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Hire an Efficiency Expert: "Why I Got Out" Meets "On V on Management"

(Last July, Michael C officially left active-duty U.S. Army service. In an attempt to explain why, he started a series about the Army’s culture, its successes and its failures. Read the rest of the “Why I Got Out” series here.

Also, On Violence is now taking on management. To read more management posts, click here.)

When Matt LeBlanc--the productivity expert, not the Friend’s star--enters a Starbucks, stopwatch and legal pad in hand, he doesn’t just want a cappuccino; he wants to measure the productivity of that cappuccino and the coffee shop making that cappuccino.

He times the barista. How long does it take to make a cappuccino? To take an order? To stock the fridge? If it took the barista five minutes to make a drink, why? Was it heating the milk? Was it reaching to get ingredients?

If Matt LeBlanc can decrease the amount of time spent brewing a cappuccino--say by two and a half minutes--than a Starbucks store could make twice as many cappuccinos. Shorter lines mean less waiting, which means more customers. More productivity means more efficiency which means more money.

That’s all great, but why, on a blog ostensibly dedicated to the military and violence, am I writing about a productivity expert who has the same name as the actor who played Joey on Friends?

Because the Army--and the military as a whole--does not value productivity or efficiency, and it shows. I think we should completely overhaul the Army’s culture to emphasize these values, avoiding past temptations to half-heartedly stop “waste, fraud and abuse” in the name of productivity, but continue on as we have for decades.

I’ve never met a productivity expert in the Army. As far as I can tell, the Army doesn’t have any. Or they do, but they never visit line units. Before more people complain about cutting defense spending, before politicians try to buy more overly-expensive, under-performing weapon systems (check out anyone of our On V updaters for an example), the Pentagon should hire an efficiency expert (or a whole team).

Let’s back-up. Matt LeBlanc--who I heard about on NPR’s "Planet Money" podcast--uses Lean Manafacturing to evaluate workers. Like Six Sigma and other efficiency systems, “lean manufacturers” looks for waste. Matt LeBlanc finds waste in seven categories: transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over-processing, and “not meeting customer demand”. Sometimes he can cut the waste; sometimes he can’t. Even if his customer cannot fix the waste, at least LeBlanc points it out.

Do any of those wastes relate to the U.S. Army or the Pentagon? Hmm. Transport? (See Air Movement Command.) Motion? (See “logistics in Afghanistan”.) Waiting? (See “hurry up and wait”.) Over-processing? (See the Littoral Combat Ship.) Not meeting customer demand? (See the F-22.)

While productivity experts normally live in the realm of manufacture and sales, that shouldn’t stop the Army from embracing them. In this brilliant 99 percent invisible podcast, a hospital administrator in Virginia, after nearing bankruptcy, went to an unlikely source to save his hospital, Toyota. Embracing the Toyota Production System, the hospital started turning a profit. More importantly, the health of their patients improved along with the bottom line.

The Army needs a new mindset. Every leader should have one priority: how often do my soldiers train on combat or combat-related tasks? How can we train more soldiers faster and safer? How many soldiers are combat--infantry or engineers--or combat support--like intelligence and signal--and how many are service and support--like finance, human resources or logistics? (Short hand--have more combat and combat support and less combat service and support.) Every soldier I know complains that higher headquarters orders lower units to waste time on unneeded tasks. An efficiency mindset would fight the impending drive of bureaucracy and paper.

I recommend that everyone listen to this “Planet Money” episode. Listen to 99 percent invisible too.  Then, someone who can make the decisions, hire an efficiency expert. Hire a team if possible. Have them answer this question, “How efficient is the Army?”

twelve comments

It isn’t just the military. Outside of business executives and some self-help books, I don’t think most industries—tech and programming is the big example—value productivity.

It’s just odd.

What level are you talking about? Big army? Junior leaders? The army integrates productivity training into some of its courses (Resiliency, for example). And there is a huge subculture out there of productivity fans (I’m in it). I’ve found that it is hard to ‘teach’ productivity. People need to buy into it.

Speaking for Michael, who will get back from a trip later today, I think the key thoughts are

1. Just like you said, we need to get more people to buy into this idea.

2. We need to start from the ground floor up. As Michael wrote, the Pentagon may have efficiency experts, but the line units don’t.

Again, Michael will probably have more to say.

Don, I am talking about the Brigade level, emphasizing it to basically anyone with an email account (which meants platoon sergeants and up). Brigade and Battalion training staffs (S3 shops) should track how often their units train on specific combat tasks.

Big Army could help by decreasing Army-wide initiatives (which suck time) and rearranging personnel to minimize support functions while increasing combat troops (which makes us more efficient).

Eric C is right, some Pentagon jobs are probably efficiency jobs. We received an email about this from a good follower. However, I just don’t see anyone really holding line units to account for how they train for warfare. So if no one is tracking it or measuring it, how do we really measure or compare Brigade commanders? That is what I don’t know right now.

No, you won’t find efficiency experts in Army line units, because (especially at the tactical level) no one cares about efficiency when brute force and coordinated violence can get the job done. But I think you unfairly overlook the major commands and Army staff, where daily routine events such as staffing information papers and briefs, attending meetings, coordinating with OSD and other services, all take place. Now I’m not saying that there are efficiency experts up at staff level, but there is “Lean Six Sigma” training going on and some agencies even have quotas to get a certain number of black belts and green belts. The intent is there, even though the actual accomplishment of increased efficiencies may be absent.

Good point Jason, let me subtly clarify. First, while it is good to get efficiency experts trained at the Army level, what I really want is outside consultants measuring the Army. Further, the maneuver level—really the key organization in the US Army now—is the brigade. And not just maneuver, but aviation, bfsb, engineer and other brigades.

If I had my druthers, the army would measure unannounced every brigade over the course of the year. Then it would ask, which is the most efficient and trains the most, with the most free time?

Finally, if the “big army” tried to implement this, it would fail like any other terrible reporting system the army currently has.

I disagree with you on two counts. Firstly on your suggested means of improving efficiency. But more importantly I disagree with your premise that the Army should become more efficient.

Firstly on improving efficiency. You suggest the army should hire efficiency experts and give an example of someone doing time and motion studies at Starbucks. I think this method of improving efficiency is outdated: it is early twentieth century Ford, rather than late twentieth century Toyota. Which is mildly ironic, since you later cite Toyota as an example to follow. The problem with time and motion studies is twofold: they tend to reduce quality in the drive to increase efficiency and they also tend to demoralize employees, since they become reduced to cogs in a machine. (Neither results are desirable for the army.) In contrast Toyota improved its efficiency in a different manner: by focusing on quality and using employee suggestions to improve the manufacturing process. The focus on quality lead to other improvements: fewer mistakes, less rework required, less waste and so on. These improvements in turn resulted in increased efficiency. But the important thing to note is that efficiency was mainly increased as a by product of a drive to improve quality, not as an end goal in itself. The second point is also important: in any organisation the employees know what is inefficient and does not work – they don’t need an “efficiency expert” to tell them. If you want to improve efficiency in the army, don’t get in efficiency experts – just ask the grunts and they’ll tell you a million ways to improve things.

But the second point is more important. I argue that efficiency should not be a goal of the army at all. There are two points here. Firstly efficiency is not an end-goal in itself, rather it is a means of reducing costs. If you want to reduce the cost of the army, then look at cost reductions directly (and there are plenty of ways to do this). Secondly efficiency gains come at the cost of a reduction in effectiveness and reliability. I’ll give some examples to illustrate this.

Consider Formula One racing cars. No one worries about their efficiency. If you want to win races, what is important are things like power, weight and aerodynamics, not miles per gallon.

Or consider airports. Heathrow is one of the most efficient airports in the world. It’s runway utilisation is something like 97%. But it is also a terrible airport to fly from. High runway utilisation means that flights in often have to wait in a stack for a landing slot. Flights out often queue on the runways. Often you are allocated a gate miles from anywhere. And the high utilisation effects reliability. Bad weather or a runway blockage effects not just a few flights – rather it cascades and escalates and can cause delays to many flights, since there is no slack or redundancy in the system.

Now consider the army. I’ve heard that it takes 10 support soldiers to support every soldier on the front line. Suppose an efficiency expert reduced that to 9 soldiers. I’ll wager that that supply line is less reliable and more susceptible to disruption by enemy action or bad weather. Is that what you want? I’ll further hypothesise a pathological example: suppose the army decided to adopt the Toyota manufacturing system and improve efficiency by having just in time delivery of ammunition to the front line. Now I don’t think even the army is stupid enough to do that, but I can imagine it adopting efficiency measures that reduces soldiers combat effectiveness and safety.

The important question is not “How efficient is the army?” it is “How effective is the army?”

First issue: the idea that grunts know how to improve things should be embraced. Except, that it isn’t embraced. Which means the Army in a larger sense doesn’t have a culture of improvement. It has a stale culture of doing things the way they have always been done. Call it a “drive for effectiveness” or a “drive for efficiency” or a “drive for quality”, but if grunts know how to improve the Army and the Army doesn’t embrace that, well that’s a problem.

But your argument against efficiency doesn’t hold any water at all. If efficiency is using the least amount of resources for the greatest possible effect (resources being time, money, manpower and equipment), then how does that not directly relate to effectiveness? And your arguments don’t discount efficiency at all.

Let’s take ammunition. You state that reliability is the key, make sure the troops have enough. So that’s an easy problem to solve, give every soldier 10,000 rounds to carry around. Do this before they deploy. Now there will never be a shortage of ammunition. Of course, that’s over kill. So we need to decrease the amount of ammunition we store around the battlefield, because we can’t just store gobs and gobs of ammunition without it affecting the mission. The point is we need to find a balance weighing reliability with efficiency. Right now, we don’t even think about that.

And the argument against support personnel is even worse. I believe the single biggest factor for the U.S. losing two wars in the last decade is not having enough combat troops to provide security and conduct offensive operations. So if you could tell me that of the 9 support troops supporting one combat troop that one is completely lazy, another four do the work two soldiers could do, and the other five are okay, well I would replace those nine with 3 highly effective soldiers who do the work of 9. The private sector does this all the time. The Army doesn’t because it isn’t efficiently minded. Then we could take the extra six soldiers and make them combat soldiers. Bam! I just increased the number of combat troops sixfold. That would help the army become more effective.

Obviously, efficiency is one value among many the Army needs to weigh. But to say to “look at cost reductions directly” is saying to become more efficient (do more with less) with different words. Doing more with less is a good goal for the Army. Indeed, it should be one of its principal goals. So agree to disagree.

To answer some of your objections:

“If efficiency is using the least amount of resources for the greatest possible effect (resources being time, money, manpower and equipment), then how does that not directly relate to effectiveness?”
Because it does not address the issue of reliability. The army operates in hostile and unknown environments. It needs redundancy and spare capacity to deal with unexpected situation and when things go wrong. Redundancy and spare capacity are, by their very nature, inefficiencies.

“So if you could tell me that of the 9 support troops supporting one combat troop that one is completely lazy, another four do the work two soldiers could do, and the other five are okay, well I would replace those nine with 3 highly effective soldiers who do the work of 9.” And what happens when one of these 3 guys gets malaria, or something else puts him out of action? The combat soldier is now endangered by having only 66% support.

“The private sector does this all the time.” – Well, actually it doesn’t do it all the time. Airlines still employ pilots and co-pilots. The private sector recognises that sometimes redundancy is necessary for safety.

My argument is not against efficiency, it is agains pursuing efficiency as a goal in itself. If you do this, you will sacrifice things that are more important than efficiency.

“But to say to ‘look at cost reductions directly’ is saying to become more efficient (do more with less) with different words.” – No it’s not. It’s saying “do less with less”. It’s about stopping doing the things you shouldn’t be doing. It’s the private sector equivalent of closing parts of the business that are only there for historical reasons. So for example, close down all the army bases in Germany. (The cold war is over.) That’s not an efficiency improvement, it’s a direct cost reduction.

Well I think we are talking past each other. I don’t do point for point rebuttals anymore, because I think it is an annoying form of debate, but I will address some of your issues in future posts.

I agree that point for point rebuttals can be an annoying form of debate. But it is sometimes the most efficient way to counter an argument (joke).

Actually I think there is a great deal of overlap in our positions, and to a large extent we are arguing about definitions and emphasis.

When people talk about improving efficiency I tend to see red. Partly because I have observed that high performing individuals and teams tend to be inefficient – they use more resources (often far more resources) than required to achieve a result, but that result is of outstanding quality. And partly because I have, first hand, seen ill advised management attempts to improve efficiency turn excellence into mediocrity.

An excellent example of your point was in the Economist a few weeks back. Consumer stores that pay their employees very well (Trader Joes was a prominent example) tend to have higher per store revenue and profits than stores that do not. So hiring and keeping excellent workers, while a more expensive input, tends to be an effective/efficient use of resources.

I just think the Army/Pentagon/Military is way too big to not focus on efficiency. I get the Formula 1 example from above, but the military is the largest branch of government/largest employer in America. If it isn’t efficient, or even approaching it, we are losing money.

I guess when I think efficiency I think of the F-35/F-22. Could we have built those planes for have the cost? Or built planes for half the cost by 99% of the capability? Since right now neither plane really works, it is hard to call those “effective” uses of government funds, and its seems like a failure of efficiency, not effectiveness.