the first-level supervisor will be a coach and sounding board for self-managing teams; a leader/coordinator, working on training to emphasize skill development; and a facilitator, getting experts to help the team as needed. The position will require lots of wandering and someone focused “horizontally,” working with other functions to speed action taking. The new firstlevel supervisor will sell teams’ ideas/ needs “up” and help workers/teams develop their own ideas, providing ideas for cross-functional systems improvement.


Using one station, develop a team structure in the next six months. Use the Livonia methodology on a small scale. Immediately begin to concentrate on the crucial role of the firstline supervisors (captains and lieutenants). Can they be retrained or shifted to support roles when you adopt the self-managing team concept? At the least, the supervisor will have significant role change (initially it will be traumatic for the individual). Do not let this keep you from proceeding or help you to evade the issue. The failure to change the role of the firstlevel supervisors has sunk many selfmanaging team experiments.

We learn from Thriving on Chaos that we must listen constantly, congregate to share ideas/information, and recognize achievement. We must celebrate, informally and formally, the “small wins” that are indicative of the solid day-to-day performance turned in by the workforce.

Create an environment where listening is cherished—where opportunities for structured and unstructured listening are prevalent. Listening means managers listening to their people. It means team members listening to one another. Listening means battering down the traditional bureaucratic boundaries at every’ opportunity.

To accompany the listening forum, you need to have recognition forums. Recognition settings provide the best means to parade and reinforce the specific kinds of new behavior you hope others will emulate. Peters believes that you need to say thanks publicly, periodically invite people over from other bureaus who have helped you achieve some gains in quality in your operation, and establish a ritual of sending out thank-you notes to your staff once a month.



Innovation is the driving force behind change and improvement in quality, customer service, employee relationships, cost containment, and other efforts. If superior product quality and customer service are the goals of effective management, then innovation is surely the most critical element that must be nurtured in the organization.

What is the typical current thinking and attitude toward the innovators in any organization? Let’s take a look at what Tom Peters found in Thriving on Chaos—Handbook for a Management Revolution:

“For God’s sake, go down to reception and get rid of a lunatic who’s down there. He say’s he’s got a machine for seeing by wireless. Watch him —he may have a razor on him.”

— Editor of the Daily Express of London, refusing to see John Baird, the inventor of television, in 1925.

“Who in the hell wants to hear actors talk?”

— Harry Warner, founder of Warner Bros. Studio, in 1927.

“I think there is a world market for about five computers.”

— Thomas J. Watson, chairman of IBM, in 1943.

“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.”

— Ken Olsen, president of Digital Equipment, in 1977.

A closed mind is dangerous. It has cost many organizations the ability to move ahead and keep pace with technology. Those who hang on to the past and fail to constantly try to improve their product or service are destined to anonymity. Nobody builds statues to those who maintain the status quo.

Peters has found that “virtually any innovation worth the name comes from the wrong person, in the wrong group, in the wrong division, in the wrong company, in the wrong industry, for the wrong reasons, and at the wrong time, with the wrong set of customers.” He writes, “Kodachrome, just as you’d suspect, was invented by two musicians. A watch maker, fiddling around with brass castings for his watch-making job, came up with continuous casting of steel. The diemaking chemists were the ones who developed synthetic detergents because the soap makers thought it was the stupidest idea in the world.”


We need to invest in “small starts.” In the fire service we are met with considerable opposition if we attempt to gain political and fiscal support for a “big” new program. Peters argues that regardless of the budget climate, the most efficient way to innovate is through small tests. Every fire department should be a hotbed of people trying to improve the services offered.

Fire/EMS officers should be openminded when members approach them with ideas on how to change services for the better. We should continually ask “What are you improving today?” When someone brings an idea to you, how do you respond? A good response would be along these lines:

  • “Go to it; see if it will work.”
  • “If it doesn’t work, modify it to get it to work.”
  • “When it works, tell me so that I can institute it departmentwide.”
  • “If it can’t be made to work, tell me so I can tell others to go in other directions.”

According to Peters, a small-start approach is like making a quality revolution. It requires a thorough revision of attitude in every element of the organization. A small-start approach in the fire service involves:

  • Letting everyone get out to the customer; listening to the customer.
  • Getting customers into the organization (especially customers from other agencies and bureaus).
  • Establishing a “do a pilot” rather than a “write a proposal” mentality.
  • Using small teams in general for almost any task.
  • Removing bureaucracy to allow teams to get on with innovation. (Keep the pillars of the status quo away from your innovators.)
  • Empowering your innovators to work quickly across organizational barriers.
  • Treating your service as an experiment to be constantly improved.
  • Ensuring that management is living the message of rapid test.

First you must ensure that every unit’s strategic plan is strongly weighted in small starts. Then constantly talk up those small starts. Tell stories about small starts that you and others have undertaken. Take a survey of all activities members are involved in and publish it so others may see what is going on. Do this on a periodic basis.


Why do written proposals fail to garner support? If the written proposal is the beginning of the process— and it is the beginning where any commitment can be quickly killed— then this is precisely where proposals get shot down or become endless, hypothetical debate. Your idea cannot get off the floor. Any idea is disruptive, especially an innovative one. Such ideas automatically challenge the wisdom of management because they did not think of it in the first place.

Try using quick, small pilots instead. Pilots start slowly at a low level and are nearly invisible. Then they take off by word of mouth, which sells the innovation up the chain of command. By the time knowledge of the innovation reaches the top, the innovation has been mostly debugged and refined. A new idea that can be demonstrated as effective can gain support from the top in this way.

Ensure, through every form of recognition you can dream up, that the organization’s heroes are those who are piloting, not merely speculating (writing proposals). Be sure to formally and informally ask at each staff meeting, on each visit, and in each performance appraisal: What are you testing? Where are the pilots? As you do your MBWA (managing by wandering around), make sure that you commend on the spot innovators who are doing small starts. Don’t forget to applaud interesting failures for what was learned from them.


Peters says that the “single most important reason for delays in development activities is the absence of multifunction (and outsider) representation on development projects from the start.” The solution is to have a broad cross-section of the key functions that are involved, force an integration of the various feudal systems, and use teams.

If you are a functional manager, start proactively lending your people, full-time at critical junctures, to project teams—whether you are in suppression, fire prevention, or training. Shift the basis for evaluating your people to focus on their contribution to others’ teams. Go out of your way to honor those who aided your teams and especially their officers, who allowed them to do so.


Peters says that in today’s everaccelerating environment, you must put NIH (Not Invented Here) behind you —and learn to copy (with unique adaptation/enhancement) from the best. You can do this by looking at how others provide customer service. Also, become a “learning organization.” Shuck your arrogance —“If it isn’t our idea, it can’t be that good” — and become a determined copycat/ adapter/enhancer.

As a manager, trade in “Not Invented Here” for “Not Invented Here But Sw iped from the Best with Pride.” The best leaders are the best note takers, the best askers, the best learners. “They are shameless thieves,” according to Peters.

NIH is marked by an endless number of denials: We can’t copy old rivals because we don’t want to look like them; we can’t copy smaller departments because our manpower levels are different; we can’t copy larger departments because of our limited funds; and we can’t copy from other industries because the same principles do not apply. As usual, the problem is attitude, and the solution lies in changing it. Be positive about other departments’ services (after all, you couldn’t have invented everything first); be positive about other industries’ products and services— you can learn from them; and open up the organization at all levels and in all functions to what’s going on out there that’s interesting.


One problem in the fire service is that we do not support our champions. It isn’t totally our fault, however. We are products of a conformist philosophy. We are expected to be like everyone else, to do what others do. When those who believe there is a better way experiment or innovate, they are labeled “radicals” or “weird” or just plain “different.” They are admonished, ridiculed, and seen as not promotable. They pay a heavy price for stepping outside the status quo.

Peters explains what fire officers must do to show support for innovation: “You must become what I call an executive champion—a nurturer, protector, facilitator, and interference runner for as many energetic champions as you can induce to sally forth. Moreover, if you are a senior executive, you must encourage other managers also to view their role, in large measure, as that of an executive champion.

“You must individually and collectively dance a tightrope: (1) garner motivated innovators; (2) provide them with pillows to punch when things are at a low ebb, rather than accountants; (3) protect others from them and them from others; and (4) occasionally reign them in if they stray too far off the reservation.”

When you are forming a project team, do you think first about the passion of the champion or would-be champion when you are searching for a project leader, or do you focus on skills? i suggest the former. Every day, grade yourself on how well you have defended, guarded, and made the way easier for champions. Make sure you are measuring your real actions.

Peters believes that you must symbolize support for innovation in the following ways:

  • Be careful of your mundane actions. Do you encourage people to bypass functional barriers and deal directly with their counterparts in other functions but raise hell when they get you in a jam over the chain of command? Do you encourage cutting paperwork to increase the speed of the actions taking place but continue to generate stacks of your own memos every day? Consider what your actions are saying about you.
  • Behave with purposeful impatience. From this day on, accept no excuses for delays when the blame is being leveled at some other person or part of the organization. That is, you must make it clear that people are paid to destroy functional barriers— preferably by building solid relationships throughout the organization. You are not paying them to guard their own turf and write “cover your tail” memos.
  • Ask for innovation. If you want to see innovative solutions to prob-
  • lems, just direct your people to work on them and set unreasonably short time frames. People will work to their capability, and you’ll be surprised just how capable they are.
  • Seek out and celebrate the innovators. You must get out with the troops. Question them about what innovations they are trying. Don’t miss anyone. Let it be known that you want to know about every innovator in the organization.
  • Establish a Hall of Fame in every unit—and insist that it be full. Do not go for more than a month without some type of awards ceremony. Onthe-spot awards should be somewhat formalized. Make sure that your managers provide you with a monthly “Innovation Report” for their area of responsibility. This keeps them pushing innovation.
  • Reward small innovations as well as large ones. Lots of small rewards encourage more tries.
  • Support the supporting cast. Make sure that those who help in any way are recognized.