Lean production and British military doctrine

Earlier this year, I read The Machine That Changed The World, by Womack, Jones and Roos. It’s the ground-breaking book which introduced the Western world to lean production, the industrial management philosophy which was pioneered by Toyota, and is now well on the way to replacing the previous paradigm, Fordist mass production, in all kinds of businesses and organisations around the world. For an academic tract about factory management, it was a surprisingly gripping read, and got me thinking about the parallels between lean and my experience in the British Army.

My first encounter with lean was at my first regiment, where the officer in charge of the REME workshops where vehicles were serviced and repaired was attempting to introduce lean practices. What he told me sounded interesting, although at the time I assumed it was something only applicable to a mechanical workshop, and didn’t look into it any further. I’ve since learned that, while his area (vehicle repair, at scale) was a classic domain for lean principles, they are much more widely applicable.

Indeed, the more I read about lean, the more parallels I saw with the fundamental doctrines and leadership practices of the Army as a whole. British Army doctrine hasn’t, as far as I’m aware, been directly influenced by lean, as its approach to operations – ‘manoeuvre warfare‘ – is an older idea, dating back to the 19th century, than the Toyota Production System, which was developed in the 1950s. But it seems that the challenges European armies found themselves facing, in terms of co-ordinating large forces of men and technology in essentially chaotic circumstances, were alike enough to those faced by automotive manufacturers in post-war Japan, to stimulate a convergent evolution towards similar solutions.

According to the authors of TMTCTW, the ‘heart of the lean factory’ is the ‘dynamic work team’. This team must have a wide variety of skills, in order to be able to work together and rotate flexibly between tasks, and must be proactive in problem solving. However, creating such teams is not easy: simply placing workers into groups will not do, as genuine lean teams will only emerge when morale is high, the workers are confident that they are truly valued by management (and have job security), and are incentivised to contribute to a process of continual improvement.

There’s another organisation I know which really understands the value of effective, motivated teams, and is very good at forging them. For a start, job security with good conditions and benefits has traditionally been one of the cornerstones of the Army contract. Soldiers’ confidence in that has been damaged somewhat by recent rounds of redundancy, but even still, they know that they’re not simply going to turn up one day to be told there’s a slump in sales, the factory has ceased production and there’s no work for them.

Job security is just the first element in building morale and teamwork. ‘Maintenance of morale’ and ‘cooperation’ are two of the ten ‘principles of war‘ which underpin the military’s understanding of how to achieve success. And they’re no empty ‘corporate values’ phrases. In practical terms, they’re achieved in a number of ways. By ensuring commanders take an active interest in their subordinates’ welfare, personal issues which may affect work are managed and mitigated: this is one example of a lean approach, like the ‘5 Whys‘, being applied to root out underlying problems, in this case with people rather than machines or processes.

The time and effort the Army puts into training and developing individuals and teams to be multi-skilled and flexible is second to none. And, as in Toyota’s career management, teamwork and ability to motivate and develop others are among the key qualities examined when assessing individuals’ performance, and are rewarded with promotion.

Another example of the strong relationship between workers and managers in lean is the concept of gemba, ‘the right place’, which emphasises the importance of managers spending time on the factory floor in order to understand what their workers are doing, and what issues they are facing. The parallel to this in the Army is the existence of timetabled periods where officers are banned from their offices and must go out and work with their soldiers on whatever they’re doing – often vehicle maintenance. An indication of how much older this tradition is than Toyota’s gemba is the fact that, in the Royal Artillery, these sessions are called ‘stables’: they originally referred to work of looking after the horses, not mechanical vehicles.

It’s not just the Army’s approach to building teams which is inherently lean, but also its idea of what kind of work they should be put to. Instead of, as in mass production, assigning each worker a single, simple task to be repeated in a defined, inflexible way ad nauseam, lean industries assign a set of tasks to a team, and then leave the team to figure out the best way of achieving them. This focus on defining the end-state the team must reach, while leaving them the latitude to decide on specifics, crops up again in lean supply systems: suppliers are not given precise blueprints to manufacture, but functional requirements to develop their own prototypes for.

Strikingly, it’s also the basis of the Army’s core leadership philosophy: mission command. This system is the opposite of the common misconception of the military as an inherently inflexible organisation in which people are trained not to think, but to follow orders to the letter. The truth couldn’t be more different. In fact, historically, that ‘follow orders’ mentality can be seen as a parallel to the industrial philosophy of mass production, and similarly preceded the modern method as a paradigm. From Greek phalanxes to Napoleonic rifle companies, it has been the norm throughout most of the history of warfare. However, it was in the 19th century, when armies and warzones were becoming too large and complex for individual commanders to control, that these ideas became obsolete. The Prussians replaced it with the new concept of Auftragstaktik in which subordinate commanders were encouraged to understand higher-level tactical goals and work out their own solutions towards them. That this was a much more robust and successful approach within the inevitably chaotic and changing circumstances of battle was one of the major reasons that the Prussian army enjoyed so many victories in the late 19th century. Other nations were only able to compete after they’d adopted the same principles of command.

The more one looks at how both lean producers and modern militaries implement this approach, the more similarities crop up. An essential feature of lean production is the transfer of the maximum number of tasks and responsibilities to workers adding value (ie, working on the product itself, not in supporting or managerial roles): this is as succinct a statement of mission command as one could imagine. It can be summed up in the ‘Strategic Corporal‘, the theory that in modern military deployments, which are often highly sensitive, like peacekeeping, or security operations targeting insurgents hiding within civilian populations, and in the glare of the world’s media, the Corporal (a junior rank) will be making decisions on the ground which could affect the strategic picture (the highest level of command, at which Generals and governments operate). In order to achieve successful mission command, the Army applies principles such as ‘unity of effort’, ‘freedom of action’, ‘trust’ and ‘mutual understanding’, all practised and developed through its methods of selecting, training and developing individuals in order to create multi-skilled, highly motivated, problem-solving teams, some of which were outlined above.

The lean approach can be summarised as a set of principles to be applied. The very first of these is the key importance of understanding ‘value’ from the customer’s perspective. Everything else follows on from this, as all effort is designed to add value, and any activity which doesn’t is identified as waste, and eliminated. This might seem difficult to map across to military operations, but it actually does, quite neatly, when you replace ‘customer value’ with the effect one wishes to achieve, either on the enemy (in conventional warfare) or the situation (more generally applied to multi-faceted operations). While lean production is focused on value, and shaping all activities towards creating it, the British Army’s doctrine for designing military operations is called ‘Effects-Based Planning‘ and is similarly focused on the end-state, and concentrating resources and efforts towards that end.

Effects-Based Planning uses analytical tools like the ‘7 Questions’ Estimate, which again reveals numerous links to lean, the more one looks into it. The first of the seven questions is ‘What is the situation in which I’m operating, and why?’: it’s about gaining a deep understanding of what’s currently happening. The second question is ‘What is my commander’s intent, and why?’: you must buy into the bigger plan, understand and implement it. The repeated ‘whys’ would be instantly familiar to anyone who’s used lean: Toyota encouraged its workers to solve problems by asking ‘5 Whys’ to understand problems. It’s not just a superficial similarity: when teaching the 7 Questions, instructors are always insistent in repeating (often to their students’ frustration) the question, ‘so what?’ in response to each analytical deduction. The aim is the same: to keep drilling down into a deeper understanding of the situation, in order to extract the underlying facts which will make a difference to the operation.

These doctrines, principles, tools and practices are all interlinked, both in lean and in the military. Effects-Based Planning and the 7 Questions Estimate force the officer or soldier to understand and focus on the end result; this is critical to the successful implementation of mission command; all of these can only be achieved when personnel are well-trained and motivated, and mutual trust has been forged between commanders and subordinates. A parallel virtuous cycle exists in the philosophy and application of lean.

The Army’s doctrines regarding operations and their successful prosecution are summarised in its 10 principles of war. Some of these, such as ‘security’ and ‘surprise’ don’t have obvious counterparts in lean; however, it’s astonishing how many do:

  • Maintenance of morale – Dynamic, motivated work teams
  • Economy of effort – Elimination of waste
  • Flexibility – Multi-skilled workers, use of general tools which can be quickly adapted to different purposes
  • Cooperation – Not just teamwork on the factory floor, but, in Toyota’s case, the unifying of business goals between itself and suppliers through shared equity
  • Sustainability – A reactive supply chain

And, most fundamental of all, the first and primary principle of war compared with the first principle of lean:

  • Selection and maintenance of the aim – Understand value from the customer’s perspective

The language and context are very different, but the essential meaning is the same: identify, and focus all efforts towards, the end result.

3 thoughts on “Lean production and British military doctrine

  1. Any thoughts on why this isn’t seen more elsewhere (or perhaps why it’s not been successful elsewhere); e.g. how come it’s not been rolled out to the NHS? Do you think these practices require the right kinds of people to work, or is it just about getting buy in at the right level?

    If you’ve not yet read it, SkunkWorks may be of interest: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/101438.Skunk_Works?from_search=true
    This is a book about how some of the most revolutionary US planes were built; and shares a lot of the same ideas as lean too.

    • If the question is why hasn’t lean/Auftragstaktik developed independently elsewhere, it’s because there’s a significant initial hurdle to get over to make it work, and there were very specific sets of circumstances in late 19th century European warfare, and the post-war Japanese automobile industry, which made it advantageous for those organisations to make those leaps.

      But what I think you mean is, why haven’t more organisations adopted lean since it’s emerged from Japan? Well, firstly, TMTCTW was only published in 1991, and at first, it was only of interest to the automobile industry. So it hasn’t had much time to have an effect. But it is getting very popular now. Lean methodologies have been systematised into qualifications like Lean Six Sigma, which are highly valued across many sectors. Most organisations are trying to adapt and adopt lean principles. The NHS certainly is, as is the BBC, for example. However, there are numerous factors which hinder the adoption of lean practices, even in their natural environment (an appendix to the 2007 edition of TMTCTW described some of the reasons lean hadn’t revolutionised the western auto industry as quickly as they’d expected). The temptation of managers to micro-manage (especially when they’re under pressure and being held responsible for their subordinates’ errors), the natural resistance of people to change, and the initial investment hurdle, are all very powerful factors. I’m sure you can think of others.

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