Thursday, October 29, 2020

“Dollars Can't Buy Yesterday”

In war, time (speed) usually is critically important in determining success or failure:

“The difference between a good officer and a poor one is about ten seconds…”

Commodore Arleigh Burke, the second commander of the storied Little Beavers of Destroyer Squadron 23, first uttered those words shortly after taking command of the squadron in October 1943. He came to this conclusion after studying the Battle of Tassafaronga and validated it through his own observations of combat at sea. The same thinking that led to future Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Burke’s conclusion, echoes today in the words of current CNO Admiral John Richardson, who states in the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, “The margins of victory are razor thin – but decisive!”
Col. John Boyd put speed at the center of our thinking on the tactical and operational levels of war. It is an important factor at the strategic level as well, but things get a great deal more complicated there.


In 1940, Congress passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act which funded a massive increase in the size of the US Fleet. While testifying on behalf of the bill, CNO Adm. Harold Stark warned that “dollars can't buy yesterday.” He wanted the lawmakers to understand that it would take years for the new dollars to translate into new ships and crews; simply passing a law would not undo a decades of austerity budgets.

Stark was absolutely correct. War came to America before she had her two ocean navy. The US Navy would fight the critical naval battles of 1942 without the new ships Congress authorized in 1940.


The French army in 1940 faced the opposite problem. They had the material they needed: The Allies surpassed the Germans in tanks, planes and artillery. What they lacked was an effective doctrine for modern war and the requisite training to fight it.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
UCLA coach John Wooden 
The Fall of France shows that top to bottom organizational learning can be a decisive factor in war – fully as important as material factors. Yet this is immensely more difficult difficult to accomplish than simply buying equipment.


In 1917 Britain and France believed that they had learned the lessons of trench warfare. By the end of the Battles of the Somme and Verdun they had successfully combined overwhelming, accurate artillery fire with careful infantry attacks to seize ground from the Germans and then hold it in the face of the inevitable counter-attack. In 1917 they believed that they could put those lessons to work on a large scale and win the war.

Unfortunately, the German army was also a learning organization. By the the spring of 1917 they had developed new defensive tactics which largely negated those of the Allies. As a result, the Nivelle Offensives did nearly end the war – not with an Allied victory but with a near-collapse of the French armies.

Learning from from your enemy is a devilishly difficult task as the British experience shows.

A committee of British generals attempted to adapt the German defensive tactics for British use, but the resulting instructions denied junior commanders any choice about where to defend or when to counterattack. Although the British defenses were laid out in a manner similar to those of the Germans, they failed due to the absence of local initiative and counter attack, coupled with the British determination to defend hard-won ground even when the ground placed them on forward, rather than reverse slopes.

Jonathan M. House, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century
(This calls to mind GM's experience with NUMMI. The venture proved that American workers and managers could apply Japanese automotive methods successfully on US soil. The venture failed, however, to be a catalyst for the revitalization of the whole of GM. The executives could not, or would not, take advantage of the insights from NUMMI.)

Jeffrey Liker, author of “The Toyota Way,” (McGraw-Hill, 2003), says that GM couldn’t figure out how to absorb company-wide the positive cultural lessons it was learning in Freemont.

“I remember one of the GM managers was ordered from a very senior level, a vice-president, to make a GM plant look like NUMMI,” says Liker in the radio story. “He said, ‘I want you to go there with cameras, and take a picture of every square inch, and whatever you take a picture of, I want it to look like that in our plant. There should be no excuse for why we’re different than NUMMI, why our quality is lower, why our productivity isn’t as high, because you’re going to copy everything you see.’ Immediately this guy knew that was crazy. We can’t copy and play motivation, we can’t copy good relationships between the union and management. That’s not something you can copy. You can’t take a photograph of it.”
In the Spring 1918 Offensives British soldiers paid a heavy price for their leaders failure (refusal?) to learn. To make matters worse, their German opponents had not stopped learning.

What is interesting in the preparations for the spring 1918 offensive was the ability of the German army, having only in fall 1917 established the new offensive doctrine, to implement training on a consistent and coherent basis throughout those attack divisions that would launch the coming attacks. This was done with a massive, intensive, and thorough program that schooled divisional officers and then worked up the attack divisions for the great western offensive.

Williamson Murray, German Military Effectiveness (1992)
The result was another disaster which once again brought the Allies to the brink of defeat.



Why Organizational Change is Hard I

Why Organizational Change is Hard II
If the German Army excelled in organizational learning (at least at the level of tactics and operations), the same cannot be said of their brethren in the Luftwaffe. In the Battle of Britain they were completely outclassed by Britain in doctrine, intelligence, and the “wizard war.”

Victory in the Battle of Britain, -- and Dowding;s claim to be one of the few great captains of the twentieth century -- resulted from the fact that he built an effective air defense system that altered the entire context of within which air forces operated. What is crucial in this example, as Beyerchin suggests, is that while Germans may have possessed better equipment and even tactics, the British operated in a broader framework of contextual change. By doing so they created a new logic within which the Luftwaffe was incapable of winning.

Williamson Murray, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period
What is interesting here is that the Germans still excelled in the technical and tactical spheres of the air war. In France, as part of a combined arms campaign, that had been enough to seal a rapid and decisive victory. When the strategic context changed – the Luftwaffe was now tasked with winning air supremecy over distant island-- they needed something more.

Thinking through (or rather among) the implications of fundamental change requires an interaction of practical and philosophic bents of mind.

A. Beyerchin, “From Radio to Radar”
In Hermann Goering's thoroughly Nazified Luftwaffe, few senior officers possessed minds with a philosophical bent. Britain, fortunately, found just enough such men and found them when it really mattered (1934-1939).


Understanding innovation  

The forgotten man who saved the world
Sometimes fate is fickle and speed is not rewarded. I've discussed how Britain's army modernization left them critically vulnerable in Malaya and Burma in 1942. Something similar happened with carrier aviation in the Royal navy. In 1936, as part of her military build-up, Britain authorized the building of a new class of aircraft carriers. These ships were woefully outdated by the time they were launched during World War Two. This was not the fault of the designers or of the politicians who approved their creation. What neither group could know was that Japan and the United States would radically advance the state of the art in carrier operations and naval aviation in the years the ships were under construction.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Innovation and the "cult of the imperfect"

Robert Watson Watt was one of the "boffins" who did so much to help Britain win the Second World War. He was instrumental in the development of radar and radio direction finding.

He was, he admitted in his memoirs, part of the "cult of the imperfect."

Give them the third best to go with. the second best comes too late, the best never arrives.
Germany was defeated, in large part, by good enough/now/in large numbers.

Her leaders had chosen to follow a different path during the critical years.

One reason for this [Kursk] and subsequent German defeats was the small number of German tanks produced. Hitler and his assistants were fascinated with technological improvements and frequently stopped production to apply the latest design changes to existing tanks. Further, most German planners prized high quality and were suspicious of mass production techniques. Such problems, coupled with shortages of raw materials, meant that Germany could not compete with its foes in sheer numbers of tanks produced.

Jonathan House 

But technological superiority by itself has never guaranteed success. The Germans had technologically inferior tanks and artillery in 1940; nevertheless, they won one of the greatest operational victories in the history of the twentieth century. In the 19441945 campaigns, the Germans possessed by far and away the most sophisticated fighter aircraft, the most sophisticated heavy tank, the most sophisticated medium tank, the most sophisticated submarine, and the best machine gun. And they went down to catastrophic defeat.

Williamson Murray 
Two style of innovation opposed each other during the war. On the German side you see perfectionism inside a closed system with top-down direction. The western allies operated a much more open system, with room for bottom up experimentation and a willingness to accept good/now beats better later.

We know which one worked.

Oddly enough, the German officer corps under stood. The American General Albert Wedemeyer attended the Kriegsakademie in the late 1930s. As part of his report to the army he noted "“The Germans point out, that often a Commander must make an important decision after only a few minutes deliberation and emphasize, that a fair decision given in time for aggressive execution is much better than one wholly right but too late.”

This is an interesting video that defends/explains the very imperfect Sherman tank.


Understanding innovation

Patrick Blackett and the innovation trap

Strategic problems and the problem with strategy

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

What happened to GE?

The fall of GE seems an under-reported story. One of the great corporations in US history -- a one-time perennial on the Most Admired Companies" lists -- is now only a shell of its former self. Even more interesting is that the vaunted "GE Way" of Jack Welch is relegated to the limbo that is the fate of all management fads.

Not that it is necessarily undeserved:

The collapse of previous leadership certainties is clearly demonstrated by the fate of the post-Jack-Welch generation at the famous leadership academy that was GE. As INSEAD’s Yves Doz pointed out, neither of the two unsuccessful candidates for Jack Welch’s job was a success elsewhere. By imposing the GE playbook on it, Jim McNerney ‘nearly killed’ 3M. The tenure of Robert Nardelli at Home Depot was similarly undistinguished. As for GE, the conglomerate last year did the unthinkable by appointing its first leader from outside the company. The common error, said Doz, was an ‘over-structured’ approach to leadership, over-reliant on GE’s well-grooved processes and systems. [source]
In Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann chronicle the unraveling of GE under Jeffrey Immelt and the travails of his successor, John Flannery. It is a journalistic account: it has plenty of interesting stories but is lacking in analytical rigour. Bob Woodward rather than Peter Drucker.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

When fine lines make all the difference

Came across an interesting quote by conductor George Szell:

The borderline is very thin between clarity and coolness, self-discipline and severity. He was discussing orchestras and conductors but his observation seems to apply to personality and social interactions.
Is that line defined by the balance of empathy and ego?

There is a performative element to those personalities which we describe as “cold” or “severe”. People are not usually labeled “judgmental” unless they make a habit of pronouncing judgments on those around them.

Love of what is fine should not make one finicky.
Jacques Barzun 
Those we describe as “severe” are not the only people who have high standards. But in this case, we know of their standards because they are quite good at pointing out who falls short of them and in what way they fail to measure up.

Maybe there is an agenda at work.

From the Apostles [Lytton Strachey] grasped the principles of group power: The ability not merely to exclude but to be seen to exclude. He perfected the art of inapproachability and rejection.
Paul Johnson 
Agatha Christie's spinster-sleuth Miss Jane Marple sees the world with as much clarity as any cynical hard-boiled private eye. We don't call her cold or judgmental because she is reticent with her opinions. Even when she unmasks a killer, she eschews histrionic denunciations. Never an apologist for murder, she also never loses sight of the fellow-sinner who committed the crime.

Hercule Poirot strikes the same balance. He has no problem confessing that “I have a bourgeois attitude to murder: I disapprove of it.”. Yet he also understands that “The world is full of good' people who do 'bad' things.” In her detective stories, Agatha Christie shares Solzhenitsyn's conviction that “the line separating good from evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either-but right through every human heart-and through all human hearts.”

(This would seem to put her at odds with the writers of Scandi-thrillers and Nordic noirs. But that is for another time.)

The more one gets into the habit of thinking of evil as a byproduct of social or economic circumstances, or as an anomaly in the neural architecture of the brain, the harder it becomes for one to take it seriously as a permanent element of the soul, one's own included.

The first principle of goodness, it would seem, is to accord evil a healthy respect.

Michael Knox Beran

Virginia Woolf: Nietzsche on the fainting couch

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Thursday, October 01, 2020

When do disasters become catastrophes?

A good point here:

From a room called fear to a room called hope: A leadership agenda for troubled times

Disasters such as earthquakes, storms, pandemics, and financial meltdowns will always be with us and will always harm people and create economic hardship. As sociologist Lowell Juilliard Carr wrote in 1932, “the collapse of the cultural protections” that sometimes follow is what constitutes a catastrophe. The ability to bounce back and move forward evaporates when people freeze up and freak out—and when they lose trust and faith in one another, in leaders, and in rules, laws, and informal social agreements.
This is an important subject, yet we rarely discuss it.

Part of the reason is that any such discussion can easily look like victim-blaming. We become willfully blind and deliberately tongue-tied for fear of appearing callous and uncaring.

(The Randian objectivists don't help matters here. They are more than willing to blame the victims. They do so gleefully because it fits nicely into the deracinated narratives of their morality plays.)

Another reason that we ignore this vital subject is that the people who are most likely to discuss it are professionals. They are experts at disaster preparation and response. We should not be surprised that they ignore and downplay the vital role that volunteers and amateurs can play.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!
Upton Sinclair 
In the gravest extreme – when the disaster is so massive that a community teeters on the brink of catastrophe – a phalanx of Apollos will not save the day. What is crucial are bands of “amateurs” led by public-spirited mini-Zeuses.

For more on Zeus/Apollo see here.

Professionals are all too frequently infected by the “hive mind” virus. They do no see communities as vital organisms that can help themselves. Instead, they see a mass of witless, emotional individuals who need enlightened rulers to control and help them.


The continuing appeal of the hive mind

The Hive mind revisited

Strategic plan or bureaucratic exercise

It has become de rigueur for corporate strategic plans to include a list of “mission-critical” initiatives that promise to transform the business, “disrupt” their industry, and drive “world-class performance” through innovation.

Almost none of these “critical initiatives” ever really come to fruition.

I think this helps explain why:

Stars Come Out in a Crisis; Don’t Let Them Fade

Naturally, great performers are who you want when launching any business-critical assignment. Yet, how many frustrated managers have identified a rock star to lead a critical strategic initiative only to struggle to break them free from the less essential role they already occupy?

One common workaround is to position the new role as a great “step up” opportunity that should only require 10% of the star’s time. Excited about the work and committed to getting results, the star and his or her team make great progress at first. But as time passes, progress slows, and energy and focus start to wane. Employees, piled with work, struggle to keep up and even burn out.

What happened?

Every company has to simultaneously run its business and change its business. But when it comes to human capital, those “change the business” growth projects more often than not are denied the resources they need. Ten percent of the time of a star employee who already has an important “run the business” job is not going to cut it. When push comes to shove, “running the business” always feels more urgent. No surprise then that these “change the business” efforts rarely do.