Thursday, March 27, 2008

Making IT Work: Lessons in Leadership in IT Infrastructure

Several years ago I found myself in a position analogous to Chief Technology Officer and Chief Information Officer of a large organization - at the same time. (The military terms were Assistant Chief of Staff Intelligence, Assistant Chief of Staff Combat Systems, and Command and Control Warfare Coordinator). As such, I was responsible for the installation, and operation of all information systems as well as the use of that information for keeping our boss (the Admiral) knowledgeable as to what was going on in the world around him.

There was only one minor problem: none of the systems were installed.

The task at hand was to install all the information technology gear necessary to handle all the requirements of a modern, nuclear powered aircraft as well as all the ships accompanying her. What are those specific requirements?

First, the aircraft carrier is a small town of 5000, with (as this was still in the early days of networks) 1400 LAN drops (for reasons of both security and issues of RFI WANs are more problematic on a ship then on dry land, and they are also a problem when there are classified networks in some of the same rooms as the internet systems). This was the first aircraft carrier fitted with this many PCs, almost an order of magnitude more PCs than previous aircraft carriers. Similar LANs were being installed on most of our other ships, as well, also for the first time.

Second, the ship is an active airfield with roughly 70 to 80 aircraft operating from it. Additionally, those aircraft require their own classified networks to support planning, maintenance and operations. That too was part of the IT installation.

Third, the aircraft carrier was the flagship of a 14-ship group – known in the Navy as a battle group or strike group, and known during any specific operation as a task group.

The 14 ships included two Aegis cruisers and two Aegis destroyers, similar to the ship that recently shot down the NRO satellite. The Aegis ships were all receiving extensive software upgrades to both their radars and their weapons control systems, upgrades that were substantially more complex then any that had been attempted in a number of years. There were also three amphibious assault ships, which included 2500 Marines and another 25 aircraft.

Fourth, the ship/network needed to be able to handle unclassified information, secret information, top secret information, special intelligence information as well as information that could be shared with allied navies – requiring the ability to accurately handle information from multiple classifications through the same communications systems, while assuring both the correct movement of information between systems when allowed, but protecting that information when not allowed.

Fifth, the ship had to be able to function as both the command ship for a multi-carrier group – known as a ‘battle force’ – that might include as many as four aircraft carriers, 300 aircraft, as many as 60 ships and as many as 60,000 personnel, as well as its own Network Operations Center for the extended networks of the battle force – another ‘first ever.’ As it turned out, we did act as the command or flag ship, as well as network control, for a ‘task force’ that consisted of three aircraft carriers, 25 ships, two submarines, more than 200 aircraft and roughly 30,000 people.

All told, these installations, to include, hardware, software, necessary modifications to the ships to support the upgrades, plus training and maintenance for the total period amounted to something in the neighborhood of $100 million.

When we began this process the carrier was brand new. (Brand new is a bit difficult to define; an aircraft carrier takes more than 5 years to build and after it is ‘finished’ and commissioned, it will be another year and a half of drills before the major fitting out and training of the ship begins). At that start point the systems installed on the carrier are limited to those systems necessary to conduct basic flight operations around the ship – the flight control radars for landing aircraft, one air search radar, several basic navigation radars and the radios for navigation and for flight control.

All of the complex, advanced Satellite Communications systems, advanced air defense radars, and sophisticated data links had yet to be installed, the network internal to ship had not been installed, the network handling system to allow the ship to function as a network node had yet to be installed. Major ‘command spaces’ – the spaces in the ship for the major information processing and the spaces for various mission commanders – the admiral in command of the battle force, his intelligence center, the center for integration and information management for different warfare problems such as ‘Air Warfare,’ ‘Anti-Submarine Warfare’ and ‘Electronic Warfare’ – were little more than empty rooms when we took control of the ship. Several spaces literally were bare steel – they had not even been painted and there was nothing in the room. We had 18 months to prepare this ship, as well as manage the IT work on all the other ships in the battle group, to include the complete systems upgrade of two of the Aegis cruisers and all the installations on a brand new Aegis destroyer.

At the same time we faced the same problem others had faced: the systems are all installed by a wide range of contractors and sub-contractors. But, in fact, neither the Admiral nor the captains of any ships actually controlled the contracts. Often they were (and are) not even controlled by anyone within easy reach. Rather, they were controlled by large and remote organizations whose directors are in Washington and who had completely different sets of priorities then we did.

The Result: we did everything that we were required to do, our systems stayed up, and our operational availability figures were unprecedented. Our down times were – across the board – fractions of the normal down times. One example, our most complex system, was a large format SATCOM system used for moving images that, because of the environment (seawater, jet exhaust, extreme heat, complexity (and normal lack of adequate training)) routinely had UP rates of 20% - the best achieved rate prior to our effort was 28% availability over a 6 to 7 month period. We had 3 hours of un-planned non-availability during our entire 6+ month deployment.

How did we do it?

A Clear Goal

We had clearly identified missions and goals, performance and capability standards that we needed to reach or exceed. We needed to achieve those standards two months prior to deploying, and be able to sustain those standards for eight to nine months. It would begin in 16 months from the day I took over, with a month long exercise to test every ship, every person and every system in the group in all of their assigned roles. We knew what we needed to accomplish and we focused on that, placing readiness at that point as the very center of our effort. The key to achieving that focus was planning.


I began planning immediately. We started with a simple chart on the wall, which actually ended with the ships all returning to the United States 25 months later, was stretched across two walls of the office, and the missions and tasks we knew we would to carry out over that time period. We then worked backwards from there, identifying every possible milestone or hurdle that we would need to overcome to ensure that we were successful. These hurdles were overwhelmingly not IT or even loosely ‘information’ centric. They were simply events we knew (or anticipated) the Group would face over the next 25 months.

Several major iterations of this planning timeline were generated before we were even sure we had all the important items identified. Then we sat down and attempted to identify what systems needed to be in place and operational to support successfully addressing each of those events. Often, particularly in the beginning, this required a good deal of supposition (or simply guessing), but we soon became fairly adept at identifying not only what systems were needed when, but also, and often more importantly, we became adept at identifying which systems were either not needed or might be useful even if not completely installed.

Key to this was regular and frequent meetings with the captains of all the ships and their key officers as well as key personnel who would be involved with each installation. We learned what was in the realm of the possible and what was inflexible for other reasons.

This was significant because it gave us ‘room’ to start adjusting installation and calibration schedules. Onboard a ship (and actually in any building) there are always limits to how much can be done at the same time. Often, and for similar reasons, the companies that are installing pieces of gear will want access to the same places at the same time. By identifying not only what we really needed and when, but also what we really didn’t need yet (though it might at first seem like we would) we were able to control the pace of installations in a way that suited our needs, not the needs of someone who had originally scheduled the installations (usually with little other information).

One example: shipyard schedules are very tightly controlled because there are only a few shipyards available and, if it is the case of an aircraft carrier, very few that can actually fit an aircraft carrier. One of the requirements for the carrier was a large SATCOM antenna. For a number of reasons the antenna could not be placed on the carrier’s superstructure, the small ‘apartment-building’ like structure that sits on the flight deck. So, we needed to build a sponson, a 40 foot long, roughly 40 ton piece of steel that jutted out from the hull, that the SATCOM would sit on. The SATCOM would not be delivered for many months, but the available period in the shipyard would only be available for a short period of time. We identified that period early and adjusted the contractor to send one man down to install some basic gear and pull certain cables while the sponson was being installed, fully six months prior to install of the system. When it came time to install the system it was a significantly more straightforward process than it would have been if we had not first ‘prepared’ the sponson. The result was that the physical installation time was cut in half, and the system grooming time was tripled, as was the training period for our personnel. This was the kind of event that our calendar allowed us to identify early.

Once we had a clear sense of the ‘real’ schedule, that is, what we absolutely needed and when, I presented it to the Admiral (analogously, the Chairman – President – CEO) and received his endorsement.

I was fortunate in that several of my key people (and I) had extensive experience in long range and strategic planning. If you have never engaged in strategic planning, bring in someone for a week of training, it will pay big dividends. I also benefited from the fact that as the Intelligence Officer (Chief Information Officer) I was also a user of the systems I was installing and maintaining. This provided me with a valuable perspective that others before me had not enjoyed (though, at the time ‘enjoyed’ was not a word that was used a great deal).


Once the Admiral was comfortable, we had to inform everyone else. We began by informing the captains and key personnel on each ship exactly what the schedule was, and as important, we made sure they understood why. Even though they had participated in identifying these ‘reasons why’ a matter of several weeks earlier, this helped them to not only more clearly understand, it also made sure that they had visibility into what each other ship was doing and why. Everyone was informed, everyone was part of the same team, there were no ‘secrets’ and everyone knew that no one was getting a ‘deal’ as well as no one was getting the dirty end of the stick.

When that was done, we informed the information management folks on all the ships, the people who would actually operate and maintain the systems once they were installed. We made it clear to them that we would all be living and breathing based on this schedule. We used as much time as was needed to make sure that these people not only fully understood the schedule, they understood what was the basis for the schedule, the why, what exactly the ships and aircraft and Marines in the group would be doing, why certain systems would be needed, and why certain systems needed to be very precise and what that precision really meant to the user. This understanding on their part was perhaps as important as any other single thing in ensuring the systems remained operating and within proper standards.


Our training program was far and away the most aggressive systems training effort anyone had ever seen. We used every means in the book – extra money, squeezing every dime we could out contractors, using all of our training money, taking advantage of people who simply ‘offered,’ to get more training for our people. Perhaps it is possible to be over-trained, but I‘ve never run across it. Whereas other carriers let their people get trained in other specialties, we focused every additional training hour and training dollar on the specific systems – hardware and software – that we would be working with.

While we were fair, we were very demanding in training and in maintenance. We made it clear from the beginning that we were setting ‘ridiculously high’ standards of availability and that we would train and exercise the people involved until they could achieve those standards. Once people understood the focus of our effort, and they understood the plan, and they understood the importance of the plan, they responded superbly to the training and the exercises.

My Deputy

One key factor in my success was one man: Pico Torres. Pico was a charming and brilliant technician, but his real skill was in leading people. While I was trying to think ‘big thoughts,’ pushing forward the plan and meeting with the captains, the admiral and various contractors, Pico was working with the ‘troops.’ His ability to communicate with the average 22 year old technician, to help him understand why something ‘needed’ to be done, and why it needed to be done right, the first time, his ability to orchestrate and lead training, to conduct extemporaneous drills to test their skills, his energy level in meeting with one young sailor at a time, for hours on end, to help the sailor learn a fine point about this or that piece of hardware or software was noting short of remarkable.

I made a point of making sure everyone knew that Pico had my absolute backing: I might be 500 miles away and out of reach of any phone. But, if Pico said it was so, I would back it up – and I ALWAYS did. If you wanted to get it reversed, only the Admiral could reverse it. And that never happened.

Finding someone as talented as Pico Torres is perhaps the one issue that isn’t readily ‘teachable.’ I was fortunate to have such an individual working with me. You will need to find the most talented person you have and then you must provide some grooming and support. Once you are comfortable with their level of skill, you must provide him or her with both the freedom and the top cover to carry out the detailed plans on a daily basis.

Communication – Part 2

Once the plan was in place and being executed, I devoted considerable effort to keeping the boss, the various ships’ captains and other senior officers in the group, and the more than 1000 technicians, contractors and workers who were installing or would maintain and operate these systems, informed as to our progress as well as informed of any changes, changes both in the specifics of the plan as well as changes in what we as an organization of 14 ships and 13,000 people were doing. This served to keep the meaning of the plan in focus.

This communication consisted of both regular updates at weekly departmental meetings as well as ‘leading by mingling’ on the part of both Pico and me, as well as several other people who worked directly for me. (These often took the part of me stopping by for coffee and chatting with folks at the coffee machine). These informal sessions also served to keep us informed of the detailed problems that they were having in executing discrete elements of the plan. Both were critical.

Lessons learned


Taking charge and providing clear goals was the sine qua non of success. So, the most important lesson is simply:

1) Know why you are doing it.

Knowing why we wanted a piece of gear (hardware, software) – the desired capability – was at the center of our success. The reason, the capability or the mission was important, not the piece of gear. Once everyone understood the real goal, and then the role ‘X’ played in achieving the goal, we were over the largest single hurdle. Once you know the goal (the vision), don’t let anyone pull you off that. Our goal was successful combat operations. Most definitively the goal for us was NOT smooth IT operations; your company sells something: hardware, software, turbines, soybeans or penny candy – the IT supports it. Once people understand that “simple” fact it provides remarkable clarity, and sets the foundation for everything else.

2) Communicate

Make sure you communicate enough. First, do the people who work for you understand what it is that you are trying to do and why? Second, does your boss know? Third, do your peers – the other VPs or Directors or however they are titled? And, are you listening to them: your people, your boss, your peers? As a general rule, no one communicates enough. Ted Williams used to say ‘Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. And when you think you’re done, practice some more.” You can put the word ‘communicate’ in the place of practice and the statement is equally accurate.

Complex organizations require more hands on leadership – so get out of your office: walk around, listen, get a cup of coffee, talk to your people, listen. Remember that you – in a very real sense – work for them: your job is to make sure they have all that they need to do their jobs, the training the gear, etc. So, visit each site, have a cup of coffee and listen.

Set high standards: superb results aren’t achieved with mediocre standards. When I took over as the head of combat systems one of the things I found from talking to other people who had occupied these jobs in the past was a sense of frustration and some fatalism – ‘its always like this – particularly with a new aircraft carrier.’ Simply put, don’t accept that. Make sure everyone understands that you simply aren’t going to accept that. Set the standards high and inform ‘the troops.’ (Your standards will be part of the planning process, but making it work is a leadership issue). People will amaze you with how much they can achieve – so be fair and friendly and keep communicating, but set HIGH standards.

One final thought on standards: make sure your IT people know not only whom they support, but also what those other departments are doing – specifically. If you (the IT department) succeed, in your terms, but it isn’t what the other departments really needed or it wasn’t in time, you haven’t succeeded. This is a team sport, and everyone needs to win.

3) Train your people

It’s almost impossible to image people who received too much training. Load up on the training – it will pay you back.

3A) Training includes exercises.
- Document your exercises – have someone who keeps detailed notes, it is essential to understand what went well and what did not
- Debrief and lessons learned – when the exercise is over, review the notes, make sense of the results and then share it with your people. This is not punishment, it’s learning – you need to treat it that way and you need to demonstrate that fact with your people. One key step in making that point clear is to make sure that any negative comments about your performance in the exercise gets as much ‘air time’ as anyone else’s.
- Make sure you include recommendations for improvement in the debrief – the exercise is to help improve not to criticize.

3B) Train the rest of the organization
Just because you trained your people to maintain and operate the IT gear, does the rest of the organization know how to best use it? Make sure there is a training plan for them, and make sure you coordinate the training schedule with their regular work schedule.

4) Find at least one good (great) deputy

You may not be as fortuitous as I was in having a truly superb leader like Pico Torres working with me, but there are lots of sharp folks out there, and with the right support from you (pushing and pulling, suggestions and help) you can make people rise to the occasion, reach their real potential, and become good leaders.

Once you have several capable deputies, delegate everything that isn’t critical, pushing it completely out of your purview – find someone you can trust and have him give you status reports once or twice per week, but otherwise let him run his own show.

5) Bring your boss in early when you need to. You will have internal roadblocks – another department head is being obdurate and is going to upset the entire timeline and affect not only his own but other timelines in the org., explain, negotiate, try to work with him, but wait so long that that his resistance overturns your timeline. Before that happens you need to both inform the other department head and the boss. It’s not about ego, it’s about reaching the overall organizational goal, and if your planning is right, then something needs to be done: so, negotiate, communicate, etc., but don’t fail to act.


1) Have a Plan

Once you know the goal, you need a plan to get there. There are many ways to build plans – pick one and build a plan. But always remember – the goal is important – the plan is simply a tool to get you to the goal. You aren’t installing the IT for the heck of it – what are we trying to do and when must we do? Simple flow charts, PERT charts, whatever process you want to use is fine: but have a process, one that is visible and known to all --- and post it. That being said, I found that there were key elements unique to successful IT plans:

A) Keep perspective - Don’t measure with a micrometer if you are cutting with a chain saw - (the sponson) – if you are engaged in heavy construction, don’t start pulling wire, calibrating systems, and loading software

B) Don’t forget the simple stuff: power, cooling, the building, water, people using the stuff and people maintaining the stuff (Can you access everything? Do you have enough toilets?)

C) Take nothing for granted (never assume) – your plan needs detail in IT, particularly when you have a bunch of contractors to sort through. You may not know all the details, but your deputies need to.

D) Have a TCD – a technology cut-off date - beyond which you will not add new or improved pieces of gear. The reason for this is simple: people have to figure out what they have, figure out how to use it, and figure out how to integrate it with other systems. If there is no TCD – or something like it – you set yourself up for some smart guy to come in and ‘sell you’ some really neat (and they are) piece of gear 10 days before the big thing (in our case steaming into a combat zone, but it could just as easily be a takeover or merger or a new product release and when everyone should be focused on that, they are instead struggling with a new piece of gear. So, know when to say ‘no.’

Many organizations used to have TCDs and got rid of them in the recent past because they feel they will lose too much if they don’t have the latest thing. If you can figure out how to manage that, fair enough. But, in any large organization, if you are trying to integrate information from different systems, you need to have some sort of deliberate process and that will result in a stair-step function. You can make the steps small and frequent, but they must be deliberate. The TCD may not even officially exist, but if there is any complexity to the infrastructure, you will need to have deliberation and control.

E) That being said, you also need an upgrade plan. Any large IT infrastructure improvement will last considerably longer then a single generation of any number of different IT systems. Accordingly, a good plan will both provide for substantial room for growth so that elements of your infrastructure will be adequate for many years, while other elements can be more rapidly replaced without causing disruption to the entire system. Key to this is a training plan that ensures the right people in the organization are receiving the right training so that the new box doesn’t arrive and your people aren’t ready to operate and maintain it.

F) Double it – at least – and add some slop in your plan: no matter what anyone says, someone will come up with a need for more: more bandwidth, more storage, more processing power, more displays, more something. And they will convince somebody – this or that Admiral (or President or CEO) that you can’t survive without it. You need to be ready to do battle with the boss: (Boss, can we install it AFTER the merger? (Acquisition, release of the New Widget, etc.)). You also need to have a plan in place in case he says no. It is a wise thing to brief the boss early on the concept of a TCD because it will make him a harder sell when his old friend suggests you need an ‘upgrade.’ Nevertheless, you will lose some of these fights, so include that in your planning.

2) Take notes

This may sound a bit simplistic, but, I witnessed this too many times with others who didn’t do this: you need to have records of where you started and periodic snap-shots of where you have been. Keep track of your decisions and changes to the plan. People have tried this with no effort to track where they started and it has resulted in some un-pleasantries. There is an argument that the systems are too dynamic to engage in configuration management BUT—I submit that not only for simple issues of maintenance and training, but also for the vital issue of Continuity of Operations, there needs to be at least a baseline snapshot – periodically - on every major component of your IT infrastructure and current settings, etc. (This is particularly true of you office is someplace that has hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes.)

So, have a master file with your:
A) Configuration
B) Your data – blinding flash of the obvious – but it needs to be said
C) Have a paper back up of key items – you’ll know what they are – have a master file, in a fire-proof, water proof cabinet.

3) ‘Better’ is not necessarily so

Remember your focus. What is the goal? The goal is important, the IT, just like the plan, is a tool to achieve the goal. Don’t confuse the two. Design for what you need, not for what is possible.

4) Step Back

At least once every month go look at the whole thing

Spend a couple of hours looking at the master schedule for the organization as a whole and your IT plan – does it all still make sense? Spend enough time one afternoon a month – with your key folks – to pull the plan apart and make sure this is all still a solid and workable approach. When possible schedule this for a Friday afternoon, buy a couple of cheese pizzas and a couple of six-packs, and walk through the plan. Get everyone relaxed and let them throw darts. If you can easily defend against the darts – good enough. If not, set it aside and move on, but go back and pull that issue apart later – either later in the session, or on Monday (and you’ll spend the weekend thinking about it).

Remember that your real goal is to lead and motivate your people: they will do the hard work and achieve those things you and your organization need.

Own the Margins

Winston Churchill once observed, as he watched the staffs planning for several different invasions, that ‘the sum of the margins is usually no.’ This was also true in our planning. Regular contact with all the various contractors and Navy Systems Command people always resulted in each of them padding all of their figures in order to make sure they each had enough time, space, personnel and material to adequately install and calibrate their systems. Unfortunately, if they were all added together, it would have taken three years to prepare the aircraft carrier for it’s deployment, and require three times as much space as we actually had, never mind the entire group of ships.

From this comes this one simple rule: Own the Margins. You need to develop enough of a feel for the details of the installation that you know what is possible, what is impossible, and what is simply ridiculous. And when you reach ‘ridiculous,’ you must simply put your foot down and tell how things will proceed. (Again, this is where the master plan is so useful, as it allows much greater clarity then the poor contractor who is trying to install his single piece of gear).

In Conclusion

In the end, you need to be clear on what you want to achieve, plan for it, communicate it, and train to it. You can’t do it all yourself, the people you are leading will do the real work, your job is to lead them, to make sure they have the tools to execute the plan, and to do what is necessary to get obstacles out of their way. If you do that, you will be amazed at what they achieve.

This article is the result of a suggestion from a friend who thought others might learn from some of the issues I have dealt with.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Commercial Aviation: Who Is Flying the Plane?

Lack of Leadership is Killing Airlines

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time in a number of US airports as I traveled from coast to coast. I have traveled quite a bit on commercial airlines, but, for a variety of reasons, it had been several months since I had last been on a commercial airliner. As is normal, a separation often allows greater clarity of perception, and that was true in this case. Herewith are some observations.

First: airline travel is terrible. This is nothing new, in fact it is a ‘Blinding Flash of the Obvious,’ but it struck me once again after having ‘missed it’ for several months. Everyone is uncomfortable, very uncomfortable, all the time. You stand in line at the counter, you stand in line at the security inspection positions, the seats in the terminals are marginally comfortable at best, assuming you can find one, and it isn’t stained or ripped, and the seats on airplanes are crowded and exceedingly uncomfortable. At least they are expensive.

While you wait you can eat expensive airport terminal food, because you won’t get any on the airplane. It would be nice to say that the food is delicious, but that isn’t true; the food is, at best, average.

While the overwhelming majority of the people who work at the gates and on the aircraft are trying hard, the sense is not that they are trying to be friendly because it is their job and they are service oriented. Rather, you get the feeling that, like all the passengers on the long slow train to hell they feel our pain because it is literally their pain as well. It is true humanity and empathy shining through. The fact that even when the flight crews and ground crews try the hardest they can to make this pleasant it is still a terribly uncomfortable experience tells us that some truly systemic problems underpin the many faults with the airlines and modern air travel.

While some people complain, in various magazines and articles, that people at the ticket counters or at the security positions are surly, I have never really observed that. Rather, I have generally found good people, working hard, trying to do their best.

Two: the actual service is getting worse and worse. It is not simply ‘since 9 – 11.’ Certainly there have been additional burdens placed in the way of those trying to provide better service because we need to ensure better security. But, we have been on a downhill course in airline travel for the past four decades. It is not simply that we have gone from something rare and exciting to something to be dreaded; we have also gone from passengers as people to be coddled to passengers as things to be loaded. The fact that the airlines have been able to take something as romantic as flying and turn it into a chore (at best) is a fairly significant indicator of an ‘across the board’ problem: the entire airline industry – world wide.

People pack clothes expecting them to be lost, or try to bring more onto the aircraft with them because they are tired of waiting for luggage to show up. Anyone foolish enough to actually dress well when flying simply adds to the spectacle at TSA security check, as shoes, belts, jewelry, jackets, etc., are all pulled off.

Third: worse is promised. We have now the wonderful thought of traveling on the Airbus A-380, with perhaps 700 close strangers. Just think how long that will take to load and unload, and how long it will take to get your bags. The 380 is a beautiful piece of machinery. I have followed its development for years, just as, as a kid, I first followed the 747. And in all these years I have read magazines like Aviation Week and read the pilot reports and the engineers’ assessments. I have never read a passenger’s report, one written by someone in a middle seat on a trans Pacific flight.

The fact is that the airline industry is the worst of all worlds, a so-called service industry led by engineers and accountants. Aircraft are designed based on engineering capabilities not passenger concerns, instead of working out ways to more smoothly and quickly board and deplane aircraft, or load and unload luggage, or move passengers in and out of terminals. Airline executives will bemoan the high price of fuel, but the fact is that fuel prices fell steadily for roughly 20 straight years and airlines still went out of business. Fuel costs are rising, true. But, aircraft are easier to maintain, there are more people flying and still the airlines are going out of business. High costs are fuel are a convenient crutch, but they don't explain the problem. As I said, this is systemic.

How to Fix it

First, focus on the passengers. Passengers are not an inconvenience (they’re just treated that way). Before we build the next airplane or the next terminal, sit down with a whole bunch of passengers and see what they would do. The fact that engineers would even consider a passenger airplane that was a blended wing, with virtually no windows - which was recently discussed in a leading aviation technology magazine - to would carry 500 plus passengers is an excellent indicator of a cognitive disconnect. How about designing an aircraft for ease of boarding and deplaning? What about designing a terminal that has four (or more) ramps to load and unload passengers from an aircraft, particularly a wide-body? How about designing aircraft and systems that work together for a fast, simple loading and offloading of luggage? Is the way we currently do these things really the best we can do? These would all seem to be relatively straightforward engineering problems that could be readily solved with a little intellectual elbow grease.

Second, Work with the FAA and the ICAO. Let’s find a better way to get aircraft airborne and back on land. Is it really impossible to solve the problem of waiting on the ramp? The stories are ludicrous, except true, of people spending hours in the aircraft waiting to take-off. (I spent four hours on the ramp in October, in a small airport, waiting to take off). The least cost to the company is the fuel cost and engine cycle time, the real cost is the anger and frustration felt by the passengers, anger and frustration they will direct at the airlines every chance they get.

Third, get upper management out of their ‘mahogany prisons’* and into the terminals. A few companies have demonstrated a close connection between upper management and the passengers in the terminals – SouthWest comes to mind – but many seem to be as far removed from their customers as is possible. When was the last time the senior officers of your airline traveled coach? Make it a requirement that they fly coach, with their families, at least once a quarter, unannounced. Let them wait in the queues, wait on the tarmac, finish the crossword puzzle and have nothing left to do, say a prayer that the airplane will soon be airborne so they can use the toilet, let them wait for all the bags to come through.

There are more ideas - if any airline is having trouble thinking of them, give me a call.

The fact is that airline travel should be the easiest sales pitch on the planet: a combination of the excitement of travel with flying – perhaps the most romantic invention in man’s history. Instead, we have all come to dread it. Leadership, not management, is needed to turn it around. The technology exists. The goal exists. We all know how airline travel should work. It now requires a little leadership to bring reality closer to that goal.

* A wonderful description of the executive suite in many large corporations, a term I first heard from Robert Townsend

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Consequences and Leadership: Addressing Risk Management

I saw an ad recently for a seminar that was going to address risk. Specifics would include such subjects as balancing risks and opportunities, identifying lower risk opportunities, building a risk management environment in your corporation, etc.

This reminds me of an effort that the military services began in the late 1980’s to use ‘Operational Risk Management’ (ORM) in decision-making. Similar subjects, with a military perspective, were taught to officers throughout the services, particularly in the Navy and Air Force.

Unfortunately, in a very real sense, it’s a bad idea.

Managing Risk is about management. It’s about keeping what you have in an uncertain world. But, over the long term, worrying about risk is worrying about the wrong thing. The problem lies both in the words being used and the implications of those words, the mental condition created in any organization when it starts to act in accordance with those words.

The dictionary defines risk as a situation involving exposure to danger. Certainly, exposing yourself to danger without purpose – running into a burning building, for example – isn’t terribly smart. But the language fails to capture the real question at hand. The question is not, or should not be, ‘What is the risk?’ The question should be ‘What are the consequences of not acting?’

I can hear the ORM instructors saying ‘but that’s exactly what we meant.’ Unfortunately, that’s not true. Risk talks about danger during the action (or inaction). Consequence deals with effects. In fact, consequence is defined as the result or effect.

Any organization that is managing risk is, in a strict sense, focused on the wrong thing. Managing risk becomes, in effect, an effort to reduce and regulate the level of danger. While every one who goes through risk management training will respond ‘well, with an end in mind,’ the fact is that the language, and the intellectual effort, is on the initial action. Very quickly, safety figures become the measure of success, whether it is safety in actual operations (number of accidents, losses, etc.) or losses in investments.

This is not to say that there aren’t appropriate uses for ORM tools, particularly in certain fiduciary relationships (banks managing other people’s money) or in non-vital events such as putting on an air show.

But that misses the key point that any organization should be focused on results, on effects, on consequences. And often, when ORM tools are stressed without a greater stress placed on desired results, on goals, organizations lose themselves in ORM and ‘playing it safe.’ And playing it safe soon becomes an effort to manage what you have, to protect it, rather than looking ahead and trying to grow; playing it safe focuses on today, consequences focuses on tomorrow.

Blaise Pascal, in his famous argument on whether to believe in the existence of God (Pascal’s Wager) sums up the situation nicely with a warning that can be shortened to ‘you must never confuse the probability of an event with the consequences of an event.’

Such thinking, implicit or explicit, was behind US development and maintenance of its nuclear forces: the consequences of nuclear war were (and are) so severe, that nearly any cost for preparation can be justified if, in preparing for the war those forces prevent the war from starting, irrespective of whether the actual likelihood of such a war starting is very low.

Many businesses and many other organizations miss the key implication here: what is the desired result should drive your decision-making. Whether that result is a positive – you achieve X, or negative – you avoid Y, you need to be focused on the result.

What does this have to do with leadership? Two things: first leaders provide the vision, the goal, the desired result. If the organization is focused on today, the leadership isn’t leading. Second, ORM, safety under any terms, is seductive and comforting. It can provide an ‘easy’ set of answers to many problems. But it doesn’t move you forward. It requires someone with a real will, with real leadership, to move the organization past the comfort zone and focus on the long term goals. Managing risk, whether you use a formal ORM process or your own, informal process, is important and can be quite valuable. But risk management – under any name – must never be allowed to dominate your operations or your pursuit of your goals.

In short, ORM processes are valuable tools, but leadership is not about managing tools, leadership is about understanding consequences and achieving desired results.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Thoughts on Education and the Computer Age – Shift Happens Part 2

Thoughts on Education and the Computer Age – Shift Happens
In response to 'shift happens' you tube video: Part 2 – Some Solutions

In light of the exponential growth in processing speeds, in the proliferation of data, and in the rise and fall of new areas of study at every increasing rates, what must our schools do to best prepare the students of today and tomorrow to face the world of the 21st century?

1) Recognize the importance of principles and fundamentals
2) Allow variation in schools
3) Stress continuing education – particularly in industry

1) Recognize the importance of principles and fundamentals

If we can’t guess what specific subject will be the ‘latest rage’ in two years, we can prepare students to know how to analyze the cognitive material in front of them. This is particularly important if it becomes ‘impossible’ to keep ahead of the developments in any given field. How do we prepare students to conduct analysis?

Despite the massive growth in data, understanding is rooted in fundamentals. We may have exabytes of data piling up around the world, but the language, the mathematics and the science behind the data is still essential to understanding any data. And the bulk of that language, science and mathematics remain the same.

Language, and understanding of the language, is the first step in this process. We must be able to communicate, and the rules of a given language exist so that we all arrive at the same understanding when we see or hear the same words. Students need to understand how the language is constructed and how it operates.

Of course, an increased emphasis on language really is also a call for an increased emphasis, from a societal perspective, on clarity of language. This does not mean that we keep language, particularly the English language, from growing and changing. But, it does require the discipline by all educators (and publishers and consumers) to insist on clarity and precision in speaking and writing, both to develop that particular skill and to stress the importance of ensuring that others understand us. So, students need to know how to use the language to achieve a higher level of clarity.

Schools must also teach cognitive skills, specifically mathematics and logic. If we expect the graduates, the product of the schools, to be able to look at a constantly changing landscape, and one that is changing at an ever higher rate, they must have the cognitive tools to be able to make sense of that landscape. Much more important than a specific field of study, which might explain a portion of that landscape for a certain period of time, is the ability to analyze the landscape and make sense of it. This is more a product of logic and metaphysics, built on a foundation of philosophy.

Science and mathematics must also be stressed. Mathematics is, in a very real sense, the language of all science. Fundamentals of mathematics: algebra, probability and statistics, calculus are essential for any activity in any field of science or engineering. We need to ensure that every student receives a solid foundation in all of these areas.

While language, logic, mathematics and science are essential if we want students to be able to tackle a completely new ‘landscape,’ our society also needs to ensure that there is sufficient understanding of our social and civic roots, that the new citizens of the 21st century understand those things that we don’t necessarily want to change. Civic duties and the role of the citizen in a democracy are as vital today as they have ever been. A sound understanding of the drama that is the history of the United States, the origins of the Constitution, the proper roles, responsibilities and limitations of government in a republic, these are as important fields of study as any other.

Finally, there is a real requirement that we ensure that students are well rounded. Accordingly, a decent exposure to the arts should be maintained in our schools. This has several benefits, one being to ensure that the creative process isn’t stifled, for it is that very process which provides some of the most fertile ground for the synthesis of disparate information and knowledge into greater understanding.

2) Allow Variation in Schools

That being said, there is no need for every school to address the basics with the same curriculum. Testing is important, results are important, but the process to get there is best left to the oversight of the states, the cities and towns or, best of all to the individual schools.

While a point was made that the US government only spends a tiny amount of money on research and development (R&D) within education, how much is spent on R&D by state and local governments, by private institutions and by the corporate world? My guess is significantly more than that. What is needed is not more money devoted to a centrally controlled, bureaucratic process, but rather an incentive for those who do conduct such research to share it with other schools and universities. What if we made R&D (perhaps all R&D) a tax exemption? We might also consider that any donation of R&D results to a school or university can also constitute an exemption.

Trying to drive rigidly structured curriculums by any government, other than the local school-board is probably a bad idea. The school-board should be immediately and directly responsible to the students and their parents. Let them structure the curriculum, and let them figure out how to prepare the students for various tests and for college. Poor results over time will result in their being recalled by parents, which is as it should be. Parents will figure this out much faster then any government oversight process – federal, state or local.

Furthermore, the variation will allow creative approaches to teaching; some will be good, some not so good. Occasionally one will come along that is superb. When it does, it will rapidly proliferate to other schools. That variation and growth is what we need to continually improve the ‘product’ – the graduates – of our schools.

While much has been made recently of the idea that if you have standard tests teachers will instruct to those tests and students won’t learn anything else, the act is that we do need to establish performance standards. It would seem that the right answer would be to expand the scope of the tests. The idea of a week of testing shouldn’t alarm us, no matter how unpleasant it may sound for the students. If there are no standards, no baseline, there will be no means to determine progress. And it is quite certain that our standards have fallen over time. If you doubt this, pick up a copy of McGuffey Readers – it is probable that a fairly large number of our high school graduates could not pass the tests in the reader, which was designed for 1st through 6th grade in 1836. If we face a crisis, it’s time to make the standards more rigorous, more demanding then ever before.

As important, if there are some schools that continually get their students into the best schools and others that clearly are below the average, those numbers need to be brought to light. Only by doing that will corrective action be forced.

3) Stress continuing education – and let industry play little kid soccer

As to how we address these continuingly changing fields, the answer is that we make it the purpose of high schools and colleges to create graduates who have sound fundamentals, people who know how to think, can dissect a problem and construct one or more possible solutions, and who have some ability to place a given problem in context.

That is their role. As to who takes up the problem of the rapidly changing landscape? The answer would seem to be two fold: on the one hand, to keep pace with certain very high rate of change problems – following the soccer ball, if you will – would be best managed by industry, with an assist from technical schools and community colleges. Technical schools and community colleges, acting in concert with specific industries, would seem to be a good place to start: they would more easily change into centers for short, intensive post-graduate centers for both training and education on emerging fields. Specific industries should be given tax exemptions (as should students) to support these schools. The schools would then be responsible for keeping their faculty and curriculum ‘current’ and focused on the latest twists and turns of the world in front of them.

Traditional universities would focus on preparing students to enter the 21st century by giving them the real tools they need to address any field, rather than chasing the soccer ball themselves. If the universities want to attempt to also play in that environment, they should look to expand their campuses – perhaps ad a fifth year to the standard four year curriculum – and use that to provide focused training and education beyond the realm of the foundation. Students would then have at most a single year ‘lag’ on the real world, rather than taking classes in freshman year that are passé by senior year.

We also need to develop an intellectual environment that expects various professional associations to insist on continuing education among their members. My father was a surgeon who routinely attended seminars and workshops on new surgical techniques, who constantly studied his ‘tradecraft,’ and never failed to prepare himself for any operation. As a society we should expect similar effort from every profession. President Lincoln said that ‘if I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I would spend six sharpening the ax.’ Education, especially continuing education, is sharpening the ax. We, as a society, need to make ‘sharpening the ax’ minimum acceptable behavior.

There will be those who object that we can’t teach these subjects in high school, or even college. One answer to that is ‘you’re right, we’re doomed.’ The other answer, the one I prefer, is ‘why not?’ In fact, people actually are just about as smart as you insist they be, as a whole. If we set our sights low, I guarantee we will have low results. If we set are sights high, very high, and demand high performance both from our students and our teachers, at every level, maybe, just maybe we will all be pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Thoughts on Education and the Computer Age - Shift Happens

Thoughts on Education and the Computer Age – Shift Happens
In response to 'shift happens' you tube video: Part 1 – The Problem
March 1st, 2008

A friend sent me two YouTubes to watch, both part of ‘Shift Happens.’ They are interesting and thought provoking and, in conclusion, encourage a dialogue on the future of education. The following is presented as a partial response to that query for dialogue.1

In the two short videos that I saw, much is made about three key points:

1) Growth in the amount of data
2) Increase in computational power
3) New fields of study

Let's look at each

1) The growth in the amount of data.

The commentary on rise in the generation of data (exabytes worth of data every month or week or day) and the throughput rates of a trillion bps are all fascinating. But what does that really mean? First, there has to be recognition that much of what is generated, MOST of what is generated, is either strict entertainment (the vast bulk of YouTube videos, for example) or are a regurgitation of already existent data. The fact that the average 21 year old will generate 250,000 e-mails or IM by the time of his 21 birthday, means (assuming they start e-mailing or IMing at age 3) that they send 38 e-mails or IMs every day of their life. The vast bulk of that data is of no significance to the world beyond his or her group of friends.

Similarly, it is posited that the average human in the 1800s would be exposed to as much information in a lifetime as is found in eight New York Times. You can now encounter that much information in a few hours on the internet. While I’m not sure of the first half of this equation (how much information you would be exposed to in 1800), exposing someone to information isn’t really the issue, the issue is how much is processed?

The answer to that question is found in the nature of knowledge itself. Whenever 'facts' (I am assuming they are all true) like this are presented, there is an inference that with the growth of data will somehow come 'Wisdom.' That ignores the very nature of wisdom.

Who would want mold in a laboratory and why are all these cantaloupes sitting in the sun?

Wisdom is not a simple accumulation of mountains of data. Rather, wisdom is the final stage in a long and difficult process of synthesis of cognitive material over time. It begins with simple data. Data are sifted, much is discarded through the Socratic dialectic, and eventually some are synthesized into information. Information is then sifted, and more data is added, through more rigorous effort, and synthesis eventually leads to knowledge. Think of the journey from high school student to pre-med student to medical student to intern and resident and finally a practicing physician. By the time the MD is entering private practice he or she has built a 'knowledge base' on medicine. Over the course of a number of years that knowledge base, synthesized with other knowledge bases - chemistry perhaps, behavioral psychology, physics, etc. - (plus additional information and data, carefully selected) will allow the development of understanding. Even later, additional fields of knowledge and even understanding may be synthesized and we begin to see the development of wisdom.

What happens if we continually add more data? Do we create more wisdom?

Assume that you, as an individual, can sift through 10,000 datum per day, identify 250 key datum, and synthesize those into 50 units of information - every day. (Disregard the numbers, this is illustrative only). If I give you 100,000 pieces datum, what will you be able to do? Well, the answer is that you will be lucky to produce 10 units of information per day. You may in fact increase your speed of sifting data, perhaps identifying 500 or even 1000 key datum daily. But you will have run out of time to synthesize them. And tomorrow you will have 100,000 more data. And so, as we increase the speed of data generation and data transmission, we increase the amount of chaff you need to sift through to find the ‘kernels,’ reducing the amount of time available for synthesis - higher order mental activity.

The immediate response from many will be: "But, this is the value of computers - the ability to winnow out the kernels from the chaff." Well, yes and no. It is also the danger.

The key to developing higher order cognitive material is the synthesis of apparently unrelated items into a new synthesis. But that is exactly the material a computer would - logically - weed out. Computers will do as they are programmed, ‘sifting’ based on established relationships. And, we are told, at ever increasing speeds. Creating information from data or knowledge from information is the synthesis of apparently disparate items. Until someone ‘sees’ the new relationship, putting the two together ‘makes no sense.’

And so, penicillin, cheaply produced using cantaloupes, saved the lives of thousands and thousands of Allied soldiers during the last year of World War II.

2) The increase in computational power

There has been a point made that within 30 or 40 years a single $1,000 lap-top will have more computational power than every human alive.

Frankly, I’m surprised it will take that long. (I’m also not sure how you measure the computational capacity of one human, never mind billions, but I’m not sure it matters.) When I joined the Navy in the late 1970s the F-14A was the crème de la crème of tactical aviation and its AWG-9 radar and its ‘massive processor’ was the apex of tactical airborne weapon systems. The AWG-9 had, if I remember correctly, an Intel 8080 8bit processor, which gave it the capability to run something like 500,000 operations per second. As was pointed out at the time, this was more computational power than was available to NASA when they planned the first moon shot in the mid-1960s.

By the time I was working on my masters, six years later, I had a desk-top computer that was nearly two orders of magnitude more capable than the AWG-9. The fact is, that is what computers are good for: crunching numbers.

What is not answered is: what are they crunching? Where is all that data coming from and of what value is it? What is clear is that the computer does not know how to assign real value, only humans can do that.

As the economist Leo Cherne once said, “The computer is incredibly fast, accurate and stupid. Man is unbelievably slow, inaccurate and brilliant.”

3) New Fields of Study

The original discussion is intended to ask the question as to how educational systems were preparing students for the world of tomorrow. This point is stressed by discussing how few fields found in colleges today existed just ten or twenty years ago and that the rate of change is so high that within a few years fields of study will rise and fall, and new ones will be created so fast, that students will enter college to study fields that will be irrelevant by the time they graduate and new fields, one that they didn’t even know existed when they entered school will now be key fields of study.

And, by some date in the near term the world will be generating data at such a rate that the amount of data will be doubling every 3 or 4 days.

This would, in fact, suggest to me that we would all become dumber.

Here’s why. If education requires educators, teachers, mentors to lead the student through the tangle in front of him or her, and we arrive at a point in time where new data and new fields are growing so fast that we can’t even train people before the field disappears and is replaced with another, then we can never develop expertise in that field. We are thus confronted with a breaking point, a knuckle in the curve, if you will, after which the amount of data has become so overwhelming that there are no more teachers of these advanced fields, only new explorers, isolated from each other by canyon walls of data and the isolation of field unique languages. Individuals will know more and more about increasingly narrow fields of regard, and less and less about the rest of the world. They will become isolated by the sheer mass of data they are confronted with every day, networking around the world with the few other folks who understand them (because they now can) and finding themselves increasingly unable to communicate with those who are not in their field.

We have already seen this begin, with many people increasingly hesitant to engage in critical analysis of anything if it might cause them to question any so called expert. Instead, more experts are called in and the argument disappears into a tangle of jargon.

So, how do we fix it?

The point of these videos was to begin a discussion on where to take education. That is a noble endeavor and I will offer some thoughts on that subject tomorrow.

1 Some thoughts on numbers presented in the video. China’s numbers are presented in a somewhat ominous manner. But there is more to those numbers than what was presented. The fact that there are more unemployed in China then there are employed in the US translates into more than 150 million unemployed Chinese. The fact is that the vast bulk of China’s population lives in an area the same size as the US east of the Mississippi River. Putting 150 million unemployed into that size of an area is a problem that verges on crisis for China.