Reimagining Your Organizational Improvement Program_3x5 Leadership

By Andrew Bordelon

“Embrace the inspectors!” may sound like part of a naïve motivational speech from a commander preparing his/her unit for an upcoming inspection from higher headquarters staff. However, CAPT (R) L. David Marquet and the Sailors of the USS SANTA FE submarine welcomed inspections during his command with remarkable results, as elaborated in his book Turn the Ship Around!. This kind of embracement is not common among US military units. Eyes roll and breaths sigh as leaders discuss command inspection visits. Command inspections tend to surface deficiencies and fill up red boxes on extensive PowerPoint brief slides to a commander’s supervisor. Some commanders are determined to never fail an inspection and keep their units “green” during status updates. Either mindset is focused on remaining in compliance with Army regulations. Hence, the Organizational Inspection Program (OIP) could easily be renamed the Organizational Compliance Program by those units with the wrong attitude toward inspectors. But the inspection implementation offers an opportunity for remarkable results and growth at any level. Leaders can instead consider the OIP a unit’s Organizational Improvement Program and seek ways to instill continuous improvement within a unit – a mechanism to be an enduringly learning organization.

Defining the Organizational Inspection Program

The OIP typically involves inspections centered around a unit’s systems. The problem most units have with sustaining those systems is frequent personnel changes. Leaders, particularly commanders and subordinate officers, tend to manage those systems and their frequent changeover makes maintaining those systems challenging if not properly implemented throughout the organization. When the formal leader in a specific level of an organization –such as a platoon leader, executive officer, or company commander – solely manages systems in an organization, she/he decreases the likelihood that system will pass on to their replacement. For example, a military driver training program requires extensive support to facilitate the hands-on training required to develop new vehicle operators. There is also a significant amount of paperwork required to maintain each Soldier’s driving “packet” that shows all of their qualifications. If the unit’s Master Driver, who tends to be responsible for managing the program, retains all responsibility with him or herself instead of delegating any to subordinate leaders, the unit will struggle to maintain the program when that particular Master Driver departs. When leaders retain all responsibility for certain actions within an organization (becoming the single point of failure), they also deprive subordinates the ability to learn and develop in preparation for greater levels of responsibility. This process is lose-lose because it only temporarily allows an organization to be successful while that specific leader is in position and it does nothing to develop others. Leaders are often left attempting to “re-invent the wheel” after personnel leave a unit to fill the void in those organization’s important functions. The Army aims to help correct these voids or deficiencies with inspections to fix such important, yet commonly problem, areas.

The OIP is intended to help a unit maintain its combat readiness, according to Army Regulation (AR) 1-201, Army Inspection Policy. An effective OIP will allow a commander to, “…identify, prevent, or eliminate problem areas” (AR 1-201, 2015). The OIP is not the actual inspection. Instead, it is the tool to manage all inspections within a unit. The Army designates different types of inspections at every organizational level from company and higher. For example, the Initial Command Inspection (ICI) is conducted within 90-days after a change of command to provide the incoming commander with a clear understanding of the unit’s systems strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, a Subsequent Command Inspection, 12 months after, is intended to identify progress toward goals established after the ICI. Inspections may be carried out with a specific unit, such as a company, or a supporting staff.  Regardless of internal or external inspectors, a unit will typically conduct an inspection at least once a year (AR 1-201, 2015).

A Needed Shift in Leader Attitudes

Many leaders dread any amount of inspections considering the perceived hassle or detraction from training they can cause. When a unit undergoes an inspection, Soldiers are not in the field training. Therefore, a leader could argue that command inspections detract from a unit’s readiness by preventing training opportunities. This begs the question of whether or not inspections can really improve an organization or just maintain compliance. Some commanders even emphasize to their subordinates that they will never fail an inspection, leaving the overall goal to simply be in compliance. Even for units that conduct pre-inspections before an external group visit, they are not likely to improve their systems or capabilities if merely striving for compliance. Our military’s culture of OIP is one of frustration or compliance based on these attitudes. Instead, leaders should reinforce that an OIP could help improve or create organizational systems and capabilities to sustain continuity across inevitable leadership changes.

An Exemplary Model: The USS SANTA FE

Embracing the inspectors and owning the OIP works toward sustaining a continuity of improvement in an organization. Providing continuity between personnel changeovers is not merely about passing along systems to ensure a unit continues to function as it did before that changeover. Instead, the continuity focus of a commander’s OIP should emphasize passing on a culture of continuous learning for the unit to improve over countless personnel changeovers at every level of the organization – more simply: sustained excellence. The sailors of the USS SANTA FE fully embraced the inspectors and a learning culture with CAPT (R) Marquet’s leadership. He explained that he and his crew, “…would utilize the inspectors to disseminate our ideas throughout the (submarine) squadron to learn from others and document issues to improve the ship.” CAPT (R) Marquet emphasized the idea that inspections could be used as a mechanism for organizational control, and he believed that an organization would get as much out of an inspection as they put into it. This mindset led the USS SANTA FE to be one of the best performing submarines in the US Navy during Marquet’s time as its captain as described in his book.

Owning the OIP for military units starts with an emphasis on a learning mindset to improve an organization. If there are issues with a staff inspection checklist, such as techniques or procedures that do not pass the “common sense” test, then leaders should address concerns with their headquarters. That is the only way those checklists can adapt to changes within the force. For example, Digital Training Management System (DTMS) inspections typically require digital copies in the online DTMS program and hard-copies of all training certificates or qualifications up to the battalion level. The paper requirements alone were not feasible for a battalion-size element to support while maintaining the digital system of record the Army was enforcing. After several comments and recommendations from training battalions under the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Ft. Benning, GA, the checklist for DTMS was revised to only require digital copies. This simple revision relieved additional work for Soldiers, reduced supplies required for record keeping, and simplified the training management process for units. Inspectors can relay concerns, such as training management and record keeping, or advocate successful programs, like a useful operating procedure for a military driver training program, to improve units across the Army. An organization’s improvement starts with its leader’s emphasis on learning and growing from an inspection.

The Importance of Leader Attitude

Owning the OIP as a leader starts with clear guidance to those Soldiers assigned an additional duty included in the program, such as the unit armorer, Equal Opportunity representative, Training Room NCO, etc. A company commander, for example, should provide clear guidance when appointing additional duties and provide the inspection checklist involved with that area or system. The checklist is a good start to verify if the company’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are aligned with those set forth from the higher headquarters. On the other hand, the checklist will provide a baseline to create a new SOP if there is not one already in place. These standards will provide clear measures of performance for a unit to determine if its systems are working properly. The SOP is only the beginning, however; leaders need to follow up with those appointed personnel to continuously measure SOP effectiveness for the unit’s readiness. A way to follow up could be monthly or quarterly back briefs from additional duty Soldiers to a commander to review measures of effectiveness in each area. These continuous follow ups would provide the discussion points for inspections. Appointed personnel will know what areas they can provide the inspectors to pass along to other units or request information from inspectors to improve their own SOPs.

Leaders should emphasize a learning attitude when it comes to inspections to instill continuous improvement in their organization. Inspections can detract from unit readiness if a commander does not use them as a mechanism to improve a unit’s systems and SOPs.  Constantly improving systems and subordinates eager to learn at each opportunity will develop a more positive outlook toward inspections. This will turn a compliance-focused inspection program into a learning-focused improvement program that can last through countless personnel changeovers – ultimately, an enduringly learning organization that sustains excellence.

CPT Andrew Bordelon is an Assistant Operations Officer at the 6th Ranger Training Battalion (RTBn) at Camp James E. Rudder on Eglin AFB, FL and has been a Ranger Instructor for 20 months.  He has served as a Platoon Leader during Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan and an Executive Officer.  The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

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  1. EXCELLENT article. The question is, how do OIP managers gain leadership buy in to make this come to fruition?

    1. Lisa, GREAT question! I’d say being very deliberate and thoughtful in communicating those sentiments as the inspectors. How can you OVER-communicate signs of safety and that you are here to help to the unit? I think that can be a great initial mechanism to break those barriers.

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