Thursday, December 27, 2012

March Tables

When I was a young Army lieutenant during the "Cold War," I participated in a REFORGER exercise.  This served as the opportunity to practice the worst case scenario that our military strategy envisioned, with the deployment of thousands from the United States to Europe, drawing pre-staged equipment, and fighting east to the East German border.  It was all practice, of course, but it helped us understand the implications of moving people and equipment to do battle with the Soviets. 

Movements in Europe were a very challenging operation.  Nothing was easy about moving a 60-ton tank with a steel bridge on top of it.  It got us across small rivers just fine, but it did not take the narrow turns of Germany's small towns very well.  Multiply that times the thousands of trucks, tanks, and armored vehicles that maneuvered by Highway, through small villages, and across open farmland.  It was a transportation nightmare, one with no margin for error.  One broken down tank could stall thousands of civilian cars and military vehicles behind it.

Transportation officials orchestrated all of this through published "March Tables."  These tables indicated precisely the speed to maintain and when each convoy needed to hit the start point (SP) in order to keep formations from bunching up.  To do it correctly, convoys needed to be at the appropriate speed as they pass the SP -- usually a visible landmark like a highway overpass or a bridge over a river.

These times were important enough to the Commanding General of my unit, the 2nd Armored Division ("Hell on Wheels!"), that he would literally be at the SP, march tables in hand, looking at his watch to see that units met the published timeline.  His standard was very clear -- Hit the SP at the appropriate time, + / - 5 seconds.  That's right.  If you did not get your 60 ton vehicles to the start point within 5 SECONDS of your SP time, you would hear it from him.  There was no question what the standard was for all of us.  And there was no doubt why.  Time mattered.

I never thought much about it at the time.  I was, after all, just a lieutenant.  Thinking wasn't really part of my job description.  I just did what I was told, ensuring my team understood the standard, and that we met it.  But now that I am less a "Doer" and more a "Thinker," I see the value in this approach.  Here is where something like this incredibly difficult standard makes sense as I look at it in the rear view mirror:

  • The standard is the standard.  It was important that the General mandated a very clear standard.  There is no question on "+ / - 5 seconds."  The General wanted people to meet this standard but not just because he was a tyrant.  The timeliness of organizations hitting the SP would dictate movements for everyone else.  Being late would have implications for thousands of others.  Standards are set so that everyone -- teammates, peers, superiors -- can have confidence in what we will do.  Other things are set in motion accordingly.  When we can start to believe that meetings will start and end at a specific time or that others will have tasks completed by a set deadline, when assumptions that we make in planning become reality to those who know they must not let others down, then standards truly add value.
  • Leaders value time.  I suspect that the General was making a clear point that time mattered, that what we do with time impacts others and, by publishing his very precise standard, he wanted it to be a priority for others.  The emphasis on every second made it clear that precision mattered.  Leaders value their own time, they recognize that their actions (or inaction) impacts others, and they demand no less from their team. 
  • People re-spect what the leader in-spects.  I am sure of this -- the fact that the General was on the SP with his march table and watch helped reinforce that this was important to him.  Being physically present further reinforced the importance.  Sure, he could have sent someone else or had units call him as they hit the Start Point.  Being there sent a clear message:  It's important to me so it better be important to you.  Setting standards without inspection add little value.  In fact, it can have the opposite of the intended effect.  Standards that are never met, without repercussion, lead to poor morale and cynicism.  Leaders inspect and hold people accountable to meet published standards.
  • Organizations that do the little things well usually do the big things well.  In the grand scheme of things, I am sure one could argue this was a trivial matter.  What would it matter if a unit missed their start time by TEN seconds?  Probably not much.  But I am sure that the General felt that if his organization could do the little things like this well, then larger operational things, for which timing, standards, deadlines, and performance were equally important, would also be done well.
Friends, as we go into 2013, perhaps we can reexamine how we think of time.  Let's make it count.  Let's be part of a team where our word means something and where the discipline to do things right -- on time and to standard -- can have the sort of impact that I am sure it did for the mighty "Hell on Wheels" Division.  Set your clocks and let's start thinking differently about time.  Starting at Midnight on 12.31.

Plus or minus...5 seconds!

That's Leader Business!

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