On a recent trip to San Diego for a convention, I had the opportunity to tour the USS Midway aircraft carrier. The Midway is a museum available for public tours, but touring it with a fellow speaker who served on the Midway during the evacuation of Vietnam really brought the ship back to life. Of all the acres we covered on that ship, my lasting impressions are of the war room (right out of the movie “Top Gun”) and the communications room (walls of switches and dials), and how the ship itself was designed to always be on the ready.
An aircraft carrier is run as an efficient machine with thousands of “workers” trained for their job tasks and taught to work as a seamless unit. They are all specialists in their own right. When in active duty the aircraft carrier and its personnel are always ready for battle and aware of the potential for war. This is a perfect model for the wars we wage in the business world today.
The War Room
On the Midway, the war room had many stations gathering information to immediately relay to leaders of the ship and the entire fleet. When in active duty it was a hum of activity with up-to-the-minute status and ongoing planning based on that information. What does your war room look like for your business?
The war room is the center of decision making when in battle. Businesses are currently in battle and it's up to leadership to decide if they are battling to survive or thrive. What tactical questions are you currently pondering?
Are you taking defensive measures? Are you on the attack? How current is your information flow? Who is monitoring that information daily, or even hourly, to keep leadership abreast of up-to-the-minute feedback? What plans are you currently executing? What is your desired outcome for this battle? What weapons do you need at the ready so you can activate them at a moment's notice?
The business war room should be constantly evaluating tactical decisions. The tactical decisions are those steps that either gain or lose territory, such as the new promotional campaign's impact on sales, or the streamlining of customer information processing, or new training methods for better preparing the sales staff for “going into battle.”
The war room should also be monitoring the “battlefield” for competition retaliation and market resistance in order to adjust tactics to be more defensive in nature or to go even more on the attack. Every business war room is there to maximize victory.
War room essentials:
A visible battle plan (this is not just a strategic plan but the tactical plan as well)
Continuous feedback in real time from the “front lines”
Effective monitoring of competitor response, reaction and retaliation
On-the-spot decision making (lost time is lost opportunity)
Effective communications to keep all battlefronts effective and working together
The Communications Room
The communications room on the Midway was literally walls of little knobs where operators would stand wearing headsets tuning into the dozens of channels they were responsible for. The communications with every section of this floating city were critical in times of battle to ensure everyone knew what everyone else was doing and it was all working in unison. I can only imagine how deafening and tense this room was while engaging the enemy. On one wall of this communications room were vacuum tubes like a bank drive-thru. They were there for emergency information exchange, where rolled up paper messages could be air transported with expediency. Morse code communicators were able to recognize the signature of code delivery and, based on that, knew who was sending it. They could write code faster than writing letters home, and they actually told stories of dreaming in code. It was that much a part of them.
In our businesses we need a communications center where all areas of the business routinely check in and get orders. A communications center would receive sales orders directly, send that order to the warehouse, inform shipping of the delivery date and location and notify suppliers of inventory changes. Most of these basic communications are now computerized, but this leaves out the human element. We become reliant on computer generated reports that can easily sit on a desk for days if not weeks before action is taken. In that time opportunity may be lost.
Internal communications continues to be a weak point for businesses for numerous reasons including budget cuts and streamlining staff. We no longer have enough people dedicated as communications experts. We have instead gone the route of making everyone take on the responsibility of communication, and as we all know, it often gets shuttled to the back of the priorities.
The highest priority of the communications center is to send out information to departments on the ship based on the feedback being gathered. Communications centers are not just for processing orders and feedback. They also are needed to speak directly to the commitment to action. Often business leaders waiver in their desired outcome or the process for achieving that outcome, and fail to communicate effectively exactly what they need. This leaves battle-weary employees wondering what the heck is going on. They get disgruntled and eventually lose confidence in the leadership directions they do finally receive. It's essential that communications are clear, concise and without room for interpretation.
Communications room essentials:
A solid communication connection with each department for real-time dialogue and understanding of actions being taken and status reports of results
The ability to access assets, resources and other mechanisms to carry out the commitment to action
A mainline connection with the war room to be able to make real-time decisions within the organization
The ability to keep all departments working in unison so no one is waiting on someone else because of errors, misunderstandings or lack of information.
The Efficient Machine
On the hangar deck and the flight deck of an aircraft carrier are thousands of airplane tie-downs. The tie-downs look like a soup bowl imbedded in the floor with two pieces of metal forming a cross over the bowl. They are designed to stabilize aircraft during high winds and rough seas. In ship vernacular they are called coconuts, and daily these coconuts get cleaned out of any debris or dirt they may have accumulated. This is just one mundane job of thousands that must be done to keep the aircraft carrier in top working order.
In typical military fashion every job has a manual, defined duties, and expectations of each task. Even the coconut cleaner is taught that if he is sloppy in his cleaning, any overlooked debris could be sucked up into jet engines and keep the plane grounded. When in battle, the aircraft carrier personnel must know what to do almost with rote memory because timing is as essential as doing the task correctly. In business we should set the same expectations. Right now, your company is in battle.
How well are you training your team to be an efficient machine? The efficiency of your money-making machine is predicated largely on the effectiveness of your staff. If you don't have training materials up-to-date and fail to provide clearly defined goals, your machine not only will fail to be efficient, you may fail to win your war.
The efficient machine essentials:
Defined duties, expectations and procedures for each position
Clearly written and current training manuals and techniques
Well-stated role and goals for each position (and how it makes the entire team better)
Employees trained to be battle-ready so what they do is second-nature.
Seeing your organization as a warship gives you a different perspective on how to prepare for the business battles you face daily. Although to compare the stress of war and potential loss of life to the business model is hubris, it does point out how much further we need to go to prepare for our battles and avoid the potential loss of jobs and profits.