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.

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