Firefighters transform themselves and the city

Published on
May 25, 2018
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo is editor at the Lean Global Network and Planet Lean
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Is "Lean fire-fighting" an oxymoron? It is not if you are the Grand Rapids Fire Department, which has not only transformed itself, but has taken the lead in a Lean transformation of the entire city.

Interviewee: Brad Brown, Assistant Chief of Administration, Grand Rapids Fire Department - Michigan, USA

Grand Rapids is undergoing a citywide Lean transformation. How does the fire department's lean trajectory fit into that?

The fire department is really at the forefront of the city's Lean initiative. We started about 10 years ago with A3s and looking at the ROI for making systemic improvements. Once we started seeing results, we went to the rest of the city and started leading the Lean transformation. We regularly teach other city departments how to think and act Lean .

Ten years on the road! Can you tell us briefly about that?

It's incredible how much we've learned over the past decade.... and how many mistakes we have made!

We started during the economic recession of 2008. We were not in a good place then: we had to lay off firefighters, we were struggling to answer our more than 20,000 emergency calls a year, and our infrastructure was crumbling. We were under-resourced. The city then contacted a group of private sector professionals and asked them to help implement lean thinking. They began using the A3 problem-solving tool, one of our favorite methods to date.

Unfortunately, it was still a push system: the city told department directors to use Lean . At the time (I had just come out of firefighting) my job was to make sure that Lean thinking would "trickle down" to the troops, who didn't want it. There was a lot of unrest. Only after several years of working on projects that improved the daily lives of our people were we able to switch to a pull system. I am really happy to say that today we have great leadership and a great relationship between labor and management: we all sit at the table to solve problems together, union workers and senior leaders.

There is more. In the beginning, tools and techniques were the focus, now we are focusing more on the cultural side of our transformation.

How has the context around you changed over the past decade?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Grand Rapids - a city of just under 200,000 in West Michigan - is one of the fastest growing economies in the country. That means many buildings are currently rising, which means an increased risk of fire and higher call volume for our 11 stations and 200 firefighters. We are no longer doing Lean to cut costs, but to increase our capacity and keep pace with the environment.

How has your approach to developing capabilities changed over time?

At the beginning of the journey, we relied a lot on outside expertise (the Lean Enterprise Institute was one of those who helped us). It was a good first step to get acquainted with the ideas and principles, but we realized it was not sustainable. So we decided to look around the Lean community in Grand Rapids and discovered that our local college offered a nine-month Lean certification program. It was harder than my master's degree, I must say! Then we started growing our own, and now we have seven Lean champions in town. Grand Rapids is a unique environment, where firefighters teach Lean to city employees (I myself teach A3 thinking) and where the Lean transformation is quite self-sustaining.

What can you tell me about Lean leadership in the department?

In the past, much of the support for the transformation came from middle management rather than from the top. About a year and a half ago, a new chief took office and really got directly involved. People understand that if this is important to him, it must also be important to them. Then the tide turned for us, showing how important leadership involvement is.

How has your process changed?

We have implemented several processes. From a resource perspective, we implemented 5S projects around the stations and applied Value Stream Mapping to many of our administrative processes. But we still had no contact with our men and women on the street. So a few years ago we started a daily consultation via Skype, which allows all of our 11 stations to talk to the fire chief for 10 to 15 minutes.

Each individual work area also has its own meeting. There are three key questions we ask every day: What did you learn yesterday? What are you doing today? Do you need help? As firefighters, we do not ask for help and are used to being the ones calling people to solve problems, so we have had to learn to ask these questions very explicitly. Combined with the fact that the chief is increasingly visible, this has given us more than all the financial savings combined.

I remember an anecdote that shows how much things have changed. A few years ago, when we launched our system for managing daily improvements with our obeya boards, I remember one of our colleagues (a firefighter) walking into the barracks and saying, "Boy, if only I had a hand grenade, I could handle it here." He was standing just outside the office I shared with my then partner. He looked in and said, "I'm talking about you two." Now, a few years later, this is the same person who asked for a white board in the apparatus room so he could have a better view of his fire engine and what he needed, and pass that information on to people in the other shifts. I have at least 20-30 stories of major opponents turning into ambassadors for Lean. But that only happened when we started solving their problems - not ours.

How does information and knowledge spread between stations?

A lot happens organically, even though we have 11 stations and three shifts (which basically amounts to 33 different work shifts, plus 15 rigs on the street). When crews travel around and see something working at another station, they want it - no matter what management says.

From a practical standpoint, how has your ability to fight fires improved over time?

We are one of 239 accredited fire departments in the world through the Center for Public Safety Excellence, and Lean helped us achieve that. One of the most important things we do (which happens all the time in production) is look at critical tasks and branch time. It's important for us to understand how fast we need to complete certain tasks to meet customer demand. Through a lot of system mapping and critical task analysis, we now know that we can save 96% to 97% of a property if 90% of the time we can deploy seven rigs with 19 personnel to the fire in less than ten and a half minutes. All this has been tested and validated during thousands of flights. Before accreditation and Lean , we had never thought of breaking down the process like this. The bell would ring and we would run to the engine, drive to the fire and work hard to contain it. We would still do a good job, but now we have data and can see the waste and opportunities for improvement in the process.

fire department lean management

How do you define success?

In the past, success was very results- and measurement-oriented, almost to the point of focusing on how much money we saved. Now I see success as people asking me to help them. Giving people the tools, coaching them and seeing their smiles afterwards is what success looks like to me, and it's a great motivator.

Is it beneficial for the fire department to be part of a broader environment that uses Lean ?

It is hugely beneficial! Within the city, Lean practitioners have access to every department. We can call people up at any time and go see them. Every few weeks another group of people comes to our gemba. Lean is very widespread in Grand Rapids, even outside the city government: it's not uncommon for me to walk to the hospital once a month to see some Lean friends there, or stop by a factory. It's great, and we are very lucky to have so many Lean practitioners in West Michigan.

Can you share with us some figures showing the impact of the Lean transformation on the city's finances?

When we began Lean, the city had a deficit of tens of millions of dollars. Thanks to the diligence of our Chief Financial Officer and Lean thinking, we not only recovered, but we built up cash reserves as a city. It was a long road to get here, but now we have a sustainable model and are ready to weather the next economic storm. It is a great place to be, but we are only here because of the hard work of our employees and the support of our citizens.

The interviewee

Brad Brown
Brad Brown is Assistant Chief of Administration at the Grand Rapids Fire Department

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