Tag Archives: management

The More Things Change

On the day SecDef announced the new U.S. mission in Afghanistan, I hit my 20-year time-in-service mark.

The long-running Operation ENDURING FREEDOM is finished.

We didn’t hear about the change until the 31st, and then only through commercial news media. Everything official assumed we’d be called something else. My deployed crew and I were in the middle of planning the first sortie of the new year, so we went with Chuck Hagel as a pretty good source of guidance.

When we landed, at the end of the day, leadership was still confused about what named operation we supported… because their leadership was still confused. Multiple names floated around. No one had even heard of FREEDOM’S SENTINEL.

It’s frustrating… partly because it makes us all look like bumbling idiots trying to figure out the change, and mostly because the humor of my joke was lost:

Really, we're the good guys. We have America Lasers.
We’re the good guys. We have America Lasers.

Sorry, it’s a hastily-done drawing on whiteboard. If you want a good picture, check imgur. I have missions to fly and stuff.

Comic book fans will recognize this as an old-school Sentinel, a giant death robot programmed to find and eliminate mutants like the X-Men. (If you saw the newest X-Men film, modern “cool-looking” Sentinels feature heavily.)

US News & World Report had a headline about the name change, called War in Afghanistan Ends, Except Not At All.

Ouch.

But given that our tasking and guidance remained exactly the same, it’s hard not to feel a sense of “So What?”

An individual on my crew put together this helpful chart that reinforces the point:

(And there's years of missions flown all around these two countries... but that would get cumbersome if included.)
(And there’s years of missions flown all around these two countries… but that would get cumbersome if included.)

Sorry, whiteboard again. We had other things to do (or so I’ll maintain).

When I went through Professional Military Education, we had lengthy lessons on Change Management. The idea is, change is hard and scary, which causes people to resist it. So there’s a good way to implement change, and some bad ways to avoid.

If you can make a change known well in advance, you can get your experts on board to figure out how the plan will work. Questions are answered before they’re asked in the heat of the moment; problems are solved before they’re encountered on the flight line. Ideally everyone contributes, and the plan becomes both better and well-known. Then, when leadership says, “Execute the plan,” everyone carries out the change with enthusiasm and support that comes from ownership.

I’ve seen this process go poorly over the last 20 years.

I’ve seen leaders declare sweeping changes without considering what obstacles stand in the way. I’ve seen people ignore regulations governing how we do business, in order to shift to the “new” plan–when no one knows what it is.

Whole squadrons arrived at work wondering “What exactly is it that I’m supposed to do today?”

I sat in a conference room with the leaders of every office in the squadron at a meeting that opened with, “Since the re-organization took effect last week, we’re going to sit down now and figure out how we all fit in to accomplishing the basic mission of this unit.”

That’s a question that maybe could have been answered well in advance.

I left that meeting with a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities on my shoulders and on my peers. Better yet, I felt equipped to communicate that vision to my subordinates, who had the same questions I did.

I also stepped out of the room and immediately spoke in private with the officers in charge of operations. “Sir, if feedback flows both down and up, then can we make sure the message goes up the chain that what we’ve just done is the exact opposite of everything we teach about how to implement change in an organization?”

To their credit, both officers I spoke with agreed completely and admitted they’d felt the same frustrations. I overheard a conversation with higher-ups where one of the officers I’d spoken to conveyed my feedback and challenged the superior’s mistaken view that creating chaos and thrash in the unit was beneficial, since it would make everyone give 110% to figure out and implement the change.

When I look at this news and how this change has come about, it leads me to believe one of three things:

1) This name change is purely cosmetic. Since it seems nothing fundamental or practical is different from my last OEF sortie to my first “whatever we decide to call this” sortie, I find this very likely.

2) Too few in power care that we do things well–we just need to do things. We teach a right way to implement change that produces ideal effects. But we are often directed to execute the opposite–doing whatever someone higher up the chain desires, at once, regardless of whether its fit existing rules or structures. And asking questions to make sure we’re legal or compliant with standing regs is viewed as a frustration and hindrance. I’m not sure whether that all applies in this situation, but it smacks of the same “rush to change” I’ve seen elsewhere.

3) What I’d hoped was an isolated “one bad apple here or there” case of poor management seems to be a hydra of similar leaders. Ignorance of what’s going on–throughout a squadron, a community, a region, a theater of operations, and so on–that’s going to happen from time to time. But willful ignorance, once an issue is called out, is unacceptable. It’s also called negligence. Or apathy. Or complacency. But definitely not leadership. Again, I’m not sure this directly relates to our changing-but-not-really operations in Afghanistan. But it matches up with past experience.

True leaders realize what they lack, own up to the fault, and then make corrections and adjustments. It’s refreshing to see that happen. Those people stand out from among the drones and yes-men committed only to their own promotion.

We need more Sentinels of that sort, not the robots.

Happy New Year.

Dripping Water Cuts Stone

There’s a Bruce Lee “quote” I seem to recall from <em>Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story</em>. Turns out, it’s a quote of Lao Tzu, or very similar to it.

Water is the softest thing. Yet it can penetrate mountains and earth.

My Chinese teacher used a similar phrase to encourage me after I improved my language scores slightly: 滴水穿石 - di shui chuan shi

Found at:  http://theinkzenmaster.org
Found at: http://theinkzenmaster.org

It means “Dripping water penetrates stone.”

(Oh, you can see that clearly in the image. Well then.)

The intended meaning is clear: little by little, with constant effort, we make progress toward what might seem a difficult goal.

There’s wisdom in that, of course. Excellence and success aren’t often made of singular actions or short bursts of greatness. If they are born of an instant, it’s often because in that moment, we responded the way we do every day to the thousand pressures and stresses we face.

Yet there’s a darker side to the quote. When I think of the military’s loss of talented and intelligent officers and enlisted, this phrase comes to mind. In all the justifications I’ve heard my peers offer for why they do not wish to stay in, there’s rarely some defining moment or negative experience that drove them away from further service.

It’s dripping water cutting through stone.

Many of our soldiers, sailors, Airmen, and Marines chafe under blanket policies restricting everyone’s activity in order to attempt to prevent the troublesome few from doing anything wrong. We have servicemembers who are old enough to bear arms in defense of our nation, putting in twelve hour shifts standing guard every day, ensuring security for our bases and resources. Yet they are not old enough or responsible enough to make their own decisions while off-duty; many fall under policies establishing curfew hours, restrictions on alcohol consumption, and required reporting of planned holiday travel down to the estimated number of hours and miles of driving each day.

All too often, instead of leaders, we get babysitters – who are themselves forced to “take action” by fear of the consequences of any sign of failure.

However, the burden of being treated like a nursery isn’t all that wears our service members down. A myriad of individually minor grievances contribute to the problem.

Every day, our “best and brightest” wake up to face a shower of priorities, trickling streams from several directions, all clamoring for attention. There’s a new computer-based training or CBT that the whole unit has to complete within the month. Everyone has to turn in updated copies of some form so that someone’s program looks up-to-date. Binders need new cover pages and spine markings so that they all match across the entire unit. Someone found a requirement in an obscure regulation and all the aircrew members are showing up overdue.

The form you turned in isn’t the most current version. The certificate you received for completing a training course doesn’t have the blank back side, so it’s not a valid form. We need you to log four events so that you show up as having all your events logged because if you don’t get all your events, it looks bad for us, and we refuse to look bad. Also go get your flu shot, because you show up “red” on the tracker. And finish your CBT for skills you’ll never use. Finally, I know you’re outprocessing for your next deployment, but we need you to complete the post-deployment survey from your trip a year ago, so you need to schedule an appointment for that.

Our organizations are often cumbersome and entrenched in old methods of management and mission accomplishment. The figurative ceilings are pocked with holes. Every day, our Armed Forces members rush to place buckets under each of these dripping streams of water, scrambling from one “top priority” to the next whenever it overflows. This can certainly be true in the civilian workforce as well.

It takes time, but water will cut through stone, just as frustration and mismanagement can eventually defeat even the greatest determination and optimism.

People talk about the military bleeding talent, and wonder how we can stop the bloodflow. Maybe the holes we most need to plug up are the ones dripping from the rooftop.

Spit and Polish

My kids have developed a love for the show Mythbusters. I can’t blame them. The show is done well, the experiments are often captivating, the personalities interesting, and the questions they come up with are so unique.

For example, one recent episode questioned the myths of a few common ‘wise’ sayings. Among these, there was the proverb that “You can’t polish a turd.”

Adam and Jaime set out to test this theory. Jaime intended to use actual polish, and Adam learned an old Japanese art involving polishing dirt into shiny smooth spheres using only water and elbow grease. Jaime even considered the diets of the animals in the “selection process” and chose a carnivore’s droppings because of the assumed “quality” of the material.

The end result? Myth busted. You can polish a turd.

There’s not much you can’t spin to sound good. You don’t even have to outright lie. The way we tell the truth, and the amount of truth we tell, both of those can contribute to a shiny result.

I immediately think of the various kinds of data and statistics I look at in my office job. Much like any corporate setting, our military units track all sorts of information in order to figure out the quality and quantity of whatever we’re doing. That can be really helpful.

But it offers a tempting opportunity. We can put a shine on poop and sell a lie to those above us.

What are the dangers of how we use data and metrics?

First, we can make something bad look good.

Our unit uses a system to track how many events aircrew accomplish each month, with a set quota required based on experience. All the crewmembers get checked to see who is keeping current. The point of the program is to ensure commanders know the readiness of their aircrews. In the guidance, it specifies this data is not meant to be used as a sort of report card or grade.

So of course we use it as a grade, and everything becomes focused on getting good numbers instead of actually preparing aircrews for duty. We have people running training events designed only to make numbers look good instead of get crews ready for their mission in the real world. The numbers that get reported look great, at the expense of the aircrew expected to report for a flight ready to do their best.

Similar to that, I recall an inspection of our programs where the entire squadron scrambled to put a standardized cover and spine on every binder in the building. The logic was (and still is) that if things look good at first glance, inspectors don’t dig as deep or ask as many questions. So we put pretty covers and spines on binders that hadn’t been reviewed in years, despite a requirement to review annually. I questioned that logic, but the unit gambled that no one would check those particular binders, and they won that bet.

So what’s the answer? Focus efforts on doing the job, not on counting jobs done. Let the data serve its purpose. If it shows a problem, fix the problem, not the numbers.

Second, we might manipulate the data to suit our needs.

There are leaders who care about the mission and their people, and there are managers who care about the results they get from the mission and the people. The former make decisions based on the perceived best interest of the entire organization. The latter act based on what creates the best data for their area of responsibility, regardless of impact to the rest of the organization.

It’s really easy to tell when you’re dealing with one or the other.

If I care about a particular program or system only when I’m in charge of it, I fall into the selfish manager camp. Good results for the program make the manager look good too. So they focus effort on what sets them up for success. When something beneficial to the organization might impact the manager’s results, they shoot that suggestion down.

The easiest way to tell which type you’re dealing with is by witnessing a change in responsibility or authority. If all their priorities shift when they change positions, if what once got shot down now gets approved to make the new program results better, then *cue Jeff Foxworthy* they might be a manager.

Leaders care about doing what’s best for all concerned, even when it doesn’t benefit them, even when it hurts. They’re willing to sacrifice some results in order to keep the organization going. They’re willing to fight for what’s best regardless whether that makes them look good. Of course they want good numbers and positive performance reports, but they want meaningful numbers and accurate performance reports more.

What do I do with this? I try to fight for what’s right even when it’s outside my area of responsibility. I care for the entire organization, not just my little corner of it. Caring about other people’s results usually leads to them returning the favor, in my experience. And that makes a healthier unit.

Finally, we may assume the data tells the whole story.

Changes in data help us identify trends. If production slips, we know, because we track how many things we produce. If accuracy slides below standards, or if we’re missing something important, data is often the first indication.

As much as I rant about counting beans and reliance on tracking numbers, there’s a reason we do it. Generally, it works great. The trouble is, some situations are unique, and it’s hard to capture everything in a number.

We had a student come through who dominated every phase of the course. From the beginning, he made his goal clear. “I’ve been at the top of every class so far in the military, and that’s important to me. I want to do that here.”

Out of, say, 600 questions in the academic course, he got one wrong. His marks were good on all simulations. He went into his flight training with the same vigor, and got marked well above standards in a couple key areas. On his evaluation at the end of the training, he received no discrepancies or markdowns, and got marked for “superior performance” in his main aircrew duty.

All those results go into a worksheet with a formula to figure out an overall score. The trick is, almost everyone gets the same grades on their sims and flights, so his points weren’t really any better than someone else as long as they did decent work. The eval grade that counted for the formula also only takes into account the same grade the average student will receive; it didn’t factor in the superior performance areas.

So the math worked out to put him just below the cutoff for Distinguished Graduate, even though he literally did everything right. We could look at other students and see a clear distinction between his performance and theirs. The data are usually reliable, but in this case, the data were misleading.

If we just look at numbers and don’t put thought into what they may or may not be telling us, we’ll walk away with an acceptable snapshot of the organization’s performance. But every so often, we’ll be wrong.
I know, this last bit doesn’t really fit the theme of polishing a turd. It’s more like Tolkien’s turn of the old proverb into “All that is gold does not glitter. Not all who wander are lost.” Sometimes what looks like poop might need a touch of attention and thought, maybe a quick polish, to find the gold hidden beneath the surface.

Like anything, data are fantastic when used properly, with integrity and care. The fact is, we can polish turds.

The question is, who wants to?

20130910-095019.jpg

Thursday Happies

Normally I have a Thursday Tirade – usually about some facet of leadership and management in the military.

This week, my tirade was DENIED by my Chief Enlisted Manager, our squadron’s Chief Master Sergeant whose job it is to fight for the needs and interests of the enlisted folk.

I’ve been waiting to get some surgery done on my right foot, and the operation has already been scheduled and postponed once due to the needs of the Air Force. For a month or so, the rescheduled surgery date has been awaiting approval. That approval did not come until 7 PM on the night before the surgery was scheduled. And it did not come except for the hard work and effort of my Chief to fight on my behalf.

I anticipated delaying surgery “one more time,” which I’ve learned usually means “several more ‘one more times.'” I even typed up a lovely rant about it. The vent post was sitting on my iPad, ready to publish as soon as I knew for sure that the answer was “no.” But then, after multiple trips back-and-forth to speak to squadron leadership, my Chief walked in and gave a double thumbs-up.

She read the rant and said, “I’m very glad you didn’t have to post this.”

Me too.

In the past few days, I’ve seen a lot of good news about the Air Force, not just related to my self-centered needs. Though I have said in the past that I fear that there is a general decline in the quality of leadership, there are glimmers of hope. While I’ve seen managers who are unwilling or ignorant to the balance between accomplishing the mission and taking care of people, there are still compassionate senior leaders out there.

Last week, we found out who was selected for Senior Master Sergeant, and I saw a friend’s name on the list. Chris is one of the smartest people I know as far as our job is concerned, and he has always been quick to fight the trend toward silly or unsafe decisions in flying operations. He was one of my first supervisors in the Air Force, and he is definitely one of the few who demonstrated that they cared. He did not accept mediocrity, but he also mentored me to show me how to improve.

Another Senior Master Sergeant selectee is a former co-worker and supervisor from my time at Kadena. Steph is also one of the hardest working people with whom I’ve served. She knew how to push our office to succeed and yet ensured we could relax and have fun when mission requirements permitted it. She exemplified our squadron’s unofficial motto of “work hard, play hard,” and she led our office and our squadron to some amazing accomplishments as a result. On the personal level, she fought for me and my needs, but she also fought against my procrastination and laziness to force me to be a better NCO.

My neighbor across the street is also on the selection list. When my family moved across the world from Okinawa to Nebraska, we had no sponsor, no official welcome or assistance with how to find our way around a new base. We moved into our new house on base, and our next-door neighbor literally turned his back and pretended like he did not see us. But not Charlie. He saw me struggling a few days later with the ice and snow that had built up in our driveway, and he immediately came out to help with an ice-breaking tool. He’s the guy who pushes a snow blower around the neighborhood, clearing out driveways and sidewalks for about ten families in addition to his own. In the back of his house, he has a virtual farm of fresh produce growing through the warmer months, and several times this year, he has brought over extra fruit and vegetables to us and to other neighbors because “Hey, what am I going to do with all of this?” He genuinely seems to enjoy helping others.

And yesterday, while sitting with my foot in a splint, I hopped on Facebook to discover that one of the best officers I’ve had the pleasure of serving under just got selected for Colonel. In my experience, John was a no-nonsense leader who knew how to get things done. But more than that, he knew how to prioritize what needed to be done in order for us to succeed, and he tried hard to keep us from dealing with time-wasting projects. He showed great leadership and yet remained approachable.

Is everything great in my little corner of the Air Force? As we deal with sequestration and budget cuts, with aging airframes and low retention rates, with an ever-decreasing pool of experience, it’s definitely become more difficult to keep up with demands. When we get managers that seem to care about nothing more than their next performance report, it’s hard at times to remain motivated.

So it’s with great pleasure that I see some of the future leaders we’re raising up, and it gives me hope.

I don’t have a rant today, and yes, Chief, I’m very happy about that.

Lead By Numbers

credit for photo to ipaintbynumbers.com
You too can create an artistic masterpiece… or not.

A while back, my wife was buying arts and crafts supplies for our children, and she found a Paint By Numbers kit that lets the user create a rough copy of a famous artist’s masterpiece. It was an interesting project for my daughter, who loves all sorts of art. And I appreciate the idea – you can enjoy painting without requiring amazing skill as an artist. Paint By Numbers isn’t “real” art in the sense of something the artist completely creates. Everyone knows that, so no one minds.

But if you try to pass off a Paint By Numbers project as indicative of your artistic talent and creativity, now we have a problem.

That brings us to this week’s Thursday Tirade.

I’m reading a timely book called “Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution” by Tim Kane.

A former Air Force intel officer and a current economist, Kane looks at what the military does right in developing leaders, and what it does wrong in managing its people. The basic point is that the best and brightest of the military officer corps are leaving at higher rates than anyone expects, and the assumption is that the same is true of the enlisted. Kane makes the case that while the military is attracting better recruits than ever, it is at the same time hemorrhaging them out as soon as the minimum commitment is up.

I can’t imagine why.

There are two problems with the sort of “leadership” that often gets promoted in today’s military.  We emphasize big numbers over real accomplishments, and we demand that future leaders conform to the mold of the past. Paint inside the pre-made lines, please. Don’t worry, we gave you 100% more paint colors than you had before.

We look for metrics and spreadsheets to tell the story of our success, which inherently leads to quantity over quality. Everything must be quantifiable. A “smart” leader knows this, and does whatever it takes to improve key numbers, even at the expense of quality. An upwardly mobile leader knows how to walk the fine line of avoiding by any documented decline in quality while doing everything possible to increase the numbers further. I don’t want to rehash old posts, so… moving on.

Performance reports are functionally useless. The smallest effort can be spun into an amazing “accomplishment” in a report, painting the required pretty picture even though everyone involved knows the individual has no actual talent.

We have a system that encourages checking boxes and telling a good story more than actual decisive leadership and management. There’s a “right” career path, and our young enlisted and officer personnel are told that if you do these things, you will be on the track to swift promotion. We don’t always look back to see the actual performance of the individual. We just look for those key achievements and milestones.

Leaders are judged based on these inflated reports and one-dimensional metrics, but no one considers the human cost involved. Three of the four folks who do my job practically live on painkillers to keep working, because they genuinely love our job. And yet we push harder and try to do more with less. We break individuals because we know we can pull another individual from somewhere else in order to keep getting our quantity and our high rates. Or we ignore people’s needs to meet the mission goal, without realizing that the people are the ones that make the mission successful.

None of this is surprising or new.

And yet the military continues to hang up Paint By Numbers leaders on prominent display in the art gallery. Too often, we reward and promote the managers who do the most harm to their people, because the story the numbers tell looks so good on paper. When the news of an award or promotion creates audible anguish in the form of screams and cries of “WTF” from offices, when individuals at every level question what’s happening and shake their heads in secret, then maybe something important is missing.

Leadership is not a science. There’s no equation for it, no perfect recipe to bake the “leadership” cake. You cannot measure out two cups of reward, plus one cup of discipline, three ounces of compassion and one pinch tenacity.

Leading people is an art form. It takes time and effort to improve. More importantly, it takes compassion for those we lead, and passion for the goal we’re leading them to achieve. Leadership requires vision.

Don’t hang up a Paint By Numbers picture in an art gallery and call it a masterpiece. Likewise, please don’t lead by numbers and call it visionary.

What I Love

Some of my recent rants on Facebook or in this forum have highlighted problems I’ve encountered with leadership in the military… so much so that I got some pointed feedback on one Facebook post asking about my plans to separate (…which I turned into a different rant, but that’s beside the point).

I was thinking how easy it is to focus on all the bad things and complain about what I think is wrong or what I don’t like, while paying no attention to all the good that has come from the last 18 years in the military.

So this is my tirade about what I love about this job.

Kadena AB, 2012
Best job ever. Usually.

Skills: As a guy fresh out of high school, I was an experienced grocery bagger and stock-boy. I also had a paper route. Highly marketable skills. The Air Force taught me two foreign languages and trained me for intelligence production and first-line analysis. Then they instructed me as an aircrew member and developed my communication skills and crisis management. They’ve taught me decision-making and resource management, and they’ve shuffled me through a variety of jobs and programs that give me some understanding of what works and what doesn’t in a corporate office. Perhaps most importantly, I have been in a variety of positions requiring management and interaction with other people, whether as peers, subordinates, or supervisors. I’ve learned how to get along with others in order to get the job done, even when we personally don’t see eye to eye. I’ve developed empathy for the needs of others, and I like to think that there’s some element of the servant-leadership we hear about during military education–that leadership style which says “I as a leader am here to take care of your needs as you accomplish the mission.” Most of these skills have proven essential over the years, and I know they’ll serve me well after I take off the flight suit and set a retirement shadow box up on the shelf.

Travel: One of the main selling points of military service is that “you get to see the world.” I am quite grateful in this regard. Prior to Basic Training, I never traveled more than two or three hours outside the Chicago area. Now I can say that I have stood on the beaches and battlefields of Okinawa, and I’ve enjoyed the weather in Florida. I hiked the side of Mount Fuji and ate wild strawberries in autumn in the hills of Washington state. I’ve walked the Las Vegas strip at night and visited rural villages in the Philippines on a medical relief mission. I’ve driven through every state west of the Mississippi and I’ve flown around the world. From the markets of Doha, to the temples of Thailand, from the scenic drives of the Monterey Bay, to the tropical paradise of Diego Garcia, I have seen far more of the world than I ever expected. And I have the Air Force to thank for this.

Experiences: The travel is made all the sweeter because of the special memories associated with these places. There’s the satisfaction of flying operational sorties that provide needed intelligence to soldiers on the ground in harm’s way. There’s the excitement of seeing another nation’s military in operation, up close and personal. There’s the joy of interacting with members of other services and other nation’s Air Forces, learning about our commonalities and our different styles of operations. Then there’s the unique opportunities – picnics with the crew eating tuna steaks fresh off a grill, from a fish that was swimming in the open ocean three hours earlier… pig roasts at the park, parties on the beach, and crew traditions in the squadron lounge, hearing stories from the men and women who were doing this job long before I enlisted… connecting with fellow believers around the world and walking into a Chapel on the other side of the earth from home, accepted and allowed to minister to the local congregation through music and song. There’s the special camaraderie that comes from dealing with a frustrating or challenging situation, and knowing that I’m not alone in this, that I’m there with my brothers and sisters in arms, and we’re all fighting to get through it. (And also I got to fly an F-15 that one time.)

People: These experiences would be nothing without the special and tremendous group of people that make up the Armed Forces. On a day-to-day basis, I get to interact with people who have (for one reason or another) raised their right hand and volunteered their service and their very lives for a cause greater than themselves. Not only that, but my job puts me in constant contact with the very best and brightest of this special class of American. As a sheltered young man from a very conservative background who preferred solitude to socializing, my time in the Air Force has been eye-opening, shattering any stereotypes and preconceived notions I had about anyone “not me.” Every day I see people who are totally different from me, and yet they share the desire to excel in what we do, to improve the situations and circumstances around them, to take care of the needs of their fellow Airmen and those less fortunate. I see the selfless service and devotion of individuals to their peers and to this nation, and I am deeply proud to be a part of it. More importantly, when our task sucks and our deadline is looming, and we’re pushing ourselves to the limits to get the job done, I feel a sense of success as my peers tell me, “You made that difficult time better for me. Thanks.”

Family: There is a special group of people that I wouldn’t know at all if it was not for my time in the Air Force. I met my wife in 1996 when she was serving in the Air Force as a Civil Engineering troop on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. She was my ride to church, my sister in Christ, eventually my best friend, and soon after, my fiancee. We met because a friend from Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas had a neighbor who had a friend on Okinawa who was a missionary from Hong Kong who happened to know another young Airman who attended a good church where I felt accepted and loved. That’s a mouthful! Now I have a wonderful teenage daughter and three amazing sons (and a pain-in-the-butt wiener dog).

So… when I complain on Facebook about the Air Force doing something stupid, or when I go off on a Thursday Tirade about mismanagement and abuse of power, please understand that I am not whining because I hate my job. I’m venting because I have so many reasons to love this job. So I get upset when our silliness and poor decisions obscure all the awesome reasons to join and stay in the military.

My friends know that when something difficult comes up at work, I will occasionally mutter, “I love my job I love my job I love my job” in an intentionally unconvincing monotone. We all laugh – misery loves company, after all.

But maybe, way deep down, I secretly mean it.

Retention – Problem or Solution?

“You cannot run away from weakness; you must some time fight it out or perish; and if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?” – Robert Louis Stevenson

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” – Harry S. Truman

exit

There is a proverb in the Bible–not surprisingly, found in the book called Proverbs–which warns the reader that “Even a fool is thought wise when he holds his tongue.” Sometimes the best thing one can do in a crisis or confrontation is shut up and move on. Sometimes the worst thing one can do is vent their frustration in public.

I don’t always remember that.

Couple those lapses of judgment with a very public forum (i.e. Facebook), and you have a recipe for disaster… especially when you vent frustration about your workplace and your management. Thankfully, I don’t make a habit of Friending my chain of command.

Still, I sometimes get pointed responses – either in person or in social networks. I get it that some people don’t care for whining, and some people don’t see complaining as befitting a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer. I imagine many in the military would think the right thing to do is salute smartly, shut the mouth, and execute the assigned task as ordered.

So, to the whiner, these folks essentially say, “If you don’t like your job, get out.”

I see a problem with that.

I do like my job. I like it enough that I care when it seems we’re doing it wrong.

Quite frankly, I believe that’s why the organization pays me. I’m not just my crew position, qualification or office title. I’m still in the military because the Air Force still values my input and experience, and they’ve seen fit to put me in a position that should carry some influence. They expect me to bring that experience and judgment to bear in making decisions and informing leadership about the effects of how we’re doing business, good or bad.

Sometimes whining is a refuge for the weak and lazy. But sometimes it’s the last resort once dialogue has been shut down and a culture of oppression or fear has silenced official professional dissent. If I can’t say anything that changes what’s wrong, I’m still going to bring it up from time to time.

If all the “whiners” get out, then no one is left to raise concerns.

As a young Airman recently rededicated to the Christian faith, I once thought that the Base Chapel was the place to serve, and I considered cross-training into a Chaplain Assistant job. Surely there, I could really do something good, or so I reasoned. Then a chaplain friend of mine suggested, “If all of the believers get out of their career fields and work in the Chapel, then who’s left to be a positive influence in your workplace?”

Religious issues aside, the logic is sound in this case. What sort of people are we trying to keep?

Do we want only “yes men” who are willing to bend any rule and accept any treatment in order to avoid a confrontation with those above them? Does our organization need leaders with a mind of their own, or do we want only those who parrot back the opinion of leadership? If that’s what we want, then, sure, telling the dissenter to “get out” is good advice.

Are our retention rates a problem, or a solution?

In my career field, at least, we have a shortage of people. We are constantly striving to replace the experienced folk we lose to retirement and separation. We’re grabbing people with the bare minimum qualifications and putting them in demanding positions of authority, and the pool we can choose from is getting more and more shallow each year. We are considered a stressed career field.

So if I’m frustrated by the stress of the job, and if we’re doing things that encourage people to leave our career field, maybe more people getting out only adds to the problem. It’s certainly not fixing anything.

There are people who need to be helped on their way to the door: those who take no initiative, those who disobey orders or violate good discipline, those who produce little or no value added for their unit. The person complaining and trying to prevent harm to his or her institution is not in the same category. They might be going about it wrong, but they’re doing something right. They’re taking ownership of their work.

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” is a tough-sounding, hard-hitting response that’s great if you just want people to shut up and color. The problem is, you all trained me to cook, and I’ve come to love it. So I’m going to keep stirring the pot, and I’m going to speak up if you’re screwing up the recipe.

That’s why you hired me in the first place.

College Football Recon

Here’s an example of an airline… tell me if you’d book a ticket.

9 out of 10 landings successful… 10 out of 10 landings accomplished!”

4 out of 5 pilots perform safely most days… overwhelming majority of pilots have spotless records”

when every other airline refuses to fly, we still try… overcoming adversity to get you to your destination at any cost* (not liable for loss of life)”

Or perhaps you’d like to try a new mapping app on your smartphone:

“Our 2010 maps provide accurate directions to 85% of customers.”

I suspect you might not accept these bare-minimum standards when you know that there are better airlines or better apps available. With the above examples, you’re rolling dice and hoping things go your way.

... I got better.
85% safe landings accomplished.

Welcome to the future of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance for the US Military.

Ok, that’s an exaggeration – I hope. Maybe it’s not. Over the last few years, I’ve been frustrated by a non-stop trend in my workplace and community, and I need to hash out my thoughts since I’ll probably be explaining it to my leadership soon.

Sadly, what I’m seeing isn’t exclusive to intelligence and my particular workplace. It’s basic management that can be applicable to any job. If you’re a worker bee, maybe you’ll see that other people get your pain. If you’re a manager, please take away some thoughts about what NOT to do to your people. And if you’re neither, I hope you enjoy my inner monologue.

I’ve heard some interesting management philosophies lately:

“There’s a basic standard of expected performance… the floor, if you will. We won’t dip below that. But we can settle for that.”
or
“We won’t ever violate the quality of our training, and I admit our initial students are coming to us with less experience than ever before… but we need to figure out how to speed up the process and get more students qualified faster.”

We’re like a college football coach telling his players, “It doesn’t matter what you do in class or what you learn here… as long as you make a C- and can keep playing on my team.”

That’s great when you’re talking to a guy who needs to throw a football or run for a touchdown. What about people who are required to gather intelligence and funnel it into the hands of a soldier on the ground taking fire from enemy positions, in order to hopefully save his squad? “It doesn’t matter what you learn here” doesn’t cut it anymore.

Here are my thoughts on this disturbing willingness to pump up numbers:

1. If you trade quality for quantity, you get neither. The harder you work your producers, the more their ability to produce quality will decline. The faster you work them, the more mistakes and omissions are made along the way. You’re breaking your people to increase your stats, and soon you won’t have the workers left to make the product.

2. If you trade quality for quantity, you forget your customer. The soldier on the ground taking fire isn’t looking for the bare minimum, he’s looking to come home safe and get his friends out of harm’s way. The intelligence community isn’t in need of bodies in seats (well, we are, but that’s beside the point). The community needs accurate and timely information that highly trained bodies in seats will be able to produce.

3. If you trade quality for quantity, you violate the trust of your employees. If you’re going to surge for a short time and there’s a reason, you can get buy-in and hard work. Picture that college football team. The Bowl game is coming up, so they ramp up the training and give 110%. After the game, they back down. That makes sense.
But that’s not what happens in the workplace. I’ve seen it over and over. Someone tells all the employees that they’re going to carry out a temporary surge in production, but two months down the road, the surge is suddenly the expected norm.
Sometimes you have to surge. Do not turn around afterwards and use that harder workload as the new baseline for production rates. Trust, once lost, is difficult to rebuild. I’ll refer the reader to retention rates in the intel community… “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice… I quit.”

4. If you trade quality for quantity, you trade your integrity for convenience. Getting better numbers means bending the standards that keep us from mediocrity. You start asking “Does the regulation really say…?” and “What’s the definition of ‘safety’ in that grading criteria?” You’re becoming the devil, holding out the apple to your people, tempting them to go the easy way. Your metrics aren’t worth selling out, but unfortunately, for many, job security is worth it. You’re dragging down your organization with you.

5. If you trade quality for quantity, you devalue your people. Once quantity is the only real standard, people become tools and machines whose sole purpose is to reach the target number of products. Late hours, overworked technicians, weekend work, exhausted employees… all of these are acceptable because nothing else matters except that green column on a spreadsheet. “Service Before Self” — or whatever similar mission statement and core values apply in your workspace — these work when I can see the big picture and the value my extraordinary efforts add to the overall meaningful mission. But when you violate my trust and make your success my mission, “Service Before Self” becomes “Service, Nothing Else.” And your glowing performance report doesn’t have my buy-in when it’s written on the backs of broken people.

The gist of all this is servant-leadership — what we’ve been teaching in military education for quite some time. If you are a leader, your people are not there for you. You are there to take care of them. Do that, and you’ll see both quality and quantity soar.

Counting Beans

Yeaaaahhh, hi...
Did you get the memo?

TIRADE THURSDAY!

“Hello Peter, whats happening? Ummm, I’m gonna need you to go ahead come in tomorrow. So if you could be here around 9 that would be great, mmmk… oh oh! and I almost forgot ahh, I’m also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, kay. We ahh lost some people this week and ah, we sorta need to play catch up.”
– Bill Lumbergh from Office Space

I jotted this down in the morning before my flight, and happened to check e-mail at the end of the day. Sadly, I had no idea how applicable my first Tirade Thursday would be. Sure enough, now we’re considering how we might be able to reduce training time by 33% when we can barely keep up with what we’re doing already. Why?

Let’s talk about “counting beans.”

No one actually counts beans, I hope. I picture some poor soul in a factory hovering over a conveyer belt, checking off dozens or hundreds of beans. Dear Lord, that’s why we have machines and robots, isn’t it?

But in the military (and I’m sure in many civilian jobs), there are many things we do count, and “bean-counting” is an expression that captures this need. We absolutely must count these things, because if we don’t count them, how will we know if we are succeeding in our mission?

I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek, because I know that numbers and quantifiable figures generally drive management. No one is ever satisfied with “We produce quality” as an answer unless it is tied to some metric that puts a number on a spreadsheet and shows the quantity of our quality.

That said, it’s difficult to stay motivated when bean counting becomes the obvious purpose. “Beans” in this rant refers to any end product or desired result of our business, something that can be given a number in order to show success or failure. Maybe it’s students trained. Maybe it’s flight hours. Maybe it’s tickets processed, or TPS reports filed in accordance with your eight bosses’ wishes.

A classic military example is how we budget. In order to get the most money out of the upcoming year’s budget, we must show that we used up all the money we received this year. By using it up, we prove that we needed that much money and then some. So when the new budget is drawn up, everyone can see that we need at least as much money as we got last year. Maybe more.

What that leads to is spending money for the sake of spending money. We’ll fly a few extra minutes on every sortie, because that way we use up more flight hours, and that way we prove that we need the money for fuel for however many flight hours next year. Every 15 minutes counts! (Minutes matter, or so I was always told while deployed. I guess it’s true, in a way I never realized.)

My wife spent a few years as a Civil Engineer and saw how this worked in her career field. “We have X amount of money. We have to spend it or else we won’t get as much next year. Let’s buy this top-of-the-line truck to upgrade our fleet of civil engineering vehicles. This will be the best one we’ve got.”

The truck arrives, and someone realizes, “Hey, no one here is certified to use that thing.”

So it sits under a tarp for months.

Count MORE.
Count ALL the beans!

But that’s okay, because getting a truck that is useful was not the point. The point was spending the money in order to get the same amount of money next year. And on that note, they succeeded.

Great success! Count them beans!

Last year, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force put a book on his recommended reading list, and I sure hope some people give it a read. It’s called Start With Why, and it’s all about understanding our purpose in order to make the most of our efforts. Too often, we focus on the beans, the number that captures what we did and how much of it we did.

But the beans sometimes become the mission statement; they demand more attention than they are rightly due. We forget the “why” that explains the value of the beans.

If the count of things you do becomes more important than the things you do, revisit your organization’s “Why.”

If the quantity of product or service outweighs quality, refresh your memory of “Why.”

When something that serves a purpose has now become THE purpose, remember your original “Why.”

Without a good grasp of why, all the hows and whats don’t make much sense.

No one will ever admit that counting beans (the what) has become more important than feeding soldiers (the why). No one ever confesses that quantity gets far more attention than quality. Quality gets its share of lip-service.

But trust me. The peons in the cubicles know what really matters. We’re not fooled. We’re the ones doing the counting, remember? We fill out the trackers and document all the events. No one ever asked how good the beans taste, only how many we counted.