On learning

(c) Peter Hodge @ The Strategist

This amazing photo was on Peter’s latest post @ The Strategist…my only comment is WOW! To learn more, click on the image…

This post also carried a link to a recent Business Day article Unhappy workers the key to corporate culture which states organisations that wish to learn about themselves,  for example, what’s working and what’s not, could do worse things that seek out and listen to “…malcontents and marginalised workers in the firm…” Often these people are marginalised or malcontent because they are frustrated in their efforts to improve or progress their work environment. As I commented on Peter’s post, so often I have “…seen a visiting reviewing, audit, info gathering team sat down with the happy-happy joy-joy people in an organisation when they really need to to be getting together with those who have issues (real or perceived) with how the organisation operates…

Most organisations have a fundamental expectation that equipment and processes and staff will function as advertised. To be continually told that this is occurring really achieves little except perhaps a warm fuzzy feeling in the executive washroom. What organisations really need to know is what is NOT functioning as it should, or where things could be done smarter…you won’t get this from the mindless clones of the happy-happy joy-joy brigade. This is the foundation of any Lessons Learned or organisational learning process of system: to get over fear of bad news and actually welcome and seek it out. All to often though, the catalyst for this cultural shift is a king-size punch in the nose.

The most notable example of such cultural change is the US Army in the year from the end of the official war-fighting phase in May 2003 until the true scope of the insurgency was grasped in 2004. In no more than a year, this organisation of 500,000 plus was transformed from one where it was not cool to advertise screw-ups in your area of responsibility to one where it was no longer acceptable NOT to share what went wrong on your patch in order that others might learn and lives be saved…if the pie-in-the-sky plans of Rumsfeld, Cheney et al had actually worked and Iraq had snapped into a functioning democracy as soon as Saddam was toppled, I don’t think that even a quarter of the issues identified in the various post-Phase One AARs would have been addressed, and certainly any cultural shifts arising from those issues would have been incremental at best.

The first step in any Lessons Learned system is to consistently and continuously and honestly capture what’s not working and what could be done better. We found that the format for this is:

What happened? A simple statement that defines the problem or issue, e.g. boot laces keep snapping.

What does it mean? I.e. the ‘so what?’ factor…you can not assume that everyone else will perceive the same or any issues arising from the ‘what happened’ so this needs to be explained. e.g. affects soldier’s mobility as boots don’t fit properly until such time as laces are replaced or repaired – this is not always immediately possible i.e. at night (light discipline) or if spare laces are not available/accessible.

What do you think should be done about it? This is the originator’s recommendation from their perspective and may often serve only as a start point for investigation and bear no resemblance to the final solution e.g. replace the current crap boots with a new brand.

This was an OIL that we came across through direct contact with some of the afore-mentioned malcontents and marginalised who expressed their frustration that this problem was prevalent and nothing seemed to be happening about it. When we pulled on a few threads, we found that higher levels were prone to removing such low-level ‘trivia’ as reports drifted up the hierarchy, based on a misperception that high-level issues should be disseminated up to high levels. The response back down was more than often the good old ‘harden up!’

Investigating the actual issue was very frustrating because there was a continual stream of ‘no fault found’ with every test conducted on the laces held in stock. It was only in examining the boots that it was found that the fault was not in the laces but in a batch of lace eyelets that had an exceptionally sharp inner edge – the action of pulling a lace tight also pulled the lace over this edge which cut into the fibres of the lace. Murphy’s Law of laces states that they will always give way at the least convenient time, typically 0300 on a frosty no-moon night on a patrol in the tussock.

The solutions that were put in place were to:

Withdraw the affected boots and have them repaired by the manufacturer.

Review Quality Assurance processes for future boot shipments.

Review the defect reporting process.

Discuss with headquarters staffs the importance of NOT attenuating reports as they rose through the chain of command, including those issues that perhaps they could actually resolve at their own levels. By keeping these to themselves they constrain the ability of others to learn from them.

Man’s Best Friend

Neptunus Lex has a touching story about a boy and his dog…things you wouldn’t see your cat doing for you…


Still waiting on Michael Yon’s Dispatch in which he winds up the Tarnak Bridge drama AND apologises to Canadian general Daniel Menard…

Getting out of the square

Travels with Shiloh discusses the need for intelligence operators to have training in snapping out of conventional squares to consider problems in the complex environment. I agree and think that his 2007 suggestion of using movies like John Carpenter’s The Thing as the basis for scenarios to achieve this has considerable merit. I had a similar idea in the early 90s when i was just getting into PC gaming that young officers could be given certain games to play that would broaden their problem-solving thought processes…TacOps springs to mind immediately but for some reason Megafortress springs to mind – will have to see if I can find my old notes on this…to add a pain/risk factor, it was suggested that they play for places (or not) on the monthly duty/orderly officer lists…

I also agree with Dean’s comments re using tactical decision-making games (TDG) – the Marines have been using them for years – I think they still publish one at the back of each issue of the Marine Corps Gazette? – but everyone else seems a little slow on the uptake. The zero defects people seem very cool on the idea unless each TDG comes with a 17 page ‘white’ sheet that details all the possible permutations and variations of solutions so that the supervising staff would be put on the spot and find their own knowledge and or capabilities challenged. I think this is a fundamental lack of understanding of what TDGs are for which is to allow students and instructors to explore the application of principles and considerations in different environments and scenarios and to totally NOT focus on any perceived need for the solution to be a thing that Norman Schwarzkopf would be proud of…

The double standard of nice war

Coming Anarchy discusses the drone ‘war’ in Pakistan. The acceptance of civilian casualties in this campaign against the Taliban seems to be in stark contrast with ISAF’s squeamishness in engaging Taliban hiding behind civilians in Marjah. Maybe it’s only OK to kill civilians in a war zone by accident where you (and the media) can’t see the bodies…? It’s probably all the same to the dead…

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