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Managing Uncertainty and Complexity Part 5

We are continuing our series based on David H. Freedman’s book entitled Corps Business (Freedman, David H. Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines. New York: HarperBusiness, 2000. Print.) in which Freedman effectively correlates the management principles that have led to more than 200 years of life-and-death success in the U.S. Marine Corps to the business world.

So far in this series, we have touched on a number of aspects that can help business enterprises and their supply chains to deal with the challenges of uncertainty and complexity in today’s economic climate.

 Decision Making in the USMC

The Marine Corps answer to the problem: encourage the people on the front lines, when pressed for time, to ignore the hierarchy and make decisions outside the loop. [p. 35]

Sometimes we forget that it is not enough to pass the data up the chain of command for decision-making. The data alone are often not enough to undergird sound decisions. The data are always a snapshot of a rapidly changing situation that is best comprehended by being “on the scene” and seeing what is happening.

In many ways,  if executives allow more latitude at lower levels in their organization. Intuition and “tribal knowledge” will help move an organization along toward success day after day.

The Marine Corps has a long tradition of distributing battlefield authority to its lowest-level management, embodied by corporals, sergeants, and lieutenants. That commitment to bottom-up thinking has evolved gradually and naturally over the Corps' existence, and for a simple reason: high-risk, high-speed, high-focus assaults tend to be unforgiving of bureaucratic or autocratic management styles. [p. 35]

Executives and managers frequently see high-risk as a reason for taking “battlefield authority” away from the lower ranks. However, in doing so, they seldom realize that they are also taking away from their organization the agility and focus.

Adding layers and steps to decision-making naturally reduces both the speed and accuracy of the response. Speed is reduced because of the inherent delays incurred in passing data up the chain of command and the decisions down the chain of command for execution.

But the accuracy is also reduced at the same time. In part the accuracy is reduced simply because of the delay—the situation when the decision is available for execution is no longer the same situation the troops on the frontlines faced when the data was sent up the chain of command for a decision. But accuracy is also reduced because the decision-makers do not have the benefit of all of the sensory input being experienced by the “boots on the ground.” Those making the decisions are removed from the sights, sounds and other intuitive inputs available to the front-line folks.

In my opinion, business executives and middle management ought to give serious consideration to taking steps similar to those that have led the USMC to success. Businesses are already paying for these resources, it makes little sense not to leverage all they can do for an enterprise.

Will every decision be flawless?


But every decision that executives make in such circumstances is not flawless either—if they are willing to admit it.

Management Structure

[T]here are typically eight full layers of management in between an infantry private and the colonel commanding his unit. That sounds like exactly the sort of stovepipe structure that businesses have been moving away from because of how slowly information and decisions filter up and down. But the Marines have made a critical modification in this structure that allows it to become far faster and more effective than any flattened or networked organizational structure: pushing as much decision-making authority down to lower levels as the situation demands. [pp. 36f]

Perhaps it makes little sense in your organization to try to reduce the layers of management—to flat your organizational structure—due to factors beyond your control. Nevertheless, you can follow the lead of the highly-successful Marine Corps and push decision-making down to lower levels in order to make your organization more agile and responsive. Then managers and executives can do what they should be doing: working hard at removing the obstacles to the success the “boots on the ground” are facing in achieving goals and objectives—especially if those obstacles are poorly considered or outdated policies and procedures (written or unwritten).

Principle #5: Organize according to the Rule of Three

The rule of three can be widely applied even outside of management structure. It dictates, for example, that a person should limit his or her attention to three tasks or goals. Applied to decision-making, it prescribes boiling a world of infinite possibilities down to three alternative courses of action. [p. 36]

As the Theory of Constraints points out in such a strong way: focus is everything. If a firm’s front-line managers are distracted by too many factors—or even too much data—it is not possible for them to sort out the good from the bad (or even the ugly) in many cases.

System thinking and awareness of that very small number of things—usually just two or three at any given time—that are actually keeping your company from making more money tomorrow than it is making today will help organize decision-making by the Rule of Three.

Principle #9: Hire through trial by fire

My experience in the business world tells me that the most successful organizations have built their success on good people. The people were not necessarily of the “cream of the crop” variety. They didn’t have or need degrees from Ivy League universities—or maybe any college, at all.

However, the people in key positions throughout these outstandingly successful organizations all seemed to have a natural ability to lead others and to gain the confidence and respect of others.

So, how do the Marines identify leaders?

There is no simple answer, they admit.

"[Leadership] has no exact definition," [Marine Corps Office Candidate School commander, Colonel John Lehockey] notes. "It's our job to recognize it." [p. 61]

"Experts and specialists are a dime a dozen," says [Colonel Lee], dismissing in one fell swoop a century of business management theory. "What the world needs is someone who can absorb an entire organization, understand people, and motivate them." [pp. 68f]

Now, there’s a tall order: “absorb an entire organization, understand the people, and motivate them.”

Until I mulled on that set of descriptors for a while, I couldn’t have pinpointed it. But I have to say that all of the truly outstanding leaders I’ve met in my more than 40 years in the business world are just such people.

They absorb an entire organization: They are system-thinkers at their core. They don’t diagnose problems and challenges in a piecemeal way. They are able to comprehend business enterprises and supply chains as functional “chains” that survive and thrive, not on the success of their individual components and functional silos, but on their ability to optimize the strength of the system as a whole.

They understand people: Leaders must understand what motivates people and, while fear may be a short-term motivator, it proves to be negative in the long-run. Truly effective leaders motivate the people around them by giving them opportunities to improve their own situations while helping others—their customers, their vendors, their co-workers—do the same.

They motive them: This is really the summation of the presence of the other two qualities. Leaders are able to sustain long-term motivation in their organizations because they understand both “the system” (even the organizations eco-system) and the individuals that make up the living and breathing components of “the system.”

Principle #10: Employ extreme training

Leaders also recognize that part of learning is failing, and learning is part of innovation. Managers and executives cannot support innovation if they cannot tolerate failure.

"You don't get people to be innovative by beating them over the head if they do something that doesn't work out," says [Colonel] Lee. [p. 70]

It seems to me that there is quite a lot that many business executives and managers could learn from the Corps’ approach to leadership—its identification, its development and its application of leadership to allow their organization to respond routinely with speed, agility and innovation.

We would like to hear your take on this matter, too. Please leave a comment here or feel free to contact us directly.

Tagged With: Supply Chain

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