Find the Root Causes First

Rear Admiral Terry McKnight, U.S. Navy (Retired) and David Silverstein

Albert Einstein (among others) often is quoted as having said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I’d spend 55 minutes studying the problem.” A willingness to take prompt and decisive action is a valuable trait in a naval officer. It can also be a liability.

Ship operations are a complex business, especially at times of heightened alert, elevated operating tempo, and crowded shipping lanes. Understanding the essence of the problem the Navy is trying to solve may not be as easy as it seems. Acting too quickly can create the façade of a solution that can dampen the will, and the necessary curiosity, to dig deeper.

The Navy has invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the past two decades to train officers, sailors, and civilians in the same problem-solving techniques many of America’s most successful companies use. Businesses and organizations, both large and small, apply “lean” and “Six Sigma” techniques to pursue aggressively the true root cause of problems, problems often far more complex than they seem at first. The rigor these processes demand results in proper and sustainable solutions that stand the test of time.

The military’s application of such tools unfortunately has not achieved the same effectiveness it has in world-class civilian organizations such as Boeing, General Electric, or Amazon. At Boeing, for example, the principles of lean manufacturing are integrated into the design of everything. Line workers are empowered to solve problems, and larger problem-solving teams include people from every level of the company. In the Navy, investigative commissions made up of high-ranking officers look into problems; an entire commission can be organized without representation from the ranks of those who actually stand the watches that failed. These investigations are often as much about assigning blame as they are finding solutions, and the former can inhibit the latter severely.

If military leaders are willing to start worrying about how much sleep their soldiers and sailors get—a long overdue consideration—it might also be time for them to look at how to flatten the problem-solving hierarchy to take advantage of all the brainpower and perspectives available. Tradition—and traditional approaches—can result in a terrible waste of available intellect and resources.

A critical element of methodical problem solving is to take a step back and examine all the possibilities, asking, “What is the universe of potential causes of the problem?” This is contrary to the military hierarchy’s expectation that senior officers have the expertise to “know” what the problems are. It is also counter to the investigative techniques used in most military inquiries. Investigations typically begin by examining what happened, working backward to find the cause.

This approach is effective when doing detective work, whether trying to assign blame for an accident (often described as, “holding people accountable”) or finding a murderer. Such inquiries search for simple facts. But as composer Roger Sessions cautioned (paraphrasing Albert Einstein), “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

It is not clear if the Navy is examining the universe of possible causes or whether the service is content to hold people accountable and put an action plan in place. Possible contributing factors might include such things as:

·      An increase in shipping density. What does the data say?

·      The weather and perhaps the impact of climate change. Data on this exists, too.

·      The (young) age and limited experience of today’s sailors, and whether extra training can compensate.

·      The increase in information available to, and coming at, the watch team and officer of the deck.

·      The strain on commanding officers (COs) and their own sleep deficits. In several accidents, the CO was in his stateroom. Were they negligent, or did the pace of operations give them no choice but to get some sleep, relying more on their crews than they might have liked?

We don’t know how likely any part of this particular universe of possibilities is, because it is not clear the Navy has spent 55/60ths of their time studying the problem. For complex problems such as these, the universe of possibilities likely begins with hundreds of possible causes to explore. Then investigators must eliminate systematically—using data—the least likely causes, until they have identified the remaining handful of possibilities. These they must confirm with data and analysis. Only then can an organization begin to fix the core problem correctly.

Admiral McKnight was a surface warfare officer who commanded the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3). He is the author of Pirate Alley: Commanding Task Force 151 off Somalia , from the Naval Institute Press. David Silverstein is a former U.S. Navy submarine officer and founder and chief executive officer of Lean Methods Group, a firm that helps organizations solve their most challenging problems.



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