Three Tools for Real Decision-Making in the Fire Service

Sangen Shugi

Sangen what? Is that some kind of sushi?  And what in the world does this have to do with the fire service? While reading Driving Honda Inside the World’s Most Innovative Car Company by Jeffrey Rothfeder, I was fascinated by the principle of sangen shugi. This is the process Honda follows before making decisions. It is used throughout the company. What struck me about this principle was how effective it could be when applied to the modern fire service. It’s important to understand that sangen shugi is about organizational decisions, not incident management decision making, which is a very different situation.

Sangen shugi is comprised of three realities. They are:

  • Gen-ba
  • Gen-butsu
  • Gen-jitsu

These three realities are helpful concepts to making good, informed decisions, which is something we do in the fire service every day! Let’s explore these three tools and how they influence Honda’s decision-making:


Gen-ba  Learning by Going There

Gen-ba means to go to the “real spot”. At Honda, this means physically going to the factory floor, to the driver’s seat, or right to the customer to gather firsthand knowledge. Anecdotes or third-party information from others’ experiences are not good enough when it comes to researching facts. You’ve got to go there to truly learn. Honda engineers have been known to follow supermarket customers to their Hondas to learn how to make it easier for them to load groceries in the company’s SUVs because of their dedication to this concept.


Gen-butsu  – Formulating a Decision

Gen-butsu is the “real part”. Rothfeder explains it as using the firsthand knowledge [gen-ba]to begin to formulate a decision. Consider those Honda engineers at the supermarket parking lot. The firsthand knowledge they got from those experiences helped them formulate ideas to improve the design of future models. For them, it’s not real information unless it’s firsthand.


Gen-jitsu – Decisions Based On Reality

The third reality is gen-jitsu. This is the real facts component of sangen shugi. In Rothfeder’s words, this is making decisions based in reality. Actual data drives the decisions. In the Honda example, engineers used the principle of gen-ba at the supermarket parking lot (the real spot) to determine ways to improve their SUV’s. Then, they took what they learned in the field to formulate recommendations, gen-butsu).  Finally, they used all of the data to make an informed decision based on reality about how to improve the vehicle, which is gen-jitsu.


How does this relate to today’s fire service?

The fire service is full of incident management decision-making, which varies from organizational decision-making. However, knowing sangen shugi can arm you with the knowledge to make fully informed decisions at your station. Here are my three tools for real decision-making, wherever the fire service may bring you!


1. Go to the “Real Spot” in your community.

In the fire service, how often do we make decisions based on what we hear from others? Is what we are hearing based on the reality of a situation? Sometimes, just stopping by a station and talking with the crew can uncover deeper issues or open the door to a great idea. Actively being in the community – exercising gen-ba – can reveal even more possibilities.

So, how often do you interact with members of your community on a non-emergent basis? By observing what is actively happening in their communities, many fire departments are deciding to refine their mission to include expanded medical care. These changes are happening in some communities because the chiefs and the troops are out in the community – at the real spot – getting firsthand knowledge of what is happening in their communities. These organizations are seeing the writing on the wall: significantly fewer fire-related calls, more complicated medical calls and, of course, the Affordable Care Act.

Gen-ba reminds me of management by wandering around – getting out there to gather the facts. For Honda, this is the most important of the three realities. It may just be the most important reality for the fire service too.


2. Use all of the information you gathered.

After gathering the facts, this new information has allowed departments to learn more about their customers and the medical community they are joining. Then, these departments use gen-butsu. They hold meetings and conduct additional research and analysis to formulate a recommendation backed up by facts to refine their mission and change their name.


3. Put it all into action.

Lastly, the organization comes to a decision based on the real facts: gen-jitsu.  As a result of this process, a renamed organization emerges with a refined mission. These departments are even changing their names to reflect the new mission. Formerly known as fire departments, their official moniker is now fire and medical department.


There you have it: For 66 years Honda has applied the three realities of sangen shugi to become one of the world’s most innovative and successful car companies. This principle can help fire departments be effective, innovative and successful servants in their communities by helping them to make the most informed decisions possible. The principle of sangen shugi is grounded in reality the needs of customers, a willingness to improve, a trust in good data, and a desire to give something unique to the world.

As we wrap up, I’d like to leave you with this quote from Charles Handy, author of Understanding Organizations.

The companies that survive longest are the ones that work out what they can uniquely give to the world not just growth or money, but their excellence, their respect for others, or their ability to make people happy. Some call those things a soul.

Full disclosure: The author, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is the proud owner of multiple Honda vehicles.