For the most part, I do not believe that the military should imitate business. The differences are too big, especially the risks: In wartime you risk lives, while in business you generally risk filing for bankruptcy. Hence the inclination in business to go for the 51 percent solution, which I think is generally too dangerous in military operations.
That said, there are some parallels that illuminate situations. For example, Alfred Sloan, in his autobiographical history My Years With General Motors, which I just finished, makes a sharp distinction between what General Motors did every day and what it sold. What it did was cut and bend metal. What it sold was not basic transportation (from the mid-1920s on, he said, that was the job of the used car market, and so not his business), but instead a form of more expensive transportation -- a new car that offered style, speed, and comfort. This is the departure point in strategy: Figuring out you who are.
One thing that struck me reading it is that Flint and Detroit in the 1910s were a lot like Silicon Valley in the 1980s, with Sloan hanging out on weekends with Walter Chrysler, Charles Nash, and the like.
Sloan placed an enormous emphasis on running the company with centralized policy and de-centralized execution. This strikes me as another way of saying "mission orders." It is a lot harder than it looks. Much of the book depicts how he went about implementing this. The line guys had genuine power, the staff guys only the power to make recommendations.
As part of that, he developed the sense of a corporate need for what military people call "doctrine." In explaining the structure he devised for General Motors, he writes, "The Operations committee was not a policy-making body but a forum for the discussion of policy or of need for policy. . . . In a large enterprise some means is necessary to bring about a common understanding." That's a good layman's explanation of doctrine, in a military sense.
Details also matter, and understanding your process. One of the biggest problems in the automobile industry is managing inventory, even now. It used to be that one of the slow points in moving inventory was waiting an average of three weeks for paint and varnish to dry and cure. It also took up a lot of real estate. Du Pont (a major investor in GM) invented a new lacquer process that allowed a car to be finished in one eight-hour shift.
Finally, the book reminds me of war in that it consists of long boring sections interrupted by points of brilliance.
Two WWII bonus facts: I didn't know that the tail fins of Cadillacs and other automobiles of the 1950s were directly inspired by the P-38. Nor did I know that the price of a GM-made .50 caliber machine gun fell from $689 on Dec. 7, 1941, to a low of $169 in the fall of 1944. (As production numbers were cut after that, the price rose $5.) So I guess that the better we were doing, the cheaper the .50 cal usually was.
We hear a lot about toxic leaders these days, and especially how bad they are for military units, so I was surprised when I picked up Water Isasacson's terrific biography of Steve Jobs of Apple/Pixar fame to see that Jobs was a classic toxic leader -- bullying, self-indulgent, lacking empathy, often ungrateful, unwilling to give credit where it was due, and a world-class control freak. (I hadn't planned to read the book, but my wife, who cares about computers maybe even less than I do but cares a lot about history, recommended it highly as a story of our times.)
Job's awful behavior was not just a matter of corporate antics. He was downright weird, not believing in showering much and wafting such bad body odor early that in his career he was told to work nights. An abandoned child himself, he neglected for many years a child he fathered and wasn't particularly good with his subsequent offspring. One former girlfriend called him an enlightened person, but unusually, also a cruel one.
Here's the problem: There is no question that Steve Jobs was a self-centered jerk. Yet he also appears to have been a great corporate leader and innovator who pulled off a series of successes -- the Apple II and MacIntosh computers, the Pixar movie animation studio, the iPod, the iPad, and the iPhone. These have had an impact on the way we live. In the process, Jobs built one of the world's most valuable companies.
So what are we to think? Issacson doesn't really tell us. I wouldn't want to have worked for the guy. Yet it made me stop to think: In retrospect, the two roughest bosses I had in my decades in journalism also were the best for my career, holding me to high standards, rewarding my efforts, and promoting me quickly.
Richard Rumelt, an expert on business strategy whose book I am reading, on his website provides an interesting list of what Steve Jobs did not do at Apple:
Many people and companies want to emulate Apple and study what the company has done. I believe that in trying to learn from Steve Jobs and Apple it is very useful to pay attention to what he did not do. In compiling this short list, I have used ideas and phrases in common use by managers and business consultants:
He did not "drive business success by a relentless focus on performance metrics." Success came to Apple by having successful products and strategies, not by chasing metrics. He did not "motivate high performance by tying incentives to key strategic success factors." Apple did not run a decentralized system based on pressuring individuals to deliver targeted business results. He did not have a strategy "built through participation by all levels to achieve a consensus which resolves key differences in perspectives and values." Strategy at Apple is essentially driven from the top. He did not waste time on the delicate distinctions among "missions," "visions," and "strategies." He did not use acquisitions to hit "strategic growth goals." Growth was the outcome of successful product development and accompanying business strategies. He did not seek to engineer higher margins by chasing rust-belt concepts of "economies of scale." He left such antics to HP
In his book, by contrast, Rumelt offers on page 259 a handy list of what Jobs did do:
(1) imagine a product that is 'insanely great,'
(2) assemble a small team of the very best engineers and designers in the world,
(4) tell the world how cool and trendy the product is with innovative advertising.
Tom again: Meanwhile, I was struck by another observer's less astute supposed example of Jobs' toxic leadership. In fact, what Jobs did strikes me as simply enforcing accountability -- which is what leaders should do:
"Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?" Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, "So why the fuck doesn't it do that?"
"You've tarnished Apple's reputation," he told them. "You should hate each other for having let each other down."
Jobs ended by replacing the head of the group, on the spot.
I did this last year, but we can learn about military affairs from Warren Buffett every year. The military is not a business, and should not be run like one. But still, the defense establishment could learn a lot from a person as wise as Buffett.
If I could, I would ban all those business fad management books I see senior officers reading and instead make them study the annual reports from Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. You may not know Berkshire Hathaway, but if you buy insurance from Geico, drink Coca-Cola, eat See's Candies, read the Buffalo News, use goods transported by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, or wear Fruit of the Loom underwear, then products and services of companies owned in part or whole by Berkshire are touching your life.
For example, the U.S. military, and especially the Army, have been plagued by micromanagement since the mid-1950s, so long that no one now in the Army has much experience in any other way to run it. I see generals constantly scurrying endlessly to meetings where they often sit in the dark while subordinates read aloud to them bedtime stories (AKA Powerpoint briefings). Well, there is another way, and it is laid out by Buffett in his annual report for 2010:
At Berkshire, managers can focus on running their businesses: They are not subjected to meetings at headquarters nor financing worries nor Wall Street harassment. They simply get a letter from me every two years…and call me when they wish. And their wishes do differ: There are managers to whom I have not talked in the last year, while there is one with whom I talk almost daily. Our trust is in people rather than process. A "hire well, manage little" code suits both them and me.
Berkshire's CEOs come in many forms. Some have MBAs; others never finished college. Some use budgets and are by-the-book types; others operate by the seat of their pants. Our team resembles a baseball squad composed of all-stars having vastly different batting styles. Changes in our line-up are seldom required.
Imagine a military run like that, that trusted people rather than process, a military where the Army chief of staff could boast that XVIII Airborne Corps is run so well that he has kept the commanding general in place for several years, and hasn't seen him in two years or even talked to him in one. But, the chief of staff would continue, he does talk to the Army commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan daily, in part because they need his help, and in part because he isn't distracted by checking on the XVIII Airborne Corps. My view: People who spend most of their days in regularly scheduled meetings too much probably are wasting their time and others'.
Also, because Buffett keeps successful people in place, staffs and subordinate managers are not constantly in turmoil and adjusting. Instead of constantly adapting to new bossses, they can focus on the tasks at hand. And the boss can leave them alone because he knows how to tell when they need help and when they don't.
Here's an interesting piece by the eight original members of Team Rubicon, a private disaster response outfit. Their description of what they do reminds me of Halo Trust, the mine removal charity -- small, and aiming to use local workers as much as possible. In this case, they seem to be using the cohesiveness and skills they learned in the Marines as the core of their culture. I like how they used that background to deliver medical care.
Please do read it.
The writers are: "Marines Jake Wood and William McNulty, Doctors David Griswell and Eduardo Dolhun, Firefighters Jeff Lang and Craig Parello, Physician's Assistant Mark Hayward and Brother Jim Boynton S.J."
In the immediate aftermath of the nearly complete physical and functional collapse of Haiti, a small group of trained and determined individuals began to coalesce with the intention of bringing their capabilities directly to the Haitian people in their moment of extremity. At every turn, big aid organizations not only rejected our team's offers of assistance, but even attempted to dissuade us from going to render assistance in Port au Prince. With creativity and conviction, Team Rubicon, as we came to be called, found a way to put our original eight members into the devastated city, found a partner eager for our helping hands, and found that, contrary to everything the big aid bureaucracies were saying, small and skilled teams of military combat veterans and seasoned first responders were exactly what could render immediate, life-saving assistance in this situation.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.