John Boyd, Lean Fighter Pilot Part I

By: Andy Wagner

The OODA Loop & You

I love examples of lean thinking that come from unexpected angles. Mike Gardner at the TPM Log recently brought up one of my favorite figures from the world of folks who embody lean without knowing it, the late US Air Force Colonel John R. Boyd.Boyd is most known for being the father of the F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft, butthe most likely connection to the lean world would be, as Mike points out, the similarity of his “OODA loop”, Observe-Orient-Decide-Act, to the Deming Cycle, Plan-Do-Check-Act:

Colonel Boyd believed the OODA Loop process could be successfully applied beyond military applications and used to benefit any business organization. Gadfly management gurus such as Tom Peters have thrown the OODA acronym onto Power Point slides and stated that “whoever has the fastest OODA Loops wins!” and “Ready. Fire. Aim!”

Mike raises some great questions regarding how the two similar cycles relate to on another:

I have some problems with that. To begin with, business is not the military and business competition is not the same as military competition. Concepts such as the Deming Cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Act encourage a bias for action, but emphasize taking the correct action rather than the fastest.

In a sense, PDCA is actually two consecutive OODA loops, compressed together.Plan encompasses the first “observe-orient” phases.Do represents an experimental “decide-act.”Check is the second “observe-orient”, taking into account the results of the experiment.Act reflects a second decision and consequent action. While the Deming Cycle lends itself to a process engineer experimenting and developing a change, it doesn’t fit the kind of decisions and reactions that line workers have to make on-the-fly while the line is moving.

Far from advocating, “Ready, fire, aim”, Boyd advocated simplifying decision making processes by removing waste from them.One concept, embraced by the US Marines in particular, is the idea of Commander’s Intent, essentially decentralization of decision-making.Rather than giving explicit, detailed orders, commander’s train their men in a standardized way, with a common philosophy, and give them orders in the form of what they intend to accomplish and why.It’s left to each subordinate to determine the specifics for their unique situation.

Think about an andon cord.A line worker observes his surroundings and his immediate problem, including the takt time remaining.He orients himself based on his training, his understanding of standard work and why the job is done in a certain way.He decides how to act—fix the problem himself or get help, and then he acts.He can pull the cord if he has to, but he can also fix the problem himself.

At the next opportunity, he begins another loop, this time, informed by the experience of the first decision during his “orient” phase.Perhaps he barely had time to fix the problem and he knows he’s running behind the takt time.If he sees the same thing again, he’ll know it’s time for a root-cause fix and pull the cord. Lean training methods and respect for people mean that each person on the line has the ability and authority to make their own decisions without being forced to involve a supervisor.This shortens the decision cycle and allows the whole facility to solve problems faster.

In Part Two of John Boyd, Lean Fighter Pilot, I’ll write about Matt May’s recent post at Elegant Solutions on the Art of Tension and how John Boyd accomplished the same type of systems engineering in the design of the F-16 fighter, one of the world’s most successful and capable combat aircraft. Click here for Part II.


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Andy Wagner works for a major aerospace company. Andy blogged here from 2007 to 2010.

3 Comments on "John Boyd, Lean Fighter Pilot Part I"

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  1. Panu Kinnari says:

    If you are interested in business applications of Boyds principles you might want to check our blog On Winning, where we try to understand him better.

  2. Andy Wagner says:

    Thanks Panu!
    I have it on my feedlist.

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