Here’s another excerpt from the book I am writing. The book details a management model on how to perform weapon system sustainment. This is the start of Chapter 4 on Risk Identification:
You can’t change what you refuse to confront.
Chapter 4: Identify Risks
The last chapter discussed how historical pressures pushed smart ICBM sustainers to “up their game” and create an integrated and self-improving sustainment discipline. The heart of the sustainment process is the sustainment risk management method. This is the “identify” part of the O-I-F approach and is central to the eventual creation of an easily understood list of priorities.
In my career as an Air Force pilot, I learned of a maneuver to be avoided called a “graveyard spiral”. In the harsh conditions of aerial flight, especially in dense clouds with no horizon to orient against, a pilot can become disoriented. The position sensors in the ears get over-stimulated by unfamiliar accelerations. Then the pilot can believe the aircraft is straight and level when it is spiraling downward. Or the pilot can even feel the aircraft is spiraling downward when it is straight and level.
The physics of flight dictate that when a pilot pulls back on the yoke or stick, the aircraft will pull up, if in level flight. If in a turn, it will tighten the turn. Spiraling downward can cause a panicked pilot to pull on the controls to gain altitude, which only tightens the turn and increases the speed of falling. The pilot’s inner ears might even sense success, until the eyes notice the quickly dropping altimeter.
If the pilot succeeds in focusing on the instruments and disbelieving their own senses, recovery to stable flight can be accomplished. But the inner ear will likely be screaming that the aircraft is in a spiral and quick action must be taken. If the pilot gives into this, a second, and usually fatal death spiral is entered.
This graveyard spiral happens all the time in all sorts of organizations and teams. Its main symptom is the team saying: “Let’s not call this a problem, it’ll bring unwanted attention.”
This is a sure sign of a dysfunctional organization where leaders are kept in the dark until little issues are problems, and little problems are crises. When leadership spends their time fixing one crisis after another, frequently re-prioritizing their team’s focus in the process, there is no time for reflection or improvement. The downward spiral starts. All bad news is greeted with intense emotion and the bringers of bad news go away swearing never again to tell the boss what is actually going on. The boss is often heard to say things like: “Do I have to do everything myself?!”
Despite the sinking feeling they get when told, real leaders want to know what is going on. They take great care not to “kill the messenger” who delivers bad news. The team is greeted not with derision and loss of ownership, but with real help and added responsibility.
Has the manager grabbed the reins too often? Is the team untrained or slothful? Many questions could be asked in a fruitless attempt to cure this organizational disease. But this death spiral is primarily born of deeply embedded mutual mistrust based on real events. “Chicken or the egg” arguments are not useful in fixing it. Leadership is required from both manager and team to step out in faith and rebuild trust.
Great organizations that have avoided or flown out of this death spiral get their information in a disciplined manner that re-enforces trust. For instance, a formal risk identification process can embed the needed rules to help maintain trust.
Great sustainment organizations follow specific rules in their sustainment risk management methodology to make this process even better. That is what this chapter describes.
In the sustainment risk management process used by ICBMs, all members of the organizations are repeatedly informed that it is their responsibility to bring forth the bad news of potential readiness degradation. The various levels of managers are reminded to focus first on the news and the risk rules and formats. Make all attempts to understand the problems being stated whether the speaker is good at communication or not.