Monday, January 04, 2010

“Somebody screwed up big time.’’

The blame game is ubiquitous in Washington, DC. This quote and others floating around exemplify exactly the wrong approach to improving our country's anti-terrorist system.

Let's think through the problem. Tens of thousands of patriotic Americans work in federal agencies trying to protect our shores. They face a threat of unknown dimensions, involving ten of thousands of possible bad guys who want to hurt us.

Statistically, even if our system worked very, very well, one or two terrorists could slip through and do something dastardly. However, we have to admit that the system may not work so well.

When I go through airport security, I am prompted to mix historical metaphors. Our TSA Red Coats employ a Maginot Line against a group of guerrilla fighters who change venues, clothing, and weapons to penetrate our static defense system.

When they break through, we bolt on a new technical solution. Will full body scanners make a difference? Yes, they can see the outlines of people's bodies, but they cannot see what might have been put in body orifices or what is hidden by flaps of fat, or what might have been swallowed. Do we think that a terrorist will worry about being being physically uncomfortable for a few hours as s/he heads to a suicide mission?

I admit that such systems have some deterrent effect, but they can be bypassed. And usually with low-tech approaches.

The problem facing our security services is how to encourage and enable all their loyal employees to act in a cooperative and creative fashion. Fast moving targets like terrorists change their stripes often, but they will leave traces -- digital traces, physical traces, relationship traces (think of that Nigerian father). Our security folks need to feel the freedom to follow those traces and to report them within and among the national agencies. They need a culture that thanks them for following gut instincts and calling out problems and near misses.

I admittedly don't know much about the culture of these agencies, but I can guess that a predominant motivation is CYA. I say this because I know how large organizations work, and it is the very unusual one that rewards people for calling out problems. We see the opposite in hospitals, financial services, and manufacturing. And we see it big time in the government, where the body politic, with quotes like the one above, tends to encourage that kind of motivation.

I have spent a lot of time in these blog pages exploring how to achieve continuous process improvement in a complex organization. I gave the example of Tom Botts at Royal Dutch Shell, who realized that the fault behind two fatalities lay with the leaders of the company, not with the workers who strayed to the wrong part of an oil rig. I summarized, too, the approach of John Toussaint and others in the hospital arena and Paul O'Neill at Alcoa, and forwarded advice from Steven Spear.

Contrast those lessons with what you are hearing in Washington, DC.

I'd like to see Mr. Obama help the agencies get past the blame game that is going on right now and focus on organizational, along with technological, strategies that enhance their ability to ameliorate terrorist threats. He clearly has the leadership ability to do that.

But here's the rub, and it is both a political one and a personal one. The political one is this. He has to persuade our citizens that he is strong-willed enough and competent enough to fight the terrorism that heads our way, but he would also need to persuasively reframe the manner in which he intends to carry this out.

The personal one is this. Our President has never run a complex organization. Does he know how to do it? Does he have advisors who do? I hope so, or we will just see a replay of this blog's headline sometime in a year or two.


Michael Kirsch, M.D. said...

While not politically correct, I recommend that profiling be instituted, as the Israelis and others do routinely and with success. While some folks may be offended, the stakes are too high to deny us any means available to protect us. If I were profiles, I'd recognize that it is not personal, but simply a necessary precaution to protect everyone and to serve the greater good. This is not an academic discussion of civil rights, but real life with real lives at stake.

Anonymous said...

Until the media stops aiding and abetting whichever side chooses the blame game, I fear it will be the most popular way to deal with all of our problems.

Jeff said...

President Obama is no more qualified to run this country than George Bush was (although GB was a Governor and had some business experience). His advisors ? Janet Napolitano in charge of Homeland Security ? Show me a private security company that would hire her (and not for political reasons). I could go on all night -Barney Frank on a Financial Oversight Committee ? Ya, I know, he is so smaaart, but has he ever worked in the financial services industry ? Geithner ? He was part of the problem at the New York Fed.

We blew it. We had a chance to elect Ross Perot, but no, we wanted to elect somebody who was popular, or looked like a President.

Anonymous said...

You have absolutely read my mind on this subject, at least in terms of the blame culture. While watching the lineup of politicians and former heads of this or that cast blame on the news this a.m., it occurred to me that, had this problem occurred in a hospital, a root cause analysis would be done, the system errors causing it would be identified, and system strategies for change would be outlined and implemented.
Supposedly the formation of DHS was going to aid agencies to share such information and act more quickly on it - but, while DHS was formed many years ago under Bush, it is clear that the required cultural changes and elimination of turf battles have not even begun to be addressed.
I think Obama having or not having run a complex organization has zero to do with this. This problem and supposed solution began under Bush, who was a big corporate guy, right?
The Prez should be a good mouthpiece and provide general leadership for assuring we will solve this problem, but its actual solution falls squarely on the shoulders of the chiefs (and employees) of all the DHS agencies. (These federal employees, BTW, are usually civil servants of long standing who know far more about how to fix the system than any political appointee. My dad was one of them.) I think this is directly analogous to hospital/medical errors. not unique to Obama or his administration at all.


Mark Graban said...

I also blogged on this same topic, today, about the Newark incident and blame, before I saw your post. Well said, Paul.

Lean Blog

Anonymous said...

Interesting quote from the Washington Post today:

"Other intelligence officials defended the NCTC, countering that some agencies appear less interested in fixing the problems than in concealing their own failure to interpret and flag information they had that might have prevented the holiday incident."

Oh, does this not sound wearily familiar to anyone who has worked in a large organization?