Respect for People: US Army Edition

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strategy+business, the e-magazine from Booz, Allen & Hamilton, reports how the US Army is changing the way that it shares knowledge within such a massive organization. The new system is a powerful example of how respect for people and a focus on correcting systems can lead to huge improvements.

The Army's bureaucracy has been criticized over the years for impeding the transfer of essential knowledge quickly throughout the organization. To address that problem, the Army developed the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) network in 2006. This Web-based collaboration system allows new bottom-up concepts to be disseminated instantly to those who can benefit from them. In its first year of operation, the network shared more than 15,000 lessons from combat operations. Of these, more than 4,000 led directly to improvements in unit preparation and training for deployment.

The article explains how the deeply-rooted Army culture inhibited the adoption of CALL at first:

“As you might imagine, some Army leaders were initially reluctant to allow CALL analysts to post information about their own snafus because they didn't want such failures broadcast and didn't want to be penalized for errors. But analysts worked around these ingrained anxieties by assuming that if team X is having a particular difficulty, it likely reflects a systemic problem. The analysts will check around the network to see if others are experiencing a similar challenge. And when they get confirmation, they post the problem on CALL in a generic fashion, specifically describing the issues, mistakes, and lessons learned without identifying who, what, when, or where.”

And this is where we come to respect for people: the focus of CALL is not on identifying a person's mistakes or penalizing individuals for having problems. Rather, the assumption is that there's a “systemic problem” that needs to be addressed and fixed. In other words, there's no blame for doing something wrong.

Toyota, of course, approaches mistakes and defects on the production line in the same way. They're opportunities to learn, to solve problems, and to improve the system — not excuses to fire or punish someone.

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4 Comments
  1. Lester says

    Well, as I read this a few times it is not exactly that they don’t still blame people. If you have an issue, you cannot really pull the cord….. You have to wait until a couple of people pull the cord and then they may post your issue, which is not exactly the same as pulling the cord and respect for people. Though I admit it is a start.

  2. Mark Graban says

    Hospitals could use an exact same system and attitude adjustment.

    This could be used to share information across units in a hospital, across hospitals in a system, or across hospitals regardless of affiliation (in the name of safety and quality).

    Great stuff.

  3. J Thatcher says

    I guess this means I can’t be an “Army of One” anymore.
    I’ll have to settle for “Army strong!”

    That’s mostly a joke, but it is fairly interesting to note this tiny step in the right direction occurring alongside a shift in how the army presents itself in its marketing efforts – perhaps it reflects an overarching change.

    The section, not quoted, about using essentially socially generated knowledge to determine deployed troop policy slightly scares me.
    There’s a reason wikipedia is free and you have to pay for JSTOR, I’m not certain I want tactics and policy for the largest killing machine ever created in human history being run like a giant myspace blog. Expert knowledge has its place.

  4. Mike L says

    Sounds like the Army has found a really cool way to harness the knowledge and experience of their people. Learning from mistakes is just such a central part of Lean thinking.

    As I travel to my company’s various manufacturing locations, I am constantly exposed to a wide range of ideas for improvement. I’d like to share these ideas with the rest of our organization, but we don’t have a good information-sharing system for this yet. So far, we’ve experimented with blogs, message boards, and e-newsletters with varying degrees of success.

    Any suggestions?

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