Clean firetrucks

We live in a neighborhood where all the firehouses are run by volunteers. I don’t know how we’d get by without them… they do brave work, with little credit.

One thing you’ll notice is how clean the trucks are. “Why are the trucks so clean,” a friend asked? After all, a clean firetruck isn’t a lot better at putting out fires than a smudged one.

The answer: Because when there isn’t a fire, the firemen wait for the siren to ring. And while they’re waiting, they clean the truck.

Sounds a lot like where you work. Most organizations are staffed with people waiting for the alarm to ring. Instead of going out to the community and working to prevent new fires, the mindset is that firemen are working to put out the fires that have started. Hotel desk clerks don’t write letters or make calls to generate new business—they stand at the desk waiting for business to arrive. Software engineers are often overwhelmed with an endless list of programming fires—and rarely get a chance to think about what they ought to build next.

The structure of most organizations (and every single school I’ve ever encountered!) supports this. It’s about cleaning your plate, finishing your assignments and following instructions. Initiative is hard to measure and direct and reward. Task completion, on the hand, is a factory orientation that is predictable and feels safe.

In fast-changing markets, clean firetrucks show attention to detail but rarely lead to growth and success.

What a great way to describe a stuck but busy organization. "They sure have clean firetrucks."

Seth Godin

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