Design Methodology for Company Commanders (Part 2)

This is the second post examining design methodology at the company grade officer level specifically company commanders. This process hinges upon creative thought based upon critical thinking. The two are linked and are not as effective without the balance of the other. This post seeks to explore this linkage and also provide a method to spur creative thought by revealing the root problem or solution within a given situation.

The bus ride from Fort Riley, Kansas to Fort Polk, Louisiana was long but also needed. As everyone else read books, watched movies, slept, or played spades, I was deep in thought. I kept telling myself stop over-thinking the situation; just go with your gut and make decisions. The circumstances this time around were different than those I had experienced as a platoon leader or an executive officer. I had assumed command of a light infantry company two weeks before heading to a Joint Readiness Training Center rotation. Luckily, I had gone on the Leader Training Program before assuming command so my understanding of the situation in regards to the “box” was fairly complete. I had little grasp, though, of the live fire exercise, which my company would complete before entering the “box”. In addition to the JRTC rotation, my company would deploy to Senegal, Africa was part of a joint training exercise for multiple West African countries. These thoughts, of how to successfully engage a new company at JRTC, evaluate their current task proficiency, and plan a post-rotation training plan in order to prepare for Africa, consumed my spare time on the bus ride to the swamps of Louisiana.

After arriving at JRTC and completing the usual craziness of ensuring all equipment and men arrived, we moved to the live fire range on Peason Ridge. After multiple day blank and live fire iterations with minor adjustments, my company arrived at an obstacle before beginning the night iterations. One of our 60mm mortars did not have the required equipment to fire in conventional mode and both mortar tubes were required to operate in conventional mode at night. This requirement existed because one of the tubes had to fire illumination rounds in order to allow the other tube to fire high explosive rounds. Faced with the possibility of losing a major, causality-producing weapon, I pulled all of my platoon sergeants and the first sergeant together to discuss the situation.

I began with asking why we need illumination to engage targets at night. Quickly moving beyond the safety reasons, one of the platoon sergeants stated that the illumination would allow for more accurate fires. The next question concerned why couldn’t we use another means to provide illumination. Another platoon sergeant stated that we didn’t have a large supply of star clusters available to provide the adequate illumination and those star clusters were allocated for signals. My next question asked why we are limited to star clusters for illumination. The first sergeant stated we could use the parachute illumination rounds from the M203. The fourth question involved asking why can’t we use the parachute illumination rounds to which another platoon sergeant stated that they were also part of the signal plan. The final question asked involved digging into why we couldn’t change our signal plan in order to allow for the use of the parachute illumination rounds. In the end, we change the signal plan, tasked all of the M203 gunners to shoot illumination rounds in order to allow the mortar men to see the target, and accomplished the night mission. During the AAR process the Observer Controller stated that they had never seen a solution like that before in the past and asked how we had arrived at the solution. Without knowing it, my company had engaged in design methodology at the company level and this innovation solution to a mundane problem set the tone for the rest of my command.

Sakichi Toyoda , a father of the Japanese industrial revolution and founder of Toyota Industries, developed the technique utilized by my company. He popularized this technique of inquiry during the 1970s based upon a philosophy, which embraced an in-depth knowledge of the situation and the processes of those within the factory. This technique depends on the experience and in-depth knowledge of those at the front lines and, in the case of the company commander, this technique stresses a healthy interaction with the platoon sergeants or senior warrant officers amongst the formation. Their expertise and knowledge of seeing similar problems in the past allows for the commander as the decision maker to gather more facts in order to develop innovation solutions through creative thinking. To get at the root of the problem, the 5 Why technique states that the leader must ask “Why” no fewer than five times. In other words, commanders shouldn’t settle for the first response. A practice example involves your car running out of gas. To begin the 5 Why technique, the first question is why did the car run out of gas. The immediate answer, from most, would be that I did not fill the car up with gas. Many would stop at this point but pushing further with the 5 Why technique, the next question would be why did I not fill up the car with gas. The answer may be that I was too busy to stop for gas. And the questions would continue in this same manner with the next one being why am I too busy to stop for gas. In the end, the thought process would reveal the root problem or obstacle thus facilitating the possibility for creative solutions.

Creative thinking spurs innovation and enables adaptability. Too often company commanders receive little freedom of maneuver due to a lack of faith by higher headquarters in their abilities. Therefore company commanders feel pressured into following a certain path and a prescribed mode of thinking that restricts other solutions. When given clear guidance with left and right limits that facilitate learning opportunities, a company commander may feel equipped to engage in design methodology. After reading the order, internalizing the commander’s intent, and grasping the situation through critical thinking, the company commander must allow time and tactical patience in order to ensure that the right problem or obstacles are addressed. The 5 Why technique, well known in the business world, may help company commanders discover those obstacles in their paths and then develop an innovative solution instead of accepting the first, gut reaction.

To think that the military is the only profession that has an issue jumping between or bridging the critical and creative thinking aspects of the brain together into one process would be a wrong assumption. The medical profession routinely has issues forcing scientifically minded individuals into creative thought and, just like the military, the process becomes the handrail for success instead of taking risk resulting in discovery. In the end if we can challenge the company grade officers in the our formations to work both the right and left sides of the brain, then the foundation may be laid for future success once design methodology is formally taught.

Design Methodology for Company Commanders (Part 1)

This post is the first in a series of post which will look at why the Army Design Methodology is only stressed once becoming a field grade officer and how to apply the design methodology to company grade officers. This first post introduces the subject with future posts detailing how the design methodology fits within the constructs of the Troop Leading Procedures.

The first taste of command, for most officers, is at the company level. Arriving at this point in their career, most officers participate in leading platoons, staff operations, and a few manage companies as executive officers. Additionally, further refinement of their professional skills, begun by battalion commanders and other company commanders, occurs at a career course; yet, too often, these places of learning focus solely on checklists and processes in order to convey how to become a staff officer first followed by a company commander second. Accepting the fact that good company commanders make good formations, this approach to developing future officers is outdated. In the battlefield of the decisive action environment in which the understanding  and predictions of an event is difficult, a checklist or regimented process constricts creative thought such that an officer approachs situations with an outdated mindset. Some aspects, such as design methodology, have crept into the planning process of the Army; yet, these elements remain the hostages of other institutions such as the Command and General Staff College or the School of Advanced Military Studies. In essence, the  Army, by restricting the company-grade officers to just checklists and not equipping them with the tools to enable creative thought such as the design methodology, sends the message that mechanistic approaches to problems, at the company-level, are adequate for mission success.

The requirement of processes such as the Troop Leading Procedures (TLPs) and the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) ensures that those unfamiliar with planning do have something to use; yet, too often, company commanders take these step-by-step instructions as the only way to approach a problem and fail to address the situation fully. As the Army rightly states, the commander is central to the operations process. At this point, the commander is understanding, visualizing, describing, and directing formations so that mission command is clear and executable enabling disciplined initiative by his or her subordinates. Breaking the process down further, the commander understands the problem, visualizes the end state as well as the design of the operation, describes aspects such as time, space, resources, purpose, and action, and then finally directs the warfighting functions. These aspects tie together in the commander’s intent and the planning guidance. This process that the commander engages in is known as the Army Design Methodology.

The elements of design methodology, though, manifest at the field-grade level. Design methodology exists to handle odd, complex, or “wicked” problems. Design methodology embraces creativity. Outside-of-the-box thinking based upon an in-depth understanding of the operational environment allows for solutions to develop. Regrettably, as previously stated, the Army stresses this creativity at the battalion and above level, but company commanders can utilize the same techniques to better define the problem. Typically company commanders can understand a situation well based upon the application of mission variables such as Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops, Time, and Civil considerations (METT-TC) and can follow the process in which orders develop at the company level . The failure in the current design is that critical thinking becomes the most important aspect for the company commander while creative thinking becomes more of an obstacle. Typically, company commanders have little time to fully develop a plan so they arrive at conclusions through critical thinking instead of allowing for tactical patience in which the situation may develop further. Specifically, company commanders go with the first possible problem presented even if it is the wrong problem. This assumption allows TLPs to continue but the problem addressed is wrong and may lead to mission failure or wasted energy. Therefore tactical decision makers, the company commanders, require design methodology in order to focus the energy of their company towards addressing the right problem.  

The next post will examine how the design methodology fits within the process of TLPs specifically beginning with step one, receipt of mission.

Photo credit MAJ Amos C. Fox