Building Effective and Efficient Systems

Shortly after becoming a Battalion Operations Officer, I was overwhelmed by the volume of “stuff” coming across my desk prior to distribution, publication, or implementation. As the S3, I simply could not touch all of the FRAGOs, tasks, and requirements flowing through my headquarters. Though shaped for several years, I had just made the shift from small unit to organizational leader. I quickly found the organization’s success revolved around our ability to establish and maintain systems. Later, as the Brigade S3, I would reap the benefits of hard lessons learned in system management as a Battalion S3 attempting to keep my head above water.

In retrospect, I compare duties as a Battalion S3 or XO to an old school circus plate spinner. You can only spend so much time on one system before the others come crashing down. You must quickly learn to establish priorities and empower subordinate leaders to curate systems of their own. Focus on organizational systems is a key responsibility of all field grade officers. So what’s a system? Very simply, a system is a collection of parts (or subsystems) integrated to accomplish an overall goal (a system of people is an organization). Systems have input, processes, outputs and outcomes, with ongoing feedback among these various parts. If one part of the system is removed, the nature of the system is changed.

In a garrison environment, systems drive all operations starting with guidance and ending with assessment of events. We normally follow a daunting battle rhythm laden with meetings to ensure subordinate units compliance. Interestingly, a significant number of meetings I’ve attended as a Field Grade Officer were not particularly effective. Often, we focus on the “shiny ball,” with little emphasis on strategic thinking and long-term focus on critical tasks. This article provides thoughts on creating and maintaining effective systems. Systems must be commonly understood.

Amongst the first systems I attempted to impact as a Battalion S3 was our training management infrastructure. Due to operations in the Pacific, the Battalion had gotten away from previously established systems. The unit spent a significant amount of time on “red cycle,” and was rusty in planning and execution of collective training. I immediately set myself to aligning process and doctrine given what I remembered from the school-house. After a few weeks of trying, I was frustrated by continual resistance and friction. It wasn’t until I quizzed a subordinate on the process that it dawned on me — no one else in the organization had an understanding of what I was attempting to do, and it was my fault. Though I’d spent significant time sketching a solid process on a whiteboard, I’d not even attempted to build shared understanding amongst the staff and subordinate Company Command Teams. To fix the problem, I added a simple PowerPoint slide describing the process. Over the next few training and resource meetings, we’d discuss where we were in the process as well as inputs and outputs for the current step. Systems become talking points for the assigned curator; you must constantly engage subordinates and staff to ensure shared understanding.

Systems must be systematic. Over the course of KD time I developed several good and countless very bad systems. One process I was never able to crack was the linkage between Division Training Guidance, land resourcing, and ammo forecasts. Though I tried to codify these steps and streamline systems, I was unable to provide clear steps for subordinates to follow. In order for a system to be successful, individuals must clearly understand the associated steps. If a request for land has been kicked back, the requesting Company Executive Officer must understand when and why. The XO must understand where information is kept and have regular access to it (this brings on an entirely separate discussion on knowledge management). Lastly, there must be a routine opportunity to discuss results and make collective course corrections.

Manage the system rather than triage the symptoms. This particular piece of advice is easy to recommend and harder to follow when your Battalion or Brigade Commander is pressing you for improved stats on the Awards Tracker. As field grade officers, we are constantly dragged into the “close fight” given emphasis by higher headquarters. Though there’s something therapeutic about solving these problems, putting out fires should not be the focus of a Major. Do you really need to track down that lost award, or can you power it down to a clerk? Think about priorities, available time, and enduring value to the organization. The more time you spend shaping the organization’s systems, the more enabled your Battalion will be to remedy symptoms before they arise.

Systems must be done routinely. A system absolutely does not work if it is put on the back burner due to competing interests. There’s an old saying in the Army that “good organizations do routine things routinely.” Your routine should include standard touch points with the systems you’ve established. Create and distribute a simple battle rhythm and stick to it. This may sound easy, but can become challenging if your higher headquarters doesn’t do the same. Avoid playing calendar Tetris by going “slides only” rather than simply cancelling or shifting a meeting. Slides only requires subordinates to maintain the process without shuffling their activities for the week.

Your organization depends on your leadership and management capabilities, but doesn’t need you to solve every problem and micro-manage every decision. Establish strong systems to enable unity of effort, maintain priorities, and ensure subordinates meet the Commander’s Intent.

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