This post is a part of the Fire Management Series; articles about general lessons learned in management from firefighters and firefighting. For more entries in the Fire Management Series, please check out the Fire Management Series category.

Sometimes, when you operate towards the end of a process, you may find yourself in an untenable position resulting from any number of issues that happened at the beginning of the process. In my experience a failure of information to flow from the beginning of the process to the end of the process is the most frequent culprit. Things blow up in your face and you do not know why, or you are handed a hot potato no one wants. When this occurs I like to refer to is as being left in the chimney.

Where It Comes From

For firefighters, fires in basements are awful. When the fire is below you, you cannot really crawl under the heat and smoke like you can a fire that is on the same level as you. Hot air rises, after all, and there you are standing in the place it wants to go.

The stairs are the worst place to be when fighting a basement or cellar fire. (Source: http://www.auburnmassfire.org/TrainingTower2.html)

The stairs are the worst place to be when fighting a basement or cellar fire. (Source: http://www.auburnmassfire.org/TrainingTower2.html)

Since all that hot air and smoke is traveling up through a staircase or out through the bulkhead, that makes the stairs and the bulkhead a chimney. Just like how a chimney takes smoke and heat up and away from the fireplace, so does the staircase take the smoke and heat up and away from the basement.

When a team of firefighters with a hose go down the stairs to fight a basement fire, they have to travel through the chimney. If the person at the front of the line, the one with the nozzle of the hose, stops at the bottom of the stairs, instead of continuing further into the basement, they can still crawl under all that heat and smoke, which is great for them. Unfortunately, the two people on the hose behind them have no where to go. Effectively, the firefighter at the front of the line has left his two team members sitting in the chimney behind them with no where to go to escape being roasted.

Hence the phrase: never leave a man in the chimney.

What It Means for Management

There are many places a process can break down. Even the simplest process can be turned on its head at a moment’s notice, especially when you are dealing with an open system that requires external input. One change by the client, or one missed email, and suddenly what needs to happen is no longer going according to plan.

While change is inevitable, in my experience few processes have managing that change built into them very well. This lack of planning is at least understandable: the process is designed to complete a particular function, and any planning for change can be a slippery slope into countless possibilities and edge cases.

For me, that’s where don’t leave a man in the chimney comes into play.

The idea is less of a rule and more of an attitude. When the process does not specifically call for or expect alterations or changes, someone will have to make a call to amend the plan and continue as necessary to complete at least the spirit of the mission. When this happens to you, as a manager or otherwise, that is fine, it is what you get paid to do, after all. However, whenever you find yourself making a call that alters the plan, ask yourself, “Have I left anyone in the chimney with this?”

In other words, make sure your decision does not negatively impact someone else either before or after you in the process, and if it does, it is time to start sending out communication that expectations have changed.

An Example of Leaving Someone in the Chimney

Here is an example of a situation that leaves someone in the chimney:

A software development company is contracted to build a module for their platform for a new client. The client-facing team discusses the details and builds out requirements. The development team estimates the work and comes up with a plan of attack. The client signs off on the work and the expected price, kicking off the development.

Somewhere along the line in development, however, the module turns out to be much harder than expected. There are issues with older modules that must be accounted for, so the functionality is going to change slightly, and the design team cannot get the final product to look exactly the way it was designed as a result. Launch is in two days, so as the manager, you alter course, make some adjustments, and deliver a product on time, although it looks slightly different and a piece of functionality considered minor has been removed.

This may be mission accomplished in the end for the development team: an on-time launch; 90+% feature delivery; looks basically the way the client wanted. With any luck, that is the case. However, the manager may have just left the client-facing team in the chimney. After all, it is the client-facing team that has to bring a product that looks and behaves slightly different to the client and then has to convince the client to pay the company what was agreed upon upfront. That discussion, especially on short notice, might leave the client-facing team in an unfair and untenable position.

Applying the Principle

Everyone has been in a situation where they have been handed a hot potato, or must deliver bad news without the ability to adequately prep for it. This situation arises from a breakdown in process, communication, or both. Handling change within a process is tricky because it is difficult to predict where it will come from and what it will look like.

Principles can sometimes be used to fill in the gaps that your process cannot account for. They sit on the edges of your process and allow you to operate with flexibility without codifying every detail of what may or may not occur. The idea that no one should be left in the chimney is just that, a principle, a guiding rule that drives behavior in all situations, especially those outside a process.

Like anything else, training is probably the best way to instill this principle in your people. This particular principle is one that requires either sympathy or empathy, and works best when you can remind employees that it is unfair to leave someone to clean up a mess someone else created. Be careful with calling out situations where they may have been left in the chimney themselves, as you might remind them more of previous anger than future sympathy. They know when they have been burned in the past, so keep it general, if at all possible, and them make their own connections.

Personally, I’m a big believer in the idea of modeling-the-way, as developing organizational values begins with the leader. This means that you must be cognizant of the impact of your own actions, and be very public about trying to keep the others around you out of the chimney. Explain to your stakeholders your decisions frequently, and then why you are so keen on informing them. Afterwards, let your team know what you have communicated and why it was so important to do so. Teachable moments are everywhere, and with any luck you may just keep someone from roasting.

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