November 15, 2013

Thoughts on Shaping and Directing Black Swan Events – Guest Blog

Nothing is permanent except change, and how we handle that change can be the difference between success and failure. All organizations have a system for responding to change; some are just more formal than others. Therefore, the question is this: How do we monitor and react to an ever-changing operational environment? While flying in an airplane several years ago, I was fortunate to sit next to an executive of a team in the National Football League. One of several things we discussed during the flight was what she referred to as their war room, which was modeled after a military operations center. Real-time NFL draft results would be fed into the war room as data; the data were then processed into information with the intent of producing a new draft recommendation. This process continued throughout the entire NFL draft. With a bit of luck, it would hopefully result in a successful draft operation. By definition, we cannot predict a Black Swan event; however, nothing says that we should not be prepared to react to a Black Swan event. By saying this, I am not trying to compare the NFL draft to a Black Swan event. Instead, I am pointing out that NFL teams have a system in place to deal with the unknown—specifically, who will be drafted next.

The most important part of crisis mitigation is to have a process in place to receive information, assess requirements and capabilities, and direct resources. The names may be different (Supply Chain Control Tower, War Room, and Operation Center), but the goal is the same—to manage chaos. The U.S. military uses operation centers as informational centers of gravity. Logistics operations centers receive and disseminate information through a robust and complex network of information systems. Data are divided into two generic categories: internal and external information. Examples of internal information include supply levels, critical items, and transportation fleet status. Examples of external information include route status, political events, and severe weather. Predetermined criteria are established for each data point based on anticipated crisis scenarios; however, much like the example of the NFL draft picks, the crisis is less important than the process. The data are processed through a combination of vertical and horizontal staffing processes, ensuring that all key decision makers have total situational awareness. As the operation center receives and filters data, there are times when specific criteria are met and “battle drills” are triggered. Battle drills can be written in a number of ways, but at a fundamental level they are if-then statements. For example, if fuel inventory levels drop critically low, then override the routine supply schedule and begin replenishing the inventory immediately. The operations center facilitates an integration of all available resources, allowing managers to see the operational environment within the context of the current operation.

A military operations center generally focuses on a twenty-four-hour time horizon, thus ensuring a narrowed band of time and maximizing problem solving and decision-making opportunities. Any data falling outside the twenty-four-hour time horizon is processed within the appropriate subordinate staff section. Rules allow staff members and the operations center to filter data to the appropriate office, which helps to facilitate efficient information flow throughout the organization. The continued process of vertical and horizontal staff integration allows the organization to react to and mitigate or shape unforeseen change, whether it occurs naturally or because of human activity.

Regardless of how an organization deals with change, at the end of the day the question remains: How capable is my organization in shaping unexpected change? Because change is inevitable, organizations should have a well-defined process for responding to the change.

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John Eric RichardsonLTC John “Eric” Richardson is a United States Army logistician with over twenty years of experience leading, training, and mentoring at all levels of Army command. Eric has held the following positions: Army staff, brigade chief of staff, battalion chief of staff, battalion support operations officer, deputy brigade support operations officer, petroleum and water branch chief, company command, assistant brigade supply officer, supply and services officer, platoon leader, and aircraft crew chief. As a logistics officer, Eric has managed all facets of end-to-end domestic and international logistical operations – and is responsible for the leading, planning, integration, and directing all facets of sustainment activities (supply and services, transportation, maintenance, human resources, financial management, health services support, and operational contracting support) at the tactical, operational, and strategic level.

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“The opinions or assertions contained herein are the private views of the author and are not to be construed as official or as reflecting the views of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense. Names of commercial manufacturers or products included are incidental only and inclusion does not imply endorsement by the author, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.”

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