MAJOR MALFUNCTION, PART THREE
An infantryman fires a Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle system, Sept. 13, 2019, during a qualification range at Fort Carson, Colorado. 
July 6, 2020
PERSONNEL TURNOVER AND SYSTEMS THAT DON’T WORK
This “Major Malfunction” piece is comprised of several parts. It’s main purpose is to take another look at the problem of training management and organizational effectiveness in the Army. I’ll examine the issue from multiple perspectives—from statistical analysis, anecdotal story-telling, personal observations, and existing academic publications. Let me qualify all of this by very clearly acknowledging the limitations of my perspective and experience. This is simply what I’ve observed through my humble lens and I have enough intellectual humility to know there’s a lot that’s beyond my understanding and areas where I’m just plain wrong. I’ve worked with and for leaders that fall on every part of the spectrum and this isn’t an attack on a particular echelon or rank. Dealing with a problem with such a large scope requires starting and maintaining the dialogue at every level for multi-echelon and interdisciplinary input, actionable change, and comprehensive feedback. It’s not something that is going to go away anytime soon. So please keep that in mind before you fire for effect! Thanks for visiting–I hope you’ll stick around for its entirety!
THE LONG-RANGE PLANNING PARADOX
I completely understand and agree with the idea that we must plan. It’s the responsible, logical thing to do, and choosing to not plan at all is short-sighted and foolish. What more senior leaders have to understand is how incredibly frustrating it becomes for people to have their plans repeatedly rendered irrelevant with the injection of last-minute, newly minted priorities, orders, missions, and taskings. This is what I’ve learned: long-range planning is largely futile. It’s an unfortunate truth. A plan provides a commonly understood frame of reference from which to adjust: Yes. Planning in itself is training: Yes. But in terms of the act of long-range planning resulting in a feasible, executable plan that actually comes to fruition: No.
A few potential explanations for this persistent problem:
- Executive leaders’ efforts to optimize the organization and eliminate inefficiencies are never completely implemented. The FORSCOM EXORD draft I saw (Referenced in Part Two) was either never published or never disseminated down to my level, or both. I never heard anything else about it. The former SECARMY’s (Dr. Mark T. Esper, God bless him) “Prioritizing Readiness and Lethality” directives are another example. The intent of the directives was to reduce requirements so commanders at all levels could focus on readiness. I went through every single one of the 18 directives and recorded all of the changes to training requirements that applied to my unit. When I compared this to subordinate training guidance at the corps, brigade, and battalion levels, they all contradicted one another. It was complicated and confusing enough that I had to create a matrix to visualize it all. It was very apparent that either the guidance had been discounted or the guidance had not been received at all. Delegating authority to the two-star level has just resulted in contradictory publications from different headquarters at different echelons that are either not aware that specific training is no longer a requirement or are choosing to just re-institute the requirement at their own level. This speaks to our risk averse culture, which I’m not even going to get into right now.
- Army leadership positions typically last somewhere between 12 and 24 months. This inherently incentivizes people to place emphasis *exclusively* on short-term metrics of success. Short term metrics like MEDPROS data, 350-1 training statistics, and METL training proficiency ratings are a few of the only real organizationally accepted measures of success. These absolutely should be considered, and are hugely critical to the success of a unit. I’m not disputing this. But there are some important pieces we are neglecting for a more comprehensive assessment of our organization. Retention, behavioral health issues, suicide, long-term chronic health issues, and job satisfaction, to name a few. We make attempts to understand some of these problems, but they typically seem to manifest themselves in superficial, oversimplified quantitative data that doesn’t necessarily address the real issues. But I don’t think it’s because there are a bunch of careless, heartless, selfish people in the Army. There is simply not enough leader longevity in any position to truly monitor the long-term health of the organization. “Well I have nine months left until I PCS, so I just need to survive until then.” Does that sound familiar? I’d be willing to bet if a company commander or battalion commander or brigade commander had to sustain their position for five or ten years, they’d probably consider doing things differently. But since we are all on a fairly condensed timeline (12-24 months), we often develop a short-timer mentality. We tell ourselves things like: “sprint to end,” “just do it,” “I’m almost done, I just need to make it a couple more months.” This mindset literally perpetuates this meat grinder. By the time a leader has “done their time,” he’s exhausted in every way possible and likely goes to fill a staff position to “take a knee.” Then an unsuspecting fresh leader is thrown in to feed the meat grinder and keep it churning at the same rate without losing any momentum. An aside–something we tend to forget: leaders may switch out every 12-24 months, but soldiers are in the unit for much longer and the OPTEMPO takes its toll. “Lying to Ourselves” recommends that “Policies and directives from every level of headquarters should be analyzed in regard to their impact on the cumulative load on the force.” A problem is that no one is around long enough in their leadership position to really do the analysis and ensure that the results of the analysis are presented to the right audience who can make the right decisions and ensure the decisions are actually enforced. It’s undeniable: We all see a lot of partially completed documents, products, and initiatives that just die after someone transitions out of a position.
- We just can’t say no. “Lying to Ourselves” talks about practicing restraint. This is difficult when institutional structures are set up in such a way to condition us to say yes. There is real value in “making things happen” and “finding a way to yes,” no doubt. But it can also become problematic. Part of this is a result of the physical disconnect between leaders and soldiers. The people writing the checks aren’t the same ones who are cashing them. It’s much easier to say yes when you aren’t the one who is physically going to be doing the thing you’re agreeing to sign your unit up for. This is no one’s fault, and there’s no malevolent intent here. It’s just the way it is. If you’re a brigade commander, it’s incredibly difficult for you to extract an accurate, comprehensive visualization of reality at the lowest level. Senior leaders depend on subordinate leaders to communicate this to them, and right now our organizational culture encourages the dilution of that message and consequently distorts that visualization. Similarly, subordinate leaders often lack a strategic perspective and we fail to understand “the big picture.” And collectively, what we ultimately have on our hands is a failure to communicate. No communication = no understanding = things will be as they have always been.
- Technological advances that *should* make our jobs easier have created added complexity, inefficiencies, and additional requirements. Digital/computerized systems can absolutely be beneficial. They are a method of creating order amidst chaos that simultaneously facilitates (in theory) senior leader visibility down to the soldier level. Unfortunately, these are also machines to which we can easily become enslaved. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “If the system says you didn’t do the training, then you didn’t do the training,” or “You need to take credit in DTMS for everything your unit is actually doing.” We desperately need easily managed, user-friendly, intuitive digital systems of record that communicate with one another. Everyone knows there are serious issues with systems like DTMS and GCSS-A. They have very real flaws and inefficiencies that cause incredibly frustrating challenges at the user level. As a leader continues to move on to positions of increased responsibility, she becomes more insulated from the realities of these cumbersome systems. She’ll still require her subordinate echelon leaders to use these systems and provide her with the data these systems are supposed to produce. Because, well, her boss is asking for the same information. And so the cycle continues. The cumulative opportunity cost of trying to force ourselves to use these systems is significant. And when the collective Army answer is often, “figure it out,” or “make it happen,” it breeds resentment and distrust and perpetuates the perception that there is no real interest in acknowledging we have a problem, understanding it, or solving it.
We are an organization plagued by constant (and unnecessary) volatility.
I may not have clear solutions to this problem, but I will tell you what is NOT the solution: Creating additional agencies, working groups, tiger teams, virtual tracking systems, online training, or stand-down days. And these are all things that would very likely be a rational senior leader’s response to these problems. But these all treat symptoms and are inevitably short-term solutions for deeply entrenched organizational dysfunction. But…they are good OER bullets, that’s for sure! Ok, in all seriousness, I think the reason we (Army leaders) gravitate to those type of knee jerk reaction / short-term solutions is because we want to feel like we did something to contribute to solving the problem. But the bottom line is, reactions like that often have the opposite of the intended effect and can even be counterproductive. So…not only are we not solving the problem, but we are often making it worse.
Something I came across recently that I vividly remember reading years ago is James Q. Wilson’s “Bureaucracy,” which discusses the behavior of bureaucratic organizations:
“Regulation writers find it much easier to address safety hazards than health hazards. The former are technically easier to find, describe, assess, and control than the latter. A worker falls from a platform. The cause is clear—no railing. The effect is clear—a broken arm. The cost is easily calculated—so many days in the hospital, so many days of lost wages, so much to build a railing. The directive is easy to write: ‘Install railings on platforms.’ But if a worker develops cancer fifteen years after starting work in a chemical plant, the cause of the cancer will be uncertain and controversial. The cost of the disease will be hard to calculate. The solution will be hard to specify.” 
Similar to what Wilson says, it’s very difficult—probably impossible—to extract any substantive causal link between the problem of volatility and the host of issues we’re facing with as an Army: mental health issues, training accidents, low job satisfaction, suicide, divorce, retention problems, alcoholism, caffeine dependency, and chronic sleep deprivation, to name a few.
Research including credible anecdotal and empirical data (“Lying to Ourselves,” RAND publication, and the undisclosed three-star level inquiry as cited in Part 2); senior leader statements (as cited in Part 1); and my own observations and the observations my colleagues have shared with me validate volatility as a legitimate concern that affects readiness in a very negative way.
But, it’s indisputably real.
Keep reading! Next is Part Four: The Struggle is Real, which validates the very real problem with both academic and humorous examples. Sometimes, you just have to laugh.
 An infantryman fires a Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle system, Sept. 13, 2019, during a qualification range at Fort Carson, Colorado. September 13, 2019. https://api.army.mil/e2/c/images/2019/10/21/568309/original.jpg
 Wilson, James Q. “Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It.” 1989.