12 August 2014

The Curse of Thoroughness: When Army Leaders Can't Get Things Done

The following originally appeared in the blog, "Musings of a Factotum" on January 27, 2009, under the title, "Is the Army Effective?

I was a Truck Commander today. That’s a glorified way of saying that I sat in the passenger seat while my buddy drove the Humvee from the dispatch lot to our working area.

We had been assigned a vehicle, but the only one available was a tactical Humvee. With any tactical vehicle come too many rules and restrictions. You need a ground guide to move in and out of parking lots, Kevlar helmets must be worn by all vehicle occupants, and drivers need to place blocks and drip pans whenever shutting down. So even though we are only driving the truck on paved roads in a one-mile radius at no more than 18 miles per hour, we are burdened with all these inefficiencies.

I understand that the United States Army is not designed to run with ruthless drive for profits. But the mentality of thoroughness translates into other areas. It took several man-hours to get the vehicle signed over to us. Two Specialists, a Sergeant First Class, a Major, and a civilian contractor all had their hands in the transaction. What productive items of business could at least some of these soldiers been engaged in?

There is no such thing as “military efficiency.” The U.S. Army is not efficient. It is thorough. Thoroughness can serve us well, but should it be the highest priority?

How many bright, talented people are stifled in the military because they are forced to comply with endless regulations and redundancies? In the world of the Army, even these people, as smart as they may be, end up as mindless automatons, more worried about compliance and approval from their superiors than about getting a job done right.

Frustration is the call word, even among these people. Everyone in the Army loves to say express how screwed up it is. One high-ranking officer told me not too long ago, “You need to become an officer so you can fix this.”

“You’re an officer!,” I shouted in my mind. It seems everyone can see how fouled up the system is, but no one sees how screwed up it is in their own area of responsibility, and nobody wants to tell their superiors that the way we’ve been doing it doesn't make sense.

At Basic Training, when I thought twice about executing a command that sounded mistaken, my drill sergeant told me not to second guess myself. As I noted then, even when you’re right, you look like an ass if you’re the only one.

That truism holds in the everyday institutional army. It is much easier to hide behind caution smothered in ineffectiveness, then to tread into open ground of risky newness, where the potential of figuring out better ways to do things lurk.

The Army is effective at being a behemoth of an organization, and can run itself for the sake of running itself.

Epilogue: I have become very aware in the years since I wrote this piece just how much the Army can change. It is a remarkably forward-thinking organization, in many ways. But in too many ways it is weighed down by the fear of getting things wrong. A professor of mine once noted that the military should be the most experimental organization, but very often it is the least. I have two theories as to why. One is rank, and the other is manning, though the two are connected. By rank I refer to the tendency of those in charge of executing operations to defer to seniors who, by their very seniority, tend to be more conservative and traditional. By manning I mean that those who get into senior positions are the very people who reaffirm Army culture and practice. Leadership positions are always internal hires. I wonder how the military would respond to some leadership from outside the comabt sectore. Hmmm... that gives me an idea...

1 comment:

  1. While I agree with your underlying premise that process/thoroughness is often incredibly inefficient, at the same time I've always been impressed by how the military enables young kids (essentially) to (mostly) safely operate some of the most high tech and dangerous equipment on the planet. It seems like there is a time and place for erring on the side of thoroughness vs erring on the side of speed... and in general the military must do the former, even if just to keep the accident rate down at an acceptable level.