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Are there lessons we could all learn from how the modern military copes with unexpected situations?
Andy Millar
1732 Posts
Question
Hi,

A couple of serious issues I was involved with this weekend made me think of this. One was in the engineering world to do with the day job, I was reviewing a very serious incident report (fortunately no fatalities but very close) involving a mixture of everyone trying to do the best they could, but perhaps over reliant on structured checklists which had completely missed an entire piece of equipment in a fairly unique situation. The other was a medical issue in the family, once again all the individual hospital staff were doing their best, but there was a bit of the process that just didn't cope with a particular situation.

Which made me think of something that's long been at the back of my mind: I've never worked in a military environment, but my impression of the modern military from the contacts I have had is that there is still a very structured hierarchy, chain of command, and focus on process, but equally it appears that somehow there is also the ability for small units to have the skills and freedom to evaluate and make their own decisions when challenging circumstances arise - exactly the key skills that were missing in the two examples above. 

So really two questions I'd really like to know other people's views on (particularly those who have worked across both the military and civilian worlds): firstly are my impressions above correct? And if so (or even if a bit wrong but on the right lines) are there lessons we can learn from how this works that we can apply to the management of engineering activities in the wider world - particularly in safety critical issues where we need structure but also need the ability to rapidly and effectively cope with new problems when they come up?   

Thanks,

Andy
28 Replies
Andy, yes being ex-military (>29 years) and now working in industry, there is much that can be learned from the disciplines, structured thinking, processes, risk management, teamwork, systems thinking, and planning processes within the military. Military management and leadership is not perfect, but I think those organisations that take on-board veterans greatly benefit. However, there does still seem to be a big misunderstanding and stigma against those moving from a military career into a civilian career and that many inherent skills and expertise servicemen have are not well articulated and accepted in industry (leadership; management; planning; resource exploitation; personal discipline; risk management and rapid adaptation; inter-personal skills; systems thinking; etc).

One area that I am aware that veterans have found it difficult to fit in is the NHS and its management approach, the ethos and culture.

Some approaches that would potentially be effective in many organisations are that of 'Commander's intent' - i.e. all understanding what the Boss's end point or outcome is required - the 'ends' - and 'mission command' - i.e providing the resources, guidance and initiative (the 'ways' and means') for local teams to deliver what is required within the bigger picture. However, this does need a clear understanding of 'the end' bigger picture requirement, understanding 'what my role is' in the outcome required, and a balanced centralised/de-centralised ('ways' and 'means') approach to trust people to use resources effectively and efficiently at a local contextual level, but within an overall policy, strategy, and service delivery framework. It would be anarchy if everyone was allowed to whatever, but, within a guiding more efficient NHS or organisational command structure, military approaches would probably help in many cases.

Other ingredients that need to be present is trust in, and, a competent leadership team, the ability and encouragement to innovate, take the initiative, benefit from success, a true teamwork ethic from cleaner to Cabinet minister/CEO, learn rapidly from failure, adopting and adapting best practice, to be held to account, managers to be leaders and have their staff on board, standardisation of data and IT, reward success and initiative, etc.

These times provide a great opportunity to share best practice between departments and the military and industry.
Well said Maurice. However I have an example that highlights something you missed from your post. I was involved in the investigation about what had gone wrong which is why I know the details.

There was an incident on a ship which resulted in loss of the 440V network, though the 6.6kV generators and switchboards remained powered, but of course the continued operation of the generators relies on the 440V system for auxiliary pumps, etc. so it can only continue for a very short time. There are Standard Operating Procedures which detail what to do under any conceivable circumstance - unfortunately loss of the LV but not the HV had not been conceived as possible and therefore there were no instructions, and the weather was pretty much a gale at the time and the ship was close to shore. The Chief Engineer and crew had to make up their SOPs as they went along and managed to keep power going and keep the ship safe through a combination of excellent training and a knowledge of the systems. It is in these two latter points that I think the military often come into their own, particularly nowadays when systems are getting more and more complex.

I have to add that I am not in, nor have I ever been in, the military, but I have worked with the military and seen many good things. However, like Maurice, I don't think they are perfect and in some areas they can definitely learn from industry so cross fertilisation would benefit all.

Alasdair
Alastair,

Sounds like a classic failure in the systems design thinking, less than rigorous risk management, perhaps an element of group think and not enough challenging within the team, a fundamental poor assumption that only one power ring system could never have a fault/failure (all systems fail), no power distribution redundancy, or a single point of failure, a weakness in the Fault Tree Analysis methodology, and perhaps some limited 'thinking the unthinkable'.

Could have been overcome, or minimised at least, with some robust, or better, Failure Mode, Effects & Criticality Analysis (FMECA) quantitative failure analysis. The FMECA involves creating a series of linkages between potential failures (Failure Modes), the impact on the mission (Effects) and the causes of the failure (Causes and Mechanisms) - some basic 'what if this fails or malfunctions' questioning of every element of a system hardware and software.

One could argue this lack of system fault analysis was why the Royal Navy Type 45 Destroyers had such an expensive and alongside period due to the well documented power/cooling/propulsion problem still being resolved. The more complex and too software reliant a design, the more vulnerable and likely to have failures and faults. Need to get back to the KISS (Keep It Simple and Safe) principle, especially to provide robust, basic failsafe, minimum functionality operating capability in high risk environments. 

Fortunately, in your scenario you had a chief engineer and technical team who could do proper engineering and fault circumvention. Unfortunately, as many organisations down-skill and rely more on out-sourcing of key engineering and technical skills, and greater reliance on HUMS and automated fault analysis and reporting systems, the basic engineering skills needed in these critical scenarios are rapidly fading and being lost with the retirement of the older workforce. Time for re-introduction second and third line engineering and maintenance skills, especially when operating in remote and isolated scenarios where it is impossible or difficult to bring in SMEs, or rely on robust tele-maintence and remote technical support, etc.

Design and train in peace/normal mode as you need to operate in war/failure mode.
 
Andy Millar
1732 Posts
Hi,

I think Alasdair's example exactly encapsulates the situation I'm considering. Yes, we all do our best with our structured Hazops, FMECAs, FTAs, ETAs, bow ties etc etc (and they are all extremely good techniques which I happily train people in and recommend) but they will never capture every real world situation. So the challenge is how to make sure that the team on the ground precisely follow the requirements that flow out of these analyses for the 99% of the time that it makes sense for them to do so, without being so unquestioning of them that they can't still identify and adapt to scenarios that were simply never anticipated in the backroom analysis. With safety critical systems we can't afford mavericks, but equally we can't afford unquestioning reliance on the responsibility and competence of others.

Without wanting to stop discussion of any other ideas in this, I'm particularly interested in Maurice's comment about 'Commander's intent', can you explain more on this? Also (and I guess this is related) there must be situations where the squaddie realises (because they are on the ground) that the command advice seems to be wrong, how is that managed in the military these days? Are there lessons we can apply to create a culture where people really understand "follow these rules precisely, but equally you have the right to speak up the instant you think there's a problem"?

I'm very happy to discuss the issues of military people moving into the civilian world but please let's keep that for a separate thread...try and keep this one for moving ideas rather than people!

Thanks,

Andy
Hi Andy, I was thinking how best to describe 'Commander's Intent' then found this which is a reasonable explanation

"Commander’s Intent means explaining why something must be done when assigning a task to someone. The more your agent understands the purpose behind what must be done, the better he/she will do it. By being clear about the purpose behind a plan, others can act toward that goal without the need of constant communication."

https://personalmba.com/commanders-intent/ 

It is also more than that, in terms of the wider context of achieving an outcome and setting follow on conditions that are required from the initial outcome/task.

So for instance, saying to a team leader 'I need you and your team to achieve X in two months using these resources' might seem to allow initiative and (mission command), but depending on how the result is achieved might end in a positive or negative follow on context. For instance, if a team leader achieves the task in two months, or less, with the resources provided, or more efficiently, but in the process damages the company reputation, has the best in the team leave, undermines another team's contributing part, or backs the company into a corner which doesn't allow further advantage beyond stage 1, then that is limited use of Commander's Intent in a 'tactical' bubble.

However, it would be better to provide the team leader with the bigger picture within which his task must succeed. So perhaps a better task would be "I need you and your team to build your team skills and cohesion in achieving X using these resources, as the first step of increasing customer satisfaction and retention, developing new business opportunities, increasing our reputation to attract new talent and being a lead as an ethical and responsible business'.

Such a bigger picture contextual briefing provides the 'tactical' intent of achieving the immediate task, but explains this task in the context of the 'operational level' intent of growing the business, within the overall strategic context of being a vanguard ethical/responsible operating company (a B Corporation perhaps). It also provides the answer to the military campaign planning question of those delivering the Commander's Intent at all levels - what is my part in the plan/strategy in achieving the Commander's Intent?

 
I think the example I gave more closely aligned with Andy's idea that we don't capture every real world situation rather than a failure in systems thinking. Even knowing what had happened it took us time to work out how a failure on an item of equipment only connected to the 6.6KV distribution caused the failure of the LV system but not the HV system. (I won't go into it here but if you want to discuss over a beer sometime it is quite interesting).

I think it is an interesting comment from Andy about people who "follow the rules precisely". I have seen this also where people have followed what appear to be sensible decisions but when viewed as part of the overall situation they should have done something else entirely. (The one I am thinking of here I am also willing to discuss over a second beer.... yet again a failure that nobody was able to predict and took a couple of days to identify).

I can follow Maurice's thoughts but I think that too much of this comes down to the personalities and politics of the workplace. The idea of providing the bigger picture is one that I would always want to follow, but too often I have seen managers who want to control what is going on beneath them and opt for the first scenario.
Roy Bowdler
827 Posts
A few thoughts from me.

For context;  
I served for 12 years as a Royal Engineer (Territorial). When I joined as a Sapper, I was a Technician working for CEGB (HV Transmission). By the time I left as a SNCO, I was a Head Office Training Manager which I would equate to SO2 (Major/Sqn Ldr). As an aside I had developed my qualifications from HNC & Certificate in Industrial Management to MSc (in HRD not engineering). My IET predecessor institution had also invited me to apply for fellowship. Much later in career I worked for the IET and led, for a time, efforts to develop Armed Forces special registration schemes. So, during my career, I worked at every level except the very highest on an “equal footing”, both civilian and military.

My military service was atypical, because after the first couple of years, I was part of a specialist military team, recruited explicitly for civilian expertise. So, in practice on the ground (or “in the field”) whoever had the best expertise in effect “led”. The usual military command structure applied, but only the overall task came from the “top down”. I haven’t read the book that Maurice referenced, but prima facie it seems to align, with the concept that leadership is about strategic goal setting and support to the front line (to simplify).

A very structured approach can certainly be an asset and there are times when it is essential (e.g. HV safety procedures, being under fire), however it can create stifle thinking and create dependency. Most military personnel with a high level of technical training are equipped to use initiative and judgement. However, many former service people without such skills have “fallen by the wayside” once the structure of military life disappears.

At the time when I was moving into a more “strategic” role (mid 90s) I was very influenced by my functional leader about empowerment and the sort of ideas being written about by Tsvold (in his earlier book) which I used as part of my MSc research.
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/job.473

Andy,

What you seem to be describing is “groupthink” or at least “confirmation bias”. I recall many years ago a fatal accident on an 11kv switchboard. Procedurally everything was fine, but there was a difference in understanding about the limit of the work, which was never teased out.  The responsible engineer was tried and acquitted, but a life was lost.

There is always a balance to be struck between “following orders” and “challenging”. Good order and discipline are very important in many activities, military and civilian. However, I suggest that wherever possible a broad consensus is built, if necessary, by deliberately encouraging those who might be deferential to speak up.  The “awkward squad“ also often have something useful to offer and can be productive if their energy is harnessed!     
 
Great contribution Roy.
Hello, 
in the eyes of every engineer in every field there must be a leader and it comes with years of experience (not everyone who has a degree can manage and lead). The experience in systems is very complicated today because the technology is advancing very fast. so what are we doing ? Patience, charisma, and work experience in my eyes lead to leadership (of course giving time to learn systems and the need to understand and apply with the help of technical literature, because there is no end to studies, as much as you learn there is still something to learn).
Andy Millar
1732 Posts
Hi Roy,
"Most military personnel with a high level of technical training are equipped to use initiative and judgement. "
And that's exactly the bit I'm interested in - how is that developed in a very hierarchical and structured organisation?
Also, I am thinking wider than just engineering, exactly the same thing must apply to combat troops these days?

Thanks,

Andy
John Beirne
32 Posts

Mission Command.  Letting the subordinate commander make decisions.  Delegating responsibility; however, not abdicating.  But some may not think this is the case!

Comander’s Intent.  A subordinate commander would have the same broad concept and understanding of where their left and right arcs are and what decisions they can make that they believe will lead to the end-state: the commander's desires.

After 37 years in the military I do not believe the military are excessively hierarchical it just appears that way, especially if you are dealing with those working for the DLO or Command.  Everybody is answerable to a boss!

Whatever group (Administration, Logistics, Engineering or Support), in the military we train, train, train.  However, accidents still happen, pieces of equipment gets lost.  Exactly the same everywhere else.  Yes we learn to adapt and or improvise, we communicate and listen, but sometimes we get it wrong.  There are also those who infer they did not get the message or do not speak up when they know something will not is wrong.  But it is very rare that someone goes to work to have a bad day, nevertheless sometimes it does happen and we learn by these mistakes.

Usually commanders rely on their NCOs to get the job done.  They are the ones with all the experience.  A good leader will listen to his NCO and then provide the direction, but it is still his team that gets the task completed.  There maybe occasions, out in the field, when a team is led by an NCO, they are perfectly capable of making the correct decision and looking after their troops, as long as he knows his commanders intent.

I have investigated a many incidents, one such incident was a bunch of NCO were asked to complete a task.  With the best endeavours they attempted the job in hand until an incident occurred. Luckily no-one was injured.  This was a simple everyday task and procedures were well documented.  What I took away from this incident was that even though they were all NCOs, no one took the lead.  Additionally, the individual who gave out the task, did not delegate a lead.  They all wanted to get the job completed.  If someone had stepped back to see what was happening, it could have reduced the potential for the incident occurring.  The root cause of the incident was a maintenance failure, unbeknown to the team.  Not having a leader was a contributory factor.

In the two case you describe, the incidents appear to be due to human error.

How many times had it happened before?  We should not be looking to blame, we should be looking for the root cause and how to prevent the incident from happening again: just culture and psychological safety.

John, I agree, a trained and innovative human leader in the loop is a great asset, but can also be a weakness when there are no chiefs, or there is no-one willing to step back, look at the bigger picture and stand up say - 'something isn't right here' and lead a way through the problem. Hierachy has strengths, but a also a weakness in suppressing leadership from below. Some of the best solutions and options to problems I had as an officer came from the JNCOs if they were given the space to overcome the natural military hierarchy and strictures, which are essential, but need to be released by the intelligent commander.  
Alex Barrett
744 Posts
I don't know about unexpected situations, but it took the military long enough to figure out that marching a line of men towards enemy machine guns was not a great idea.
OMS
728 Posts
Although, Alex, the objectives were largely met. It's an inescapable fact that if you want to take and hold ground, you need men on the ground - you can't do if from the air, or with artillery - unless you resort to NBC weapons. Air and artillery simply support those ground fuctions

Even during the Falklands unpleasantness, it involved chaps running up hill in the face of enemy fire, hoping that the support is keeping their heads down and not shooting at you.

Don't believe everything you may have read regarding "lions led by donkeys"

Regards

OMS
Roy Bowdler
827 Posts
Alex,

Your historical point is valid to some extent, in the same way that other historical “wrongs” have left a cultural legacy. My grandfather served on the Western Front and was embittered to return to a land, still run by and for the landed gentry. This was a common experience. The are many other examples of a legacy of bitterness, including slavery, racial, gender and class disadvantage, colonialism, imperialism etc.


Andy,

The question assumes that “The Modern Military” is a homogenous entity and perhaps it appears so, with uniforms, unit structure and rank hierarchy. I haven’t conducted a systematic study, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some others have, into cultural differences within the military.
Any UK analysis would realistically also need to consider, not just those in uniform, but the interrelated civilian elements of MOD and private sector R&D/suppliers.

Arguably the primary skill of the military is operational, planning, logistics and clarity of communication being important.  MOD is an arm of the civil service. Technical innovation is carried out by the likes of QinetiQ, BAE systems, ETC.  The track record of defence procurement, isn’t particularly good. In the words of a former colleague “smart contractors run rings around MOD”. So, if there are any lessons to learn, they arguably don’t cast the military in a very favourable light.  

An advantage that the military has, in peacetime at least, is extensive opportunities to plan and rehearse. Meticulous planning and constant practice should always hone performance. Another significant advantage is the quality of technical training, especially benefitting the NCOs.

Until the early 1990s, similar establishments existed in many major industries (CEGB in my case), but these were mostly culled or greatly reduced, furthermore Technical Colleges lost out to Universities.


Therefore, the lesson is quality of training. In the case of officers, planning organisation and communication (strategic at the higher level) and for those at the “sharp end “, such as NCOs real understanding of immediately relevant technology.

PS I was of course bound to come to that conclusion as a former Company Training Manager and a CIPD Fellow! 😉 

PS (2) just saw OMS post, good points, my cousin was a Corporal in 2 Para during the Falklands War.      
 
Alex Barrett
744 Posts
OMS:
Although, Alex, the objectives were largely met. 

If the objective was losing a bucketload of soldiers. You can't eliminate risk from battle, but a line of soldiers walking towards a machine gun isn't even trying to reduce the risk. How men did it, god knows. My grandfather and three brothers returned from that madness, which in itself can't be too common.

OMS
728 Posts
Well, the mission statement wasn't to lose a bucketful of soldiers, it was to take ground, dominate that area, break the stalemate of attritional trench warfare (which was still killing a lot of men) and use that as the jumping off point for the next objective, until the enemy were subdued. It's why the army use the term "move through the position"

Sure it was all a bit grim if you were in the first wave - no different to D-Day,  but it got easier with each and every successive wave of men and material you can move up, and keep deploying. (See, for example the efforts of the red ball express strategy to keep supporting the advancing front line troops until the port of Antwerp was opened up). It's also why the south coast ports weren't designated to receive casualties from D-Day - it was one way, with the injured being moved into places like the Bristol Channel where they could be landed on the Somerset and South Wales coasts on big open beaches where ships could be beached, and the casualties disembarked to clearing hospitals (Swansea as one example, where new roads were constructed to expanded hospital capability)

Which probably brings us back on subject as to how the military devolve responsibility down to an almost individual level, but maintain control and oversight through the commanders intent 

Regards

OMS

 
Chris B-M
3 Posts
This thread got promoted on LinkedIn so I thought I’d make my first contribution on here and spotted Roy’s comment about the quality and extent of training!

There’s a lot of debate in certain circles about Safety-I (stopping things going wrong) and Safety-II (making sure things go right) which I think ties in with this.  Safety-II is promoted as being much better at dealing with uncertainty than Safety-I for the sorts of reasons I think have already been touched on, although it does depend on those doing the work having a much higher level of competence than just following a checklist or list of instructions so I wouldn’t like to say how much of it is down to the Safety-II approach in and of itself, and how much is down to the higher level of training required to implement a Safety-II approach within an organisation!

While I was only ever in the TA Signals, the training I received - largely under the wing of my Det Commander as far as my specialist role went - is a bit like how apprentices used to be trained in industry.  While it meant that the two of us could be relied on to do a job on our Radio Relay wagon having been given only a grid reference and a bunch of bearings and frequencies, it probably involved a lot more time and effort in (and presumably therefore money) in getting to that position than I reckon a lot of businesses would be happy spending these days...
Radio relay wagon: Four Square Bruin; Ptarmigan; or Bowman?

There is much to learn from the military, but also the military can learn from the commercial world on ensuring stuffs goes right, as well as minimising and having resilience plans and the training and eduction to adapt rapidly for the times when stuff goes wrong.
Chris B-M
3 Posts
Ptarmigan for me, although being TA the vehicles were of course hand-me-downs!

As regards the overall point about industry learning from the military, it’s definitely a case of “it depends” though.  Not so long ago I put someone’s nose seriously out of joint over on LinkedIn by posting a link to an article about all the negative things Deming reckoned industry had picked up from the military in response to them posting a link to an article from the Economist about all the good things industry could learn from the military!

YMMV...
Alex Barrett
744 Posts
On this subject the tale of Bravo Two Zero comes to mind - despite extensive training and checking, virtually nothing worked on the communications front. It could be held up as an example of what can go wrong in the field.
Andy, I'm ex-RN, BAE Systems and a few others and could help here if you want to have a chat.
Paul Strick
14 Posts
Hi Andy,

I’m exRAF and I work in the same type of department in the civil world.

As much as we prep for anything that could go wrong by writing procedures and check lists etc. I’ve noticed in the civil world, we don’t tend to practice them as much as we maybe should because we have other pressures in the civil world.

In the RAF we had a big support mechanism behind us and in my section we had about 15 guys plus 3 managers.  In my department now we have 4 engineers 1 supervisor and me as a manager and we don’t have the support in the background and a hell of a lot more work.

To have good emergency practices, they should be practiced and reviewed regularly. So you will know that they work and when it comes to doing it for real everyone is well rehearsed.
When the adrenaline  starts to flow, the brain doesn’t function as well and thats why it’s important to practice.

You can’t plan for everything .

hope that helps
Paul Strick
14 Posts
Hi Andy,

I’m exRAF and I work in the same type of department in the civil world.

As much as we prep for anything that could go wrong by writing procedures and check lists etc. I’ve noticed in the civil world, we don’t tend to practice them as much as we maybe should because we have other pressures in the civil world.

In the RAF we had a big support mechanism behind us and in my section we had about 15 guys plus 3 managers.  In my department now we have 4 engineers 1 supervisor and me as a manager and we don’t have the support in the background and a hell of a lot more work.

To have good emergency practices, they should be practiced and reviewed regularly. So you will know that they work and when it comes to doing it for real everyone is well rehearsed.
When the adrenaline  starts to flow, the brain doesn’t function as well and thats why it’s important to practice.

You can’t plan for everything .

hope that helps
Andy Millar
1732 Posts
It very interesting this idea that's come through a few of these posts about training, practising, rehearsing - and I assume adapting the response based on feedback (perhaps someone would like to comment on that)?

Very often, in fact most of the time, in the civilian world it's a case of producing a process, and if it works for 80% of cases then keep using it until something absolutely forces it to change. And don't practice (which I think is the point being made here) every scenario, which means you don't practice (or even identify) the 20% where the process doesn't quite work.

I think there must also be something about personal responsibility as well - in the civilian world it's perfectly acceptable that if you've followed the process, and everything's gone wrong, then you can say "not my problem". And then, if it's five o'clock, go home. I assume that doesn't quite apply (to put it mildly) when you've got incoming!

I reckon there's a nice little presentation or two in this if anyone with a bit of suitable background wanted to take it up...

Thanks for all the comments,

Andy

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