The Problem with Smoke Detectors


smoke alarm

Photo courtesy of Jenn Durfey

If you’ve spent any time in the kitchen, I’m sure you have experienced the piercing sound of a smoke detector before. Or maybe the smoke detector went off because you never spend any time in the kitchen and were taking on the stress-inducing task of baking some chocolate chip cookies, all the while wondering why you didn’t just eat the raw dough. The point is, hearing a smoke detector usually means that something has gone wrong. When the smoke detector goes off, you better act quickly if you’re going to salvage whatever it was that was supposed to satiate, if not impress, your house-guests.

Unfortunately, more often than not, the smoke detector is the “save your life” tool, not the “save your baked good” tool. Most of the time, its only function is to tell you when something has gone wrong. Ok, so most of the time (especially when cooking), the smoke detector doesn’t mean that your house is going to burn down in 10 seconds, and at worst your cookies will be a bit dark and crunchy; there are few lasting consequences assuming you act quickly to fix the problem. But that’s just it! The smoke detector alerts you to a problem that now must be fixed. How stressful a life many people must create for themselves, moving from problem to problem, trying to fix each new issue that arises.

I think most people behave like a smoke detector. Think about it, one of the most well-known adages is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Doesn’t that in essence translate to “If it ain’t burnin’, don’t pull it out of the oven?”  Today’s post is about changing your perception of personal development and what it takes to become a Mise en Place Leader, because the Mise en Place Leader doesn’t just get by, working out each new problems as it arises-the Mise en Place Leader knows that with the proper preparation, the smoke detector will never go off!

A perfect example of the “smoke detector” mentality is highlighted on every episode of Kitchen Nightmares, with celebrity chef host Gordon Ramsey. If you’ve never seen the show, a failing restaurant asks for Ramsey’s help in saving their business.

Gordon Ramsey "mentoring" in the kitchen.

Gordon Ramsey “mentoring” in the kitchen. 

Usually the restaurant needs a complete overhaul to create a new customer experience that people will enjoy much more than the current setup allows for. This transformation, along with the profanity-laced tirades of Ramsey, makes for great television because there is already a problem in place, and with problems come stress and distrust of leadership, which inevitably leads to some heated arguments. Probably fun to watch from an outsider’s perspective, but usually hard to endure for the restaurant owners. The owners usually realize how poorly they planned the layout, menu, and overall management of their business, and they quickly realize that Ramsey came to the rescue just in time. Most issues in these episodes stem from a “smoke detector” mentality; the owners refuse to hone their cooking skills, business sense, and advertising abilities because everything is going well at the time. They lose focus and don’t realize their restaurant is in a death-spiral until is almost too late. But what if Gordon Ramsey worked with a restaurant from the beginning, helping the entrepreneurs gain skills that would make it so there were no kitchen nightmares? Somehow I think the lack of drama in my TV pitch would make for a tougher sell to a network, but in the real world, aren’t we all aiming for less stress and fewer issues to constantly have to deal with?


The bad news in all of this is that most people are “smoke detector” types. They wait until they recognize that something is wrong, and then they do their best to try to fix the problem. Our society has come to almost idolize those leaders who can handle problems that arise. Great leaders are otherwise known as problem solvers and can fix the flaws in a system. This is, of course, a great trait to have, and I am not in any way saying that leaders will never need to deal with another problem as long as they properly prepare. That’d be naïve and unhelpful in your own personal development. However, I am asking for you to shift your understanding of problem-solving.

Remember, smoke detectors only function when there is an imminent threat; they are worthless when everything is going right. But what if instead of waiting until something was wrong, you constantly worked on developing your abilities in specific areas of your life? What if instead of trying to be a great problem solver, you, an up-and-coming Mise en Place Leader, were in fact, a problem preventer? Gradually, with this shift in focus, you could move away from the “smoke detector” mentality and into what I call the “smoke defender” mentality. Your focus can then shift towards strengthening your baking skills so that the cookies don’t start to burn in the first place.

Going forward today, if you haven’t yet read my post on the KitchenAid Philosophy, it may be a good kickstarter for today’s development tips;.

Today’s questions stem from your Values statements and challenge you to continue to work toward getting even better at things you’re already skilled at:

What aspect of your lifestyle do you fall into the “smoke detector” mentality? Where do you know you could improve, but nothing has gotten bad enough to force you to act?

What about something you place a high value on? What could you do better in that area of your life?

Share some of your personal examples below.