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Capt Graham W. Rinehart, USAF
IT IS increasingly obvious that the Air Force lives in a constantly changing organizational climate: force reductions put end strength in constant flux, planners struggle with budgetary uncertainty, and missions are realigned among units. As we redesign our forces to fit real-world constraints and continue meeting mission requirements, it is important that we seriously consider how we envision our organizations and determine whether our traditional organizational structure is meeting our needs. If that structure is inadequate, we must find a new way to understand the organizational systems we manage or work within. With this in mind, this article explores a powerful new concept of organizational design, relates it to the Air Force, and discusses whether this breakthrough in organizational structure can help improve the way the Air Force does business.
Managerial science--or art, if you prefer--has progressed significantly over the past century, thanks to the work of many innovative and creative individuals whose work casts doubt on the ability of the traditional, pyramidal organizational structure to fulfill our needs. In addition, the demographics of the work force have changed: modern people are more educated and more aware of their rights than were previous generations, and their desire for personal and professional fulfillment may not allow them to be pigeonholed in their jobs.1 Unfortunately, organizational development and structure has not progressed at the same pace; instead, it has kept today's work force, managers, and organizations confined to an early industrial level of organizational sophistication.
An idea that is gradually gaining acceptance among leaders is that if a well-educated and self-aware work force (like the one we are privileged to have in the Air Force) is to excel, it needs something more than directions and instructions. If airmen, officers, and civilians are to continue accomplishing the Air Force mission in an outstanding manner, knowing what to do and even how to do it is not enough. These people also need to know why they do what they do (i.e., how their jobs affect the mission). Only when individuals accept the importance of the mission itself and the importance of their duties in accomplishing that mission will they be able to do all that is expected of them.2 More importantly, only when people understand their relation to other components of the organization can they begin to work toward overall goals instead of their own agendas. In order for Air Force personnel to take the service ahead confidently into the next century, it is vital that they know how they fit into the mission profile.
The Air Force--along with the rest of the Department of Defense (DOD), most of the federal government, and the majority of corporate America--has for years relied on the traditional organizational structure: a pyramid of authority with workers along the bottom, executive management at the top, and usually a vast array of middle managers crowding the bulk of the structure. What does a chart of such an organization tell us (fig. 1)? It certainly tells us who is at the top and bottom of the organization (largely important to those at the top and a painful reminder to those at the bottom). Looked at carefully and pragmatically, it shows us whom we will catch hell from if things don't go right. It is very handy at letting each of us know where we stand in relation to everyone else, especially in terms of the authority and responsibility we have.
In addition, this kind of organizational chart provides a graphic display of that most ubiquitous phenomenon of military service: the chain of command. Looking at the chart and the chain in terms of coherence of action and organizational efficiency, we see it as a graphic display of the most hated aspect of government service--bureaucracy and its accompanying red tape. Every military member and civil servant has complained about excessive red tape, wondering if it served any higher purpose than securing the jobs of bureaucrats. Can something similar be said about the way the organizational chart finds places for their jobs?
The organizational pyramid is well suited to what became the predominant Air Force style of management, namely management by results (MBR). MBR is the logical extension of the management by objective (MBO) style that the military latched onto during and after the (Secretary of Defense Robert S.) McNamara era. In MBO and MBR, goals and objectives are set and passed down through the pyramid, and tight systems of control are established to monitor the goal achievement. Rewards are parceled out when goals are met, and people in charge when things go badly look for new jobs.3 Today we recognize that management (i.e., putting things in their proper places) must be secondary to leadership in the military setting and that MBO, MBR, and many other management fads have not given us what we need to improve our operations.
These complex systems of control focus attention on short-term attainment of goals rather than long-term effects on the aims of the organization (mission accomplishment). This often results in conflict between elements of the organization, especially when their assigned goals may be mutually exclusive (e.g., an engineering squadron must improve responsiveness to work orders by X percent while reducing overtime by Y percent). Supervisors within the organization strive to meet the goals they have been given, regardless of the effect on the rest of the unit or on the overall mission. Particularly significant is the fact that many of these goals are forgotten when mission accomplishment is paramount (e.g., in times of crisis, everyone focuses on the mission to the exclusion of everything else). In normal operations, however, focusing on the systems of control instead of the mission leads to the belief that as long as goals and standards are being set and met, the organization is operating correctly, regardless of what is happening outside.4
The organizational chart is incapable of giving us a key piece of information that is basic to overcoming the divisive nature of MBR, providing for individual fulfillment, and improving organizational effectiveness. It does not, will not, and indeed cannot show us how the pieces of our organization fit together to accomplish the mission. Consider the organizational chart in figure 1, which is atypical, incomplete, and simplistic--but is nonetheless useful. Is it strikingly obvious from the chart how the organizational elements fit together or how they feed into one another to reach the overall aim of the organization? Perhaps such relationships should be intuitively obvious from the identity of the elements, but our intuition may not be completely trustworthy. In order to give all members of the organization a clearer picture of how their jobs contribute to the mission, one needs a new organizational structure.
The basis for this new structure is not new; like many innovations, it is an original application of an old idea. That idea dates back over 40 years and is responsible for a managerial revolution that brought a beaten and demoralized country to the forefront of the modern world.
In 1950 the Air Force was about three years old, struggling to build its own identity and assert its position within DOD. America as a whole had no such problems because our position in the world was unequalled. Not only had our military might triumphed in two theaters of operations, but our economic power was the envy of everyone. By 1950 we had turned our attention away from building military hardware to building a plethora of consumer goods which the rest of the world rushed to buy.
The year in question is chosen with care. It is particularly significant because in the summer of 1950 an American quality expert was invited to occupied Japan by the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers to lecture about quality and statistical techniques. What Dr W. Edwards Deming taught the Japanese enabled them to rebuild their shattered country and rise to the top of the world economy. Dr Deming taught the Japanese that continuous improvement of product and service quality was the key to capturing and keeping the marketplace.5
Dr Deming also carefully taught the Japanese that optimization of their organizational systems would be necessary if quality were to continually improve. To this end, he drew on a chalkboard a diagram similar to figure 2, in which materials, tools, and equipment come in from various suppliers and are processed through a series of steps to make the final product, which is then distributed to consumers. Companies must conduct research into new ways to meet consumer needs and obtain feedback from consumers in order to continuously improve the product or service. No longer is it acceptable to set up a system and simply manage its operation; rather, leadership is required. Leaders must understand who their customers are and how the system elements work together to satisfy their customers' needs. The responsibility for optimizing the system to achieve organizational aims is theirs alone.
What does this economic example have to do with the military, and why spend so much time on it? As budget battles loomed ever larger on the fiscal horizon in the 1980s, DOD picked up the philosophy of continuous quality improvement that the Japanese had learned from this American. Although the Navy spearheaded the drive for improved quality, the entire DOD officially adopted the philosophy in 1988.
Called "total quality management" (though more aptly named "total quality leadership"6), the quality philosophy gradually became accepted in some Air Force circles, primarily in the areas of weapons development, logistics, and maintenance. Because developing, procuring, and maintaining advanced weapons like those we recently used so effectively in Kuwait and Iraq will undoubtedly grow more expensive as time goes by (especially given our reliance on technological superiority), it was prudent to "adopt the new philosophy"7 and begin to continually improve our operations. It became clear that only with a commitment to improving the quality of our operations and organizations could we hope to maintain our competitive edge.
But how does the quality philosophy bring us a new paradigm for organizational design?
Each Air Force organization is a system (i.e., a collection of interrelated and interdependent elements that work together to achieve the aim of the whole). After understanding the inner workings and clearly establishing the mission, one may optimize or fine-tune the system to fulfill the mission with the least waste and the highest effectiveness. Reduction of waste and improvement of quality lead directly to improved productivity. Optimizing the entire system (as opposed to optimizing only a small portion of the system) requires a thorough understanding of how the elements fit together, how changes in one element affect other organizational units, and what value each organizational part adds to the final product or service. In addition to knowing how the system works, however, achieving the best results requires a leadership commitment to optimizing the whole system and not allowing the subordinate parts to execute their own programs blindly.
Although recognizing this fact is conceptually easy, it causes us to wonder how well our Air Force systems are optimized. How well do we understand how the elements fit together to accomplish the mission? Do we realize that emphasis on one area may improve that area but at the same time reduce productivity in other parts of the organization and thus have a negative effect on the whole? Do we understand that in order to optimize the entire system, some subordinate parts may actually be allowed--no, encouraged--to operate inefficiently (in economic terms, at a net loss to themselves)?
Every military member can think of instances in which suboptimization (i.e., people looking out for themselves) has resulted in problems accomplishing the mission. A few examples will suffice: aircraft grounded for lack of spare parts; construction projects delayed because the user demanded changes at the last minute; materials returned to supply because they were "equivalent" but would not do the job; purchases sent out for competitive bid when only one manufacturer in the world could deliver the product; officer performance reports and enlisted performance reports redone because an "x" went outside the box or because the endorser rewrote what the additional rater had already rewritten; patients given the wrong medication (or no medication); hazardous waste returned to the source because the accumulation-point manager was not trained on the latest version of the required paperwork. We are naive to assume that we live in a perfect world, work for a perfect Air Force, and don't need to worry about quality or optimized systems.
It seems almost sinful to some managers to suggest that accomplishment of the mission may require spending a little more money now to buy the proper materials, tools, and equipment. Instead, we save as much money as possible up front and spend more later to correct subsequent problems.8 Some people balk at the idea that increased emphasis on and resources devoted to training may ultimately save time, money, and lives by decreasing the risk of accidents and mistakes. As difficult as it may be for these individuals to accept, such is the essence of optimizing the entire system: some components may have to operate below their potential in order to maximize total combat effectiveness and thus accomplish the mission.
Optimizing a system and recognizing the organization as a system come together in the new paradigm for organizational design. Developed by Dr Nida Backaitis--a protégé of Dr Deming--of the University of Southern California, the new paradigm uses the system flowchart (fig. 2) to describe the organizational structure.9
Consider the elegance of the new paradigm. Using the system flowchart as an organizational chart, all members of the organization can see clearly where they fit into the system and how they must work together with other members and other units to accomplish the mission. Neither the traditional pyramid chart nor the more convoluted matrix organizational structure can portray these working relationships. The only relationship pictured on the pyramid is the one between superior and subordinate. Consequently, the organization is designed and built for pleasing one's superiors, even if doing so jeopardizes the mission. By comparison, the flowchart places everyone within the context of mission accomplishment and examines every activity in relation to the value it adds to the mission.
Figures 3-5 put the new paradigm in Air Force terms. Figure 3 replaces the "consumers" of the industrial model with the "mission," the ultimate organizational purpose of the unit. The mission may be strategic or tactical, involving everything from nuclear alerts in support of deterrence to close air support in Operation Desert Storm. In every case, leaders must combine operational and support assets to produce operations that accomplish the mission objective. (Note that when the mission involves delivering products or services to other Air Force units, the industrial and Air Force models become almost indistinguishable.)
The "consumer research" and "design and redesign" of figure 2 have been replaced with "mission evaluation and requirements" and "mission planning," respectively, in figure 3. These elements provide both continuous evaluation of the success of the organization and predictions of future requirements, and then feed changes back into the system to improve its operations. Such functions keep the system focused on the mission and are the commander's sole domain. Only the commander who has clear vision and understanding of the mission objective can optimize the system toward mission accomplishment.
Figure 4 expands this Air Force model, using the organizational elements depicted in the pyramidal chart we first considered. One may of course debate the exact place of each element in the flowchart; ultimately, building the system in proper working order is a command responsibility. Regardless of the actual placement of elements, the chart clearly displays the idea of each separate organizational entity's knowing its relative position in the unit and its effect on the outcome of the mission.
The commander is charged with accomplishing the mission of the unit--for example, the airlifting of cargo and troops by a Military Airlift Command wing. Working backward on the flowchart from the mission (the right number of troops and equipment in the right place at the right time), we first find the aircraft and aircrews who actually perform the mission. Right behind them we find the crew chiefs and maintenance personnel who keep the aircraft airworthy. If we look carefully, we will probably find instructors and standardization/evaluation officers who keep the aircrews trained, as well as air traffic controllers who keep the operations smooth. Working backward even further, we find the supply squadron that provides the proper tools, parts, and individual equipment; mission planners and schedulers; aerospace medicine and life-support functions; and technical-order libraries and contractor support personnel. If we enlarge our vision enough, we find safety technicians, on-the-job training monitors, civil engineering facilities crews, and transportation services. The further back we go through the flowchart, the more we see of what goes into accomplishing the mission.
We would see similar functions whether we considered a Strategic Air Command missile wing, a Tactical Air Command fighter wing, or a Space Command early-warning center. In each case, one may define the mission and depict on the flowchart those units that directly contribute to the mission. The problem is finding the configuration that matches how the mission is accomplished.
If figure 4 presents too broad an application of this new paradigm, figure 5 illustrates a conceptually easy example. Here, part of a transportation squadron is divided into vehicle maintenance and vehicle operations, both of which are placed on the system flowchart. The squadron has many possible inputs and many customers, a few of which are shown. Vehicle operations supplies vehicles to organizations on the base and provides operators in some cases (e.g., base taxi). Supporting operations is vehicle maintenance, but while operations is the main customer of maintenance, the reverse is also true to some degree (shown with the dashed line). Note that the planning function feeds back not only into the two main processes, but also into the pool of suppliers, where information about the required vehicles is provided to the General Services Administration (GSA) and feedback on trainees is given to appropriate technical schools.
The transportation squadron commander has the sole responsibility to build and optimize the unit for the purpose of accomplishing the mission. Therefore, because the squadron supports the base mission, flight-line operations are shown as the primary customer in figure 5 (important support functions are also recognized as customers). Why must a primary customer be identified and given priority? Although the subordinate unit's role is important, it may not be synonymous with the mission. The Air Force does not exist solely to run trucks around a base or build buildings or develop new technology. Because the base and wing commanders are responsible for overall mission accomplishment, they fit each unit into the whole system toward that end. For each subordinate unit, therefore, the primary customers who support the overall mission take precedence. More importantly, the success of each subordinate unit is determined strictly in terms of overall mission success.
The commander of the transportation squadron may be tempted to measure success in other terms because the unit is a few steps removed from the overall mission. Selection of another measure (e.g., speed of repair, speed of turnaround) may result in impressive-looking charts and proud briefings, but the overall effect on the mission may be less than optimum. Consider the effect if the transportation squadron so emphasizes speed of repair that mechanics no longer take the time to diagnose problems fully, or jury-rig replacement parts or materials, or work so furiously that they become fatigued and begin to make mistakes. Vehicles that are repaired quickly only to break down quickly may not contribute to mission accomplishment. The unit commander must show leadership, establish the unit's mission so it aligns with the overall mission, and then measure the unit's success in the same terms.
As mentioned above, the commander is responsible for building and optimizing the system for mission accomplishment. Before the system is designed, the leader must study the mission requirements and plan the system to facilitate mission success. Once the system is in place and working, the leader's task consists of evaluation and further prediction (fig. 4). Is the unit accomplishing the mission satisfactorily? If so, how can it improve? If not, what must it change: timing, targeting, numbers of operational aircraft/missiles, number of qualified personnel? How will the mission requirements change in the future, and what will we need to meet them? Answers to these questions lead into mission planning, where the leader works to improve the unit's capabilities by optimizing the whole system. Such improvement may require difficult choices, such as deciding between spending more money for maintenance and spare parts or for fuel and flight time. In the present austere environment, these choices are especially difficult, but the touchstone that judges them is the mission itself.
Optimization is not a fire-and-forget weapon; it is a continuous struggle on the part of the leader to meet the mission requirements most effectively. Especially today, when mission requirements or unit capabilities are undergoing drastic change, the commander must have an understanding of what goes into fulfilling the mission, or readiness will be sacrificed. The system flowchart, by clearly depicting relationships within and between operational units, can be a valuable tool in maintaining unit effectiveness.10
Early on, this article maligned the traditional organizational design and pointed out several deficiencies. In the interest of addressing the topic fully, it should also mention potential problems with the new structural paradigm.
The first and most obvious problem with the new paradigm is its complexity. A single unit may produce an organizational chart that is relatively clear and uncluttered, but at the wing or base level the interrelationships become much more complicated. Second, this method of structuring the organization requires a thorough knowledge of the customers of each organizational element. For the maintenance squadron that serves the fighter wing, the customer-supplier relationship is relatively clear, but civil engineering and the hospital serve all of the other units on base. Such a situation recalls the first problem: graphically plotting all of the possible combinations would make for an impossible chart.
Is it necessary to show all of the possible interactions? If the result is confusion, the exercise is probably fruitless. Indeed, little would be gained by trying to display all of the interrelationships. To reap the benefits of the new organizational concept, we may not--for example--have to show that supply serves the entire base through issuing equipment. However, showing that the fuels section serves flight-line operations may be important. Commanders must determine how the organizational pieces fit together to fulfill the mission; those relationships become the basis for the organizational flowchart.
A third problem is that the new paradigm seemingly leaves little room for ancillary functions (e.g., chapel; public affairs; morale, welfare, and recreation). Where do they fit into the mission? Showing those relationships that affect mission accomplishment focuses the attention of executive leadership on how to improve it, and shows us how our efforts affect the rest of the unit. These functions contribute in subtle and intangible ways, and their contributions to the mission may not be clear. If they did not contribute to the mission at all, we might question how important they are. Because they contribute in ways that are not clear, we instead question where they fit in.
Despite these problems with the new paradigm, it seems to be a promising tool for improving the way the Air Force plans and conducts operations and support. It provides a clearer picture of how units should work together to fulfill mission requirements and gives airmen, officers, and civilians a better understanding of how they contribute to mission success.
One final advantage of the new paradigm is very subtle. Recall that the first adaptation of the system flowchart to the military (fig. 3) involved changing "consumer research" to "mission evaluation and requirements." Limiting this evaluation process to current operational results and capabilities would have been a mistake. Leaders must continuously look forward, asking what future weapons and tactics will be required for mission success. Thus, the system flowchart puts research and development (R&D) in its proper context. R&D should and does look forward to new and better ways to accomplish the mission. In addition, it should continually feed information back into mission planning to ensure that technological advances are properly incorporated into strategy and tactics.11
The key question, however, may be whether the difficulties posed by the new paradigm are outweighed by its advantages. As Air Force leaders understand the necessity of improving operations within their organizations, they may look for new ways to explore the relationships between and within their units and to determine how well or poorly they work together. If we recognize our people's need to understand their contribution to the organization, we may look for new ways to clarify working relationships and improve unity toward the mission. The new paradigm allows us to do this--not necessarily easily but certainly effectively.
Just as "nothing is useful for every purpose, and perhaps everything is useful for some purpose,"12 the old and new paradigms for organizational structure are useful tools. The important difference between them is what they are useful for. The old paradigm is useful for visualizing the chain of command, the lines of authority, and the system of reporting within the unit. The new paradigm is useful for visualizing how the organization works together to accomplish the mission. In the final analysis, our choice will depend on whether we need to focus our attention on who works for whom, or on how we accomplish the mission and how we can continue to improve.
1. Although the present work force is more educated than its predecessors, this distinction may be compromised by the increasing mediocrity of American education. A 1983 report made the somber prediction that the present generation would be the first in the history of our country to grow up less educated than their parents. The National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, April 1983), 5-16.
2. If people know what they are expected to do, they put forth their best efforts to accomplish the mission. Without knowing why their jobs are necessary or how they affect the jobs of others around them, however, they may wreak havoc on the organization and compromise its success. W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1986), 18-19.
3. Interestingly, the original version of MBO was much different from the MBO that is usually implemented. Goals and objectives are certainly useful planning tools, but MBO as practiced uses them as benchmarks against which managers and workers are judged. This practice encourages the achievement of objectives by either cutting corners or fudging figures, because the objectives become instruments of fear that are used to control subordinates.
4. See Brian L. Joiner and Peter R. Scholtes, "Total Quality Leadership vs. Management by Results" (Madison, Wis.: Joiner Associates, Inc., 1985).
5. Japan in 1950 would remain under occupation rule for two more years. The Japanese quickly implemented Dr Deming's ideas and later brought more American quality experts like Dr Joseph M. Juran and Dr Armand V. Feigenbaum to teach their management about quality. Japan has also produced several quality experts, notable among them Dr Kaoru Ishikawa and Dr Genichi Taguchi, but the roots of the Japanese quality revolution are in the lectures Dr Deming first delivered. The entire nation of Japan recognizes this fact by naming their highest quality award the Deming Prize.
6. See Joiner and Scholtes.
7. The second of Dr Deming's 14 points. Deming, 26-28. See also Howard S. Gitlow and Shelly J. Gitlow, The Deming Guide to Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1987); Nancy R. Mann, The Keys to Excellence: The Story of the Deming Philosophy, 3d ed. (Los Angeles: Prestwick Books, 1989); and William W. Scherkenbach, The Deming Route to Quality and Productivity: Road Maps and Roadblocks (Washington, D.C.: CEEPress Books, George Washington University, 1988).
8. The fact that much of this practice is dictated by legislative mandate makes it understandable but does not make it right.
9. Related by Dr Deming at the Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position Seminar, 5-8 February 1991, Greenville, South Carolina. The new paradigm is also described in Joiner and Scholtes, 4-5.
10. Having gone through this exercise, readers may wish to construct a system flowchart of their own organizations to visualize the inner relationships and the path to mission success.
11. We seem to have adequately assimilated the capabilities of advanced technology into our tactics in recent campaigns, but--historically--changes in tactics have moved much more slowly than advances in weaponry. See Robert L. O'Connell, Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
12. Clarence Irving Lewis, Mind and the World Order (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1956), 15.
Capt Graham W. Rinehart (BS, Clemson University; MS, Golden Gate University) is assistant professor of aerospace studies, Air Force ROTC Detachment 770, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina. Previously, he was deputy director of safety and health, Astronautics Laboratory, Edwards AFB, California. Captain Rinehart is the author of Quality Education (forthcoming) and the coauthor of two technical papers.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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