I was originally thinking of making this post about the Boeing 737 max problems, but I realized that many people are reading about things like this and don’t even realize that there is a problem. I remember an Air Force General many years ago make the statement “We wouldn’t be so angry with them if we thought that they understood why we were so angry with them”. It stuck in my mind as applying to a number of situations that I have seen in the past. I have listed several of my encounters with these situations below.
Different People, Different Reactions
Many of the stories below involve military officers or civilian employees of the military services. However, you will find similar situations in many other organizations, such as railroads, trucking, shipping, aviation, manufacturing, and construction. Either the people in charge are task-oriented or there will be delays, accidents, and injuries. The attitude may seem obsessive, but it’s the only way to keep your organization in business, prevent legal claims, and keep your employees healthy.
There are people who think that they can get away with not doing things the right way; that they can cut costs and speed things up without creating disasters. However, if they were really that good, they would realize the dangers and implications of their actions.
Many years ago, a co-worker showed me a copy of a proposal that he had been working on. I looked through the document and was shocked that in many parts of the proposal, information was missing and been replaced by TBD (to be developed) and TBR (to be reviewed). I told him that if the proposal was presented to the customer representative, the representative would pick up the heavy three-ring binder and throw it at them. His response was “Oh, you heard about the meeting. We still don’t know why he was so angry.” The reason that the representative had been so angry was that so many sections had been left blank and replaced by TBD and TBR that there was effectively no proposal to be reviewed. If I could tell that in ten seconds and they couldn’t work it out in a week, I felt that we needed a different proposal writing team. In another case, the customer had asked if we had sent a rough draft by mistake instead of the actual proposal. My gut feeling was that it was a similar situation.
On another project, the customer wanted to know why we felt that the hardware being proposed was fast enough. When we replied that we were buying the fastest unit the vendor had, he became very angry. When dealing with heavily compute-intensive operations such as weather prediction, simulated wind tunnels, optimization, etc., the feasibility depends on the efficiency of the proposed algorithms. With inefficient algorithms and techniques, even the world’s fastest supercomputers might be too slow for the task.
When a customer sends an RFP (request for proposal), he expects a response that will demonstrate the vendor’s understanding of the problem, the ability to satisfy the RFP and some rough ideas of cost and development time. If the proposal doesn’t satisfy these requirements, the customer will not accept it as a proposal, and the representative will view it as an insult and a waste of his time.
Some people will tell the people evaluating the proposals that the problems aren’t that bad, and that their response is unreasonable. I guarantee that that will just make them angrier.
A co-worker had previously been involved in manual writing for a military contract. When the customer representative saw the first draft, he was furious. He sat down and marked up several pages, showing locations where the manual was hard to understand and ambiguous, used bad word choices, or failed to clearly indicate the tools to be used and how they would be used. My co-worker realized that this would take weeks for the entire document and asked his manager how he should proceed. His manager told him to fix the things that were explicitly marked and ignore the rest of the document, following which he would go on to his other assigned tasks.
A few weeks later, the customer representative came back for another visit. When he saw how much of the document had been left untouched, he was furious. The intensity was such that the co-worker actually felt afraid. I asked him where his manager had been at the time, and he replied that his manager had been on vacation that week. I then asked him why he thought his manager had gone on vacation that week.
When the customer indicates that he wants to see changes made, he generally expects the whole document to be edited. Expecting him to be satisfied with a smaller amount of work will make the customer unhappy. After berating my co-worker, I suspect that the representative expressed his displeasure to the manager’s manager, who then had a talk with the co-worker’s manager when he returned from vacation.
With regard to writing instructions and manuals, being able to understand what you write is not enough. You have to make it clear enough for the person who is going to try to follow the manual. If the people using the manual can’t understand it, it is usually the fault of the writer, not the reader. The military takes manual writing very seriously. When you are dealing with explosives, weapons, large pieces of machinery, and other hazardous items, having people not understanding the manuals can result in very bad situations.
The Data Center
I was talking to a co-worker who had a friend who was a junior officer in the Air Force and who he felt had been treated very unfairly by the general. It turns out that the general was located on a base in the mid-west and had been talking to an old classmate in the Pentagon. The classmate then mentioned that he had just had a report that a data node on his base was no longer connected to the network. When the call ended,, he walked over to the building where the computer equipment was located. Being informed by someone in the Pentagon about a problem on his base before he hears it from the people on his base can make an officer very irritable. It turns out that the computer center had been below ground level and a flash flood had filled the ramp area leading down to the door with water. The power had been turned off to avoid electrical damage. The general found the junior officer in charge just standing there and demanded to know what was happening and when it would be fixed. The officer replied “I’m doing everything that can be done, sir”, after which the general demonstrated his usage of the English language. I don’t believe that “ripped up one side and down the other” really applied, but the general made his displeasure known.
I indicated that what the general had wanted to hear was something along the lines of “I will have the ramp emptied of water in ten minutes, all standing water in the data center mopped up within twenty minutes, and the power restored in half an hour. The data center will be operational and online in an hour. In the morning, I will send a memorandum to the base engineer asking that the area around the ramp be regraded to prevent this from happening again. Sir.” followed by a salute.
The co-worker was dismayed by such a logical answer, but responded by saying that there was no way to get all of the water out of the ramp area in ten minutes. I then asked him if this was a United States Air Force facility, and he agreed that it was. I informed him that all such facilities had large water pumps mounted on truck bodies for mobility as standard equipment, just waiting for such a problem. When he responded that he had been on a great many bases and never seen such a piece of equipment, I replied “You have never seen a fire engine?”
When a senior manager or customer representative wants a full report, he wants the person making the reports to follow the old rules for newspaper reporting: “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.” Not all of the information may be available at the time, but there should be enough to satisfy the other person that the situation is in hand. A senior officer also expects a junior officer to figure out what to do. It wouldn’t hurt for the junior officer to have a little list of options of who to contact.
- Fire Department — They are good for dealing with fires, floods, and a variety of different types of building damage.
- Medical Services — If somebody is bleeding, injured, non-responsive, or seems confused, this would be the logical source for assistance.
- Officer of the Day (OOD) — If you feel there is a threat to the base.
- Shore Patrol/Military Police — For the drunk who insists on singing at the top of his lungs at 0200.
- Non-commissioned Officer — The Sergeants and Petty Officers are good sources of information. Don’t worry about looking foolish. They have already formed that opinion.
Just be sure that you talk to somebody and get the problem resolved.
Management Bliss Through Ignorance
One of the sections that I worked for had an “all hands” meeting and the manager asked for questions from the audience. One of the attendees said that he had heard that our three biggest customers were “mad as hell” with us and wanted the director’s response. The director said that it was true but that we were good at smoothing over problems with our customers. That seemed rather doubtful as the customers were telling us that it “was becoming very difficult to have confidence in us” and talking about canceling contracts. When somebody with a military background talks about it being “difficult to have confidence”, that is a very high level of disapproval.
They had had an employee attitude survey which indicated that the employees had very little trust in management. The manager indicated that our section had only been two-thirds of the employees being polled. He said the problem must have been with the other group being polled because he hadn’t heard of any trust problems in his section.
The next few parts will cover some more situations, the personalities involved in these situations, what drives them, and what can make the people happy.