End the Zero-Defects Mentality

By Ensign Bethany Craft, U.S. Navy

Without initiative and risk there cannot be improvement. If no one tries anything new, no one will discover anything better, or formulate any new, more efficient methods, Yet far too many military personnel are apathetic, because the penalty for a failed attempt is just too great. The military is stagnating. As a lieutenant in the Coast Guard commented, "History is full of examples of armed forces that become complacent in following the letter of the law and getting their clocks cleaned in the next conflict."

General Charles Krulak has recognized this problem and illuminated it for the Marine Corps. As Commandant of the Marine Corps, he pointed out that mistakes are falsely being categorized as irresponsible behavior. Instead, he said, a mistake is made when in an attempt to do something right someone makes the wrong choice. "There are lessons to be learned from mistakes," he went on. "Good leaders create an environment where subordinates are allowed to make mistakes, yet are not put into situations for which they are unprepared or for which the scope of the mistake could be dangerous."

In a profession where one mistake can cost lives or cause global incidents, high standards are necessary. Some areas, such as drug abuse, require a zero-tolerance policy. When there is no room for error, there should be a clear indication of what is acceptable and what is intolerable. In non-vital circumstances, however, as General Krulak contends, "We must be allowed to err in peacetime to ensure we do not err in combat. We will not be able to survive if we do otherwise." A clear dividing line establishing what is not tolerable will allow room for those chances to be taken and for honest mistakes that are vital and necessary to improvement.

Ironically, the area of integrity is not treated as a zero-tolerance zone. Instead, the zero-defect mentality seems to foster an environment where military personnel compromise their integrity to keep from risking their careers. Army Chief of Staff General Dennis Reimer stated, "Telling the truth ends careers quicker than making stupid mistakes or getting caught doing something wrong. I have seen many good officers slide into ethical compromise."

In an example from the Navy, an officer reported misdeeds on board his ship. He was given an unsatisfactory fitness report and was even left behind when the ship went on deployment. As the investigating officer later stated, "This was a key officer on that ship and he went from being a department head to a point where the ship's captain left him behind on the pier because of a personality conflict."

Scenarios like this need to be eliminated. Voices of dissent need to be heard—and when people stand up for what is ethical, they need to be embraced and supported by the chain of command. But the voices of those low in the chain of command will be raised only when they feel confident that they will be supported all the way up the chain. And there is a widespread perception that this just is not happening.

Attempts to combat this mentality have been made recently at the U.S. Naval Academy. In the aftermath of the 1994 cheating scandal, it was determined that many midshipmen had a warped sense of loyalty. Teamwork is critical in the armed forces, but it is vital to understand that teamwork in itself is not the highest value. There will be situations, as well, where the greater good or the ethical answer does not revolve around the self. The Academy has stressed the hierarchy of priorities: ship, shipmate, self. These and other such fundamentals seem to have successfully caused a paradigm shift in the right direction. Perhaps a comparable effort can be made in the fleet.

The zero-defects syndrome we see today also existed in the 1970s, during the post-Vietnam cutback. Too many officers began demanding unblemished fitness reports and flawless operations. As one author noted, "The message to junior and mid-level officers was that you could be honest about shortcomings, or you could get ahead, but you couldn't do both. The result was an organization with plummeting morale that fell into the habit of lying to itself." The military has failed to learn from the past, and it faces the same problem again—only this time the problem has emerged on an even larger scale. There seems to be a consensus that the best and most qualified are not getting promoted. Instead, there is a hierarchical system of favoritism, one that rewards pretense rather than achievement. As one Marine officer noted, "Statistics show that more credit is given by selection boards for being a general's aide than for valorous service in combat." Morale is apparently suffering in all the services. There also is a sense that the officers who evade challenges and appease their superiors are the ones who got rewarded. Such sycophantic behavior may get them ahead, but it comes at the expense of their shipmates and the service.

In recent military literature there has been a wave of articles stating that increasing numbers of personnel do not wish to continue to serve, and that resignations have risen sharply. A Navy Times survey indicated that the greatest reason for this dissatisfaction among officers was a loss of confidence in leadership. A member of the naval aviation community—where the percentage of officers planning on leaving the service has been estimated as high as 95%—said, "[I've] seen too many good officers' careers ended, seen too many marginal officers promoted." The armed forces' problems will burgeon and intensify if there is a dearth of seasoned veterans to show the ropes to the greener members of the services.

To combat this problem there needs to be a reestablishment of trust among the ranks. The highest ranking officials need to ensure that they are not basing advancement and promotions on favoritism. In addition, there must be a system established that objectively evaluates personnel based upon performance and potential. General Krulak commented that, "There is a growing lack of faith of our Marines in the system's ability to accurately identify their skills and potential." One of the most glaring problem areas is fitness reporting.

Several years ago all personnel in the Navy were ordered to stop inflating fitness reports, in a misguided attempt to make them more meaningful. Inflation left little objective material for making comparisons among personnel, and one insignificant black mark in anyone's record could prove to be career ending. Unfortunately, a small percentage of commanding officers tried to grade the fitness reports objectively while most of the Navy did not. The result was that the commanding officers who followed orders and graded honestly inadvertently dimmed the career prospects of the officers they evaluated. The Navy did not account for these inconsistencies. The Army and Navy both recently overhauled their fitness report systems, but recent data show that the effort has not corrected the worst problems.

There are many approaches to removing this obstacle. Unfortunately, it seems that no one will step forward and implement solutions, for fear of falling victim to the flawed system they are trying to correct. This demonstrates clearly the corrosive effect of the zero-defects mentality. If it is to work its way down, reform must be embraced wholeheartedly from the top. At the same time, the top-down-only evaluation system needs to be eliminated, or at least overhauled. Favoritism must be eliminated and meritocracy must take its place.

Retired Army General Walt Ulmer, who wrote a report about zero defects in the 1970s, has argued for the inclusion of both peer and subordinate evaluations in performance reviews to help transform the top-down-only system into something better. This would ensure that actual performance is being evaluated, and would no longer allow personnel to hide behind a mask of competence that deceives their superiors. Another suggestion for amending the selection process was outlined by a Marine lieutenant colonel who called for a system that assigns numerical scores to a variety of categories, and then awards promotions to those with the highest scores. Such categories would include degree of difficulty of assignment, total service time, combat experience, deployments, decorations, awards, and advanced education.

Regardless of the technique used, once the revised promotion methods begin to ensure that the best-qualified people are being promoted, the reporting seniors could further restore the eroded trust in the chain of command—and faith in the system—by publishing the deciding factors that result in one person being selected for promotion over another. Then, all could see precisely where the distinctions are made, eliminating the speculation and cynicism generated by an unfair system. As an added bonus it would show others their shortcomings and where to seek improvements before the next promotion board.

A novel idea to attack the zero-defects mentality has been implemented by a major corporation. Each quarter, it gives an award to an employee who has tried something different, but failed. If only the armed forces could grasp this understanding of human nature, who knows what could be accomplished. With the zero-defects mentality banished, there would be no obstacle left to keep the U.S. military from accomplishing feats that would be as remarkable today as the first landing on the moon was in 1969.

The cuts made during the drawdown are not going to be restored. It is time for the military to stop hiding behind the excuse of downsizing and take action to combat actively the zero-defects mentality, which is causing the armed forces to rot from within. All branches of the military are losing too many of their best and brightest. All forces should embrace General Krulak's guideline, "I want it to be absolutely clear that, outside the areas of morality and ethics, [military personnel] can make mistakes as long as they learn from those mistakes and move on to accomplish their mission."

Ensign Craft is a native of North Kingtown, Rhode Island. She was a political science major at the Naval Academy, and will be a surface warfare officer.


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