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Jeffery Lay

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Why the United States Military Should Run Corporate America

Posted: 05/08/2012 2:20 pm

Does this really sound all that crazy?

In a world where corporations get massive bailouts, and small business owners are under relentless attack, one has to wonder -- what happened to accountability?

The military is certainly not without fault; what is not lacking, however, is accountability. Indeed, accountability is one of the greatest lessons I learned during my 24 years of military service. It's the key attribute corporate America could, once and for all, adopt. If it did, perhaps our country could return itself to prosperity.

But accountability isn't a one-way street; it doesn't hide in the dark alleys of top-down management. Rather, it begins with leadership from the top. Military culture is rich in American exceptionalism; obfuscation is not tolerated. It literally commands everyone "stand up and take your grade," rank be damned.

Indeed, Naval Aviation is serious business; danger is a known quantity, and survival requires a continuous stream of consciousness toward that aim. What quenches its thirst most, however, is mutual accountability -- an environment where the emperor couldn't possibly run naked through the boardroom lest he or she be called out for it.

In 1954 alone, the United States Navy lost 776 aircraft. Rather than stand around assigning blame -- let alone, make excuses -- Naval Aviation instead got busy. A series of "no holds barred" investigations revealed an intense need for continuous, systematic process improvement. The Navy acted; corporate America can too.

How did we do it? We faced our failings, and didn't pad our stats.

Rather than accept the status quo, the Navy embraced a new mentality, one that openly stated only this -- perfection is attainable. We had to believe perfection was possible; anything short opened the door to excuse making. Imagine if corporate America embraced the same thesis. Where might we be as a result?

Those same 776 aircraft destroyed in 1954 equated to over 50 accidents per 100,000 flight hours. By 1969 -- the year TOPGUN was founded -- the Navy had reduced its accident rate nearly 75% in 15 years when, for the first time in decades, the accident rate went back up! What went wrong? Sadly failure.

It might surprise you to learn the Navy Fighter Weapons School (aka TOPGUN), of which I am a graduate, was in fact founded on a failure. Lessons learned in the years preceding 1969 concentrated mostly on safety, not tactics. And tactics, my friends, is the lifeblood of a fighter pilot.

Combat losses to enemy fire totaled nearly 1,000 during the 3 years before TOPGUN's founding. Independent research conducted by two branches of the United States military reached different conclusions; one believed it was a technology issue, while the other pinpointed human performance. Sound familiar?

No different than the urgency corporate America faces today, the Navy recommitted itself to the execptionalism it once embraced. Building on a culture of mutual accountability, it crafted a new mantra for conducting operations: Plan - Brief - Execute - Debrief, affectionately referred to as our "circle of life," or simply "PBED."

PBED details the thought process every Naval Aviator lives his or her life by. Rather than running aimlessly into execution, we first slow down and set objectives -- ones that are clear, measurable, and attainable -- before crafting a very specific plan.

Finalizing that plan can take hours. It's not uncommon for a fighter pilot to spend 10 hours preparing for a two-hour mission. But it is the utter preparation, as opposed to an unscripted reaction to unforeseen problems, which separates Naval Aviation from the masses. Every company in America should take heed.

Plan in hand, the mission begins with a thorough brief. Contingencies developed in the planning process are detailed, and we delve out responsibilities with precision. Even the back-up plan has a back-up; to the best of our ability, we leave nothing to chance. Thoroughly planned and briefed, execution itself becomes a far easier task.

Yet despite 10 hours of planning, and two hours of combat culminated by landing a high performance strike fighter aboard the pitching deck of an American aircraft carrier in total darkness, no mission is complete without a thorough debrief. Not for the feint of heart, these sessions can last hours as well. But we commit to it because only there, in a room soaked with mutual accountability, do we truly learn.

If you're anything like the average person, you have to be asking yourself: why go through all this? The answer is simple -- excellence is a choice.

If you want to be the best in your field, you must commit yourself to excellence. Naval Aviation is the poster child for excellence; no other enterprise even comes close. Ours is a culture where mistakes are written in blood, and we defend that culture with our lives.

And it's all based on a level of trust only made possible by mutual accountability. Today, despite operating in an environment replete with untold danger and risk, you're far more likely to recall the last 10 corporate failures than you are to recall the last 10 aircraft carrier accidents. Does that really surprise anyone?

Perhaps the title of this piece isn't so crazy after all.

Jeffery Lay is the author of the new book "TOPGUN on Wall Street: Why the United States Military Should Run Corporate America"

 

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