Tag Archives: quality

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.

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.”
“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?


“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.