Saturday, March 17, 2012


There is an old saw that ‘you get what you inspect.’

This is a saying that is particularly well regarded among those who command ships, and there is many an admiral in the US Navy who made his career on his ability to carry out demanding inspections of his ships. But it raises a simple question: are inspections effective in ensuring that an organization (ship, corporation, non-profit, etc.) remains focused on its goals and is efficiently and effectively using its people and assets in moving toward those goals?

The short answer is: It depends.

There are three major pieces to keeping an organization, any organization, on track. All three are important. Any two without the third is like a stool that is missing a leg: it will fall over (it’s just a matter of when).

The three pieces are:

1) Communicating the vision. You – the leader – need to build followers who have the same vision – the same goal – as you. You ability to do this is essential. It is, in fact, your primary task over the long term. If you fail to do this, then when you leave there will be no more believers in the goal, and the organization will never get there. So, whatever the goal is, however it is encapsulated in a vision, it is your responsibility to communicate it, and to make believers.

2) Training and teaching your subordinates. Once you have found ‘followers’ and made them ‘believers’ you need to give them the tools they need to achieve the goals. Part of that you should already have in-work – a plan, an executable plan – that leads to the goal. But you also need to make certain that each of your teammates (and they are teammates now, or shipmates as they say in the Navy) is able to do what is assigned. And that means you need to train and educate and equip them with the necessary knowledge, skills and tools to carry out the plan. This is – again – your responsibility as the leader.

3) Instituting a control process. There needs to be a means by which you not only keep everyone on track, but one that allows you to monitor process, identify problems, apply corrections, and when necessary, change course. Remember, the plan isn’t important by itself, it is a means to reach the goal. You need to know how much progress is being made. And that involves two steps: establishing metrics and regular reporting on those metrics (getting the right information – both on your own organization and on the world around you (and how it impacts your organization)), and carrying out inspections.

Inspections are more than audits, they are way to communicate with the organization. Positive inspections communicate, teach and improve the organization, negative inspections punish. If you have developed your ‘followers’ properly, they will have adopted your goal as their goal, and they will want it badly enough that they will 'hawk' the process and the daily goings-on and make sure things stay on track. Inspections will be analogous to watching game films with the head coach who will continue to correct because everyone wants to get better.

There was a recent government study on US operations overseas - specifically Iraq and Afghanistan - that concluded that perhaps as much as $60 billion has been lost to waste of the approximately $1 trillion that we have spent in the last 10 years in or concerning these two countries. (Frankly, I find that remarkable: that only 6 cents of every dollar was lost to waste is pretty remarkable. If you have never been involved in large government programs you may not understand that. Having seen how inefficient government can be, I would have guessed the number would have been in the $200 - 250 billion range. Nevertheless, $60 billion is a great deal of money.) So, there is now a bill in Congress to tighten reporting, oversight and inspection.

It raises a simple question: will it work? My answer is: I doubt it. Inspections and increased oversight will only work in the short term. That is why some ship captains often use that method: they know they are only going to be in command for 24 months so they spend 24 months squeezing ship and crew so that everything looks perfect during their command tour. They leave the crew exhausted and frustrated and the ship able to pass inspections but able to do little else well. But over the long term does it provide more capable crews and ships to the fleets? The answer is no.

Long term solutions, as with the issue of managing waste in an operation that lasts as long as US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, require changes in the people, not just the process. Increasing the number or depth of inspections, but not changing the process will also fail to eliminate the problem.

Can you eliminate problems in an organization, problems like waste? Certainly. But the key is not inspection - though inspection is an important element. The key is leadership - people have to be committed to the system and the end goal and willing to keep the process honest and on track. And that is your job – you’re the leader.


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