About the Author:
Rob De La Espriella, BD3
Rob De La Espriella, is a former nuclear submarine officer, a regulator with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and a senior manager at commercial nuclear power plants. Since 2007, he has been a Senior Policy Advisor for the Department of Energy and their contractors. In 2023, Rob was accepted into the Forbes Business Council, contributing articles and commentary to help businesses reach their full potential. Rob is also a leading expert in solving complex human-centric problems in modern, socio-technical work environments, and has re-defined how
In the rapidly evolving landscape of modern sociotechnical work environments, the United States military faces a multitude of complex, human-centric problems. However, deficiencies in the knowledge and skills needed for tackling these issues are resulting in significant and recurring costs in money and resources spent on documenting, evaluating, and addressing a multitude of challenges. This article delves into the adverse effects of poor problem-solving culture within the US military, highlighting the need for comprehensive reform.
The Cost of Human-Centric Challenges
In April 2022, three sailors committed suicide onboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73). The Navy’s report documenting their investigation of the three suicides was issued in October 2022, 6 months later. The heart of the report included 387 “Findings of Facts,” 33 “General Opinions” and 38 “Recommendations.”
The report showcases the fallacies and inefficiencies of the military’s current approach to solving human-centered problems. For example, the approach to gather the facts and then jump to conclusions eliminates the most fundamental aspect of solving complex problems: analysis of the evidence and related data that includes historical data and an analysis of the extensive line of defenses in place at that command to prevent the likelihood of suicides and minimize exposure to high hazards that are predictable, preventable and carry high consequences. Their lines of defenses would include administrative programs, policies, procedures and physical barriers. To add insult to injury, in their extensive (documented) reviews of the final report, senior officers and Flag Officers provided extensive alterations to the discussions, facts, opinions and recommendations, based on their own (biased) opinions. In other complex operating environments familiar to the author, such as commercial nuclear power plants and the nuclear weapons complex, the Navy’s report would not pass muster. Further, it belies a deep lack of understanding of the fundamental principles of solving complex, human-centric problems in our modern socio-technical work environments that extends far beyond this example from the US Navy.
A comprehensive understanding of human-centric problems is essential for any modern organization. For the US military, addressing these issues is particularly crucial, as they can have far-reaching consequences for morale, efficiency, and their war-fighting capability. The costs associated with a failure to effectively resolve these problems can be measured not only in financial terms but also in terms of human suffering, compromised mission objectives, and a decline in overall military effectiveness.
The following is a short list of recurring problems that the military has struggled to solve. This, despite focused attention and the dedication of numerous resources including congressional acts.
1. Inefficient Acquisition and Procurement Processes
Inefficient acquisition and procurement processes in the US military have led to cost overruns and delays in delivering crucial capabilities to service members. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, managed by the Department of Defense (DoD), is a prime example of inefficient acquisition and procurement processes in the US military. The program has faced numerous setbacks, delays, and cost overruns since its inception.
A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighted that the F-35 program had experienced significant cost overruns and schedule delays (GAO, 2017). The development cost of the F-35 increased by 43% from the initial estimate in 2001, and the program’s overall cost is now projected to be over $1.5 trillion throughout its lifecycle (GAO, 2017). Additionally, the report identified issues such as software development challenges, technical problems, and insufficient testing, which have contributed to the program’s delays and escalating costs.
Another study by the RAND Corporation analyzed the F-35 program and found that a primary reason for its inefficiency was the simultaneous development and production approach, referred to as concurrency (Lorell et al., 2015). This approach aimed to reduce the time taken to deliver the aircraft but resulted in significant inefficiencies, as design changes were required even after production had begun.
These studies demonstrate that the F-35 program’s issues are indicative of a poor problem-solving culture within the US military’s acquisition and procurement processes. And the recurrence of cost overruns and delays by contractors in delivering products and services to the military is exacerbated by the military’s own inability to conduct the in-depth analysis required to hold their contractors accountable for poor performance.
2. Whistleblower Protection
Whistleblower protection is a critical aspect of maintaining accountability and integrity within the United States military. However, there have been instances where the military has not adequately protected whistleblowers, leading to retaliation and a lack of trust in reporting systems for those who raise concerns about wrongdoing or misconduct within the ranks. In some cases, military personnel who report misconduct or wrongdoing experience retaliation from their peers or superiors. Retaliation may take various forms, including demotions, harassment, poor performance evaluations, or even threats to personal safety. Such actions can create a chilling effect, discouraging others from coming forward with concerns and allowing misconduct to persist. The lack of whistleblower protection is particularly concerning as it may hinder the identification and resolution of serious problems within the military.
Investigations into whistleblower allegations are conducted by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in various military branches. While it is essential to recognize the efforts of the OIG to maintain accountability and investigate allegations of misconduct, there is evidence suggesting that their effectiveness could be improved. Here are a few examples illustrating areas where the OIG may be falling short:
1. Delays in Investigations: A 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Department of Defense (DoD) OIG took, on average, 526 days to complete senior official misconduct investigations. The lengthy investigation process can erode trust in the system and create frustration for those involved (GAO-15-187).
2. Inadequate Whistleblower Protection: Instances of retaliation against whistleblowers and a lack of trust in reporting systems indicate that the OIG may not be sufficiently protecting those who report misconduct. A 2015 survey conducted by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) revealed that 30% of DoD civilian employees who reported wrongdoing perceived experiencing reprisal, suggesting a need for improved whistleblower protection measures within the military.
3. Insufficient Oversight of Sexual Assault Cases: A 2013 report by the DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) found that only 302 of the 3,374 sexual assault reports filed that year led to a court-martial conviction. This low conviction rate suggests that military OIGs and the overall investigative process may not be effectively handling these cases, potentially undermining confidence in the system.
3. Sexual Harassment and Assault: A Persistent Problem
One primary example of recurring human-centric problems in the military is the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault. Despite numerous initiatives, this issue continues to persist, with a Pentagon study revealing a 38% increase in sexual assault reports from 2016 to 2018 (DoD SAPRO, 2019). A lack of effective problem-solving skills has left military leaders unable to implement lasting change, resulting in a drain on resources and a continued erosion of trust within the ranks.
Furthermore, the Department of Defense’s (DoD) own data shows that despite increased reporting, conviction rates remain low (DoD SAPRO, 2019). This indicates that the military’s current approach to addressing the problem is not working, and a lack of adequate problem-solving training is hindering progress in this area.
4. Recruitment and Retention
The US military has faced significant challenges in recruiting and retaining personnel in certain specialized fields, such as cybersecurity and linguistics. One of the primary obstacles the military faces in recruiting and retaining specialized personnel is competition with the private sector. In fields like cybersecurity and linguistics, highly skilled professionals are in high demand, and private companies often provide more lucrative compensation packages and additional perks. Another challenge in recruiting and retaining specialized personnel is the lack of targeted recruitment strategies. The military’s general recruitment efforts may not effectively reach potential candidates with the unique skills and expertise needed in fields such as cybersecurity and linguistics. Moreover, the military may not be offering sufficient incentives and support to keep these specialized personnel engaged and committed to their careers within the armed forces.
5. High Attrition Rates and Training Failures
Another recurring problem within the US military is high attrition rates, particularly during initial training phases. A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that between 2013 and 2018, attrition rates in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps ranged from 23% to 34% during initial training (GAO, 2019). The study identified a range of factors contributing to attrition, including inadequate preparation, injuries, and medical issues. The persistence of these issues and the military’s inability to effectively mitigate them are indicative of a poor problem-solving culture that fails to address the root causes of attrition.
6. Mental Health Support for Service Members
Another example is the ongoing challenge of mental health support for service members. According to a study by the RAND Corporation, an estimated 2.77 million service members had been deployed between 2001 and 2017, with 1.3 million having reported mental health concerns (Tanielian et al., 2018). The inability to create a robust and responsive mental health support system has led to increased rates of suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health issues. This, in turn, has required substantial investment in resources to address these issues, often with less than optimal outcomes.
7. Reintegration of Veterans:
The reintegration of veterans into civilian life is a complex, human-centric issue that the United States military has faced challenges in addressing effectively. Many veterans struggle to find employment, access healthcare, and adapt to their new environment after leaving the service. Despite possessing valuable skills and experiences from their military service, veterans often struggle to translate these skills into the civilian job market. Many veterans experience physical injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health issues as a result of their service. However, navigating the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare system can be complicated, and wait times for appointments can be lengthy. These difficulties can lead to financial instability, mental health issues, and a sense of disconnection from the civilian world.
8. Family Support and Stability
Military families face unique challenges due to the nature of service in the United States military. Service members often face Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves every two to three years. Long deployments not only separate service members from their families for extended periods, but they also place a significant strain on relationships. Service members deployed to combat zones may face additional stressors, which can contribute to mental health issues, marital strain, and difficulties in reconnecting with family upon their return. These issues and the limited availability of support resources have become the hallmarks of military life, making it increasingly difficult for service members and their families to maintain stability and a healthy family dynamic. These complex, human-centric issues highlight the military’s struggle to address the well-being and needs of those who serve and their loved ones.
But these shortcomings are not due to a lack of effort or a lack emphasis on the part of our military’s leadership, or by a lack of attention from our law makers. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary.
- Congress has addressed the issue of sexual assault in the military through the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). For instance, the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2020 (H.R. 2500) included a series of provisions aimed at improving the military’s response to sexual assault and harassment cases.
- In response to the growing mental health crisis among veterans, Congress passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act in 2015 (H.R. 203). This legislation aimed to address the high rates of suicide among veterans by expanding access to mental health care services and enhancing the capacity and efficiency of the Veterans Crisis Line, among other initiatives.
- Recognizing the challenges faced by military families, Congress introduced the Military Family Stability Act in 2017 (S. 1790). This bipartisan legislation aimed to provide greater flexibility and support to military families during Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves.
Notwithstanding the many efforts and the significant outlay of resources, these longstanding, recurring issues are indicative of cavernous gaps in knowledge and experience in solving complex, human-centric problems in modern sociotechnical operating environments. These knowledge gaps will have to be filled to give our warfighters and their leaders a fighting chance to stop the endless cycle of recurring problems. The quickest way to accomplish this would be to call for a comprehensive reform to current methods and practices for solving these kinds of problems, which are not the kind that can be solved by math and the natural sciences.
A Call for Comprehensive Reform of How Human-Centric Problems are Solved
The United States military is in dire need of a complete transformation of their current approach to solving recurring human-centric issues. As highlighted in previous discussions, the failure to address these recurring issues has led to significant losses in human capital and military resources.
Our military, known for its prowess and global presence, faces a daunting set of recurring, complex, human-centric problems that require advanced problem-solving strategies that are empathetic to the modern warfighter and account for their highly complex training and operating environments: innovative and cutting-edge strategies and methods that can dramatically improve the military’s capability to solve complex, human-centric problems. To that end, the following suggestions are offered by the author, who served in the US Navy as an Officer of the Deck onboard ballistic nuclear submarines.
1. Invest in Holistic Problem-Solving Training
To dramatically improve how these challenges are evaluated, analyzed and addressed, the US military should invest in comprehensive and holistic problem-solving training for all personnel, including leaders at all levels. This training should focus on fostering critical thinking, empathy, and adaptability, emphasizing the importance of understanding the perspectives and experiences of those affected by these issues. By equipping military personnel with the tools and skills necessary to tackle human-centric problems, the military can create a culture of proactive and effective problem solvers. Critical thinking and effective problem-solving are the foundation for continuous improvement, which is necessary to keep up with our rapidly changing operating environment in all theatres of operation.
2. Implement Data-Driven Decision-Making for Human-centric Issues
The military should prioritize data-driven decision-making to better understand the scope and impact of human-centric problems. By collecting, analyzing, and comparing performance data against policies, procedures and strategies, military leaders can identify and evaluate performance gaps. Through rigorous causal analysis, these performance gaps will lead us to their deepest-seated causes. With this data-driven approach, leaders can take the best course of action to effectively allocate resources on addressing and eliminating the actual causes of human-centric problems. Data can also be used in trending and analyzis to identify patterns and trends, allowing the military to identify and address problems proactively and minimize their recurrence.
3. Develop Cross-Functional Collaboration and Communication Tools
To solve complex, human-centric problems requires input and expertise from various disciplines and perspectives. By adopting a problem-solving system that drives cross-functional collaboration and communication, the US military can tap into a diverse range of expertise and foster a culture of shared responsibility. Combined with a holistic, systems-based approach, cross-collaboration can lead to more innovative and effective solutions, as different branches and departments work together to address complex issues that are affecting more than one branch.
Introducing BlueDragon IPS: a Comprehensive Solution
The need for comprehensive reform of our military’s human-centric problem-solving capabilities could not be more urgent. The examples cited above are indicative of a poor problem-solving culture within the US military, which ultimately poses a threat to our ability to protect our citizens and to national security. Top priority should be given to replacing the longstanding (antiquated) tools, techniques, methods and methodologies with problem solving systems that were built in the modern era for the kinds of problems that the modern warfighter and their leadership are facing.
One such tool that has emerged in the last 5 years is the BlueDragon Integrated Problem-Solving System (IPS). BlueDragon is the world’s most advanced system for solving complex, human-centric problems in modern sociotechnical work environments. The system was designed by a former Navy nuclear submarine officer to help the federal government and their contractors solve their most complex and wicked human-centric problems. BlueDragon was developed specifically for modern sociotechnical operating environments such as commercial nuclear power plants, the US National Laboratories, the nuclear weapons complex, the military and the aerospace industry.
BlueDragon closes each of the gaps described in the “Call For Comprehensive Reform” section above.
1. A Holistic, Systems-based Approach
The BlueDragon IPS is focused on fostering critical thinking, empathy, and adaptability. At the heart of the system are a number of key principles from Systems Theory, Lean, Agile, High Reliability Organizations, Lean Six Sigma and many others that have been integrated into a seamless approach. The BlueDragon chart is a scalable framework that is not only used for evaluating and solving tame, complex and wicked problems after they occur, but can also be used proactively as part of a Risk Management System, to evaluate existing defenses such that we can identify and address weaknesses and vulnerabilities before they result in serious events or program failures.
2. Data-Driven Evaluation of Human-centric Issues
The BlueDragon framework guides organizations through the process of gathering, organizing and analyzing performance data against policies, procedures and strategies, to identify and evaluate performance gaps. Qualitative and quantitative analysis is seamlessly conducted, along with a rigorous behavioral analysis of at-risk behaviors and error-likely situations where personnel were set up to fail by external pressures. Through a disciplined and rigorous, data-driven approach, the organization will dramatically improve their chances of identifying and addressing complex and wicked problems. And addressing the true root causes of problems will prevent future recurrence.
3. Cross-Functional Collaboration and Communication
BlueDragon investigations and problem-solving efforts are led by trained practitioners that guide the affected organizations’ subject matter experts (SMEs) from various disciplines and perspectives. The system drives cross-functional collaboration and communication, tapping into a diverse range of expertise. The efficiency of the system also allows hundreds of SMEs to be brought to bear on the problem.
BlueDragon IPS training is available online, on-demand through a University-grade Learning Management System, and is being taught in mainstream academia at the Endicott College of Engineering. BlueDragon certification courses can be readily offered through the military’s Credentialing Opportunities On-Line (COOL) websites and incorporated into the curriculum at the various military colleges.
Modern warfighters find themselves in the middle of a complex sociotechnical operating environment; a pressure cooker that includes the expansion of artificial intelligence, complex command and organizational structures, countless programs, policies and procedures, the ramp-up of big data and data analytics, and the ever-increasing cultural and behavioral norms that they are expected to navigate. These pressures have created difficult, complex and even wicked recurring problems such as suicides, sexual assaults and retention issues.
The United States military is struggling with these daunting, human-centric problems that require effective problem-solving strategies; strategies that are specifically designed for modern problems in modern times. However, evidence shows that the military lacks the skills and knowledge to properly tackle these modern, complex and wicked problems. Primarily due to antiquated tools and techniques for addressing the problems.
The skills and knowledge gaps can be closed through an overhaul of existing training for solving human-centric problems, and there is one system that was specifically created for solving complex, human-centric problems in today’s modern sociotechnical work environment: the BlueDragon Integrated Problem-solving System.
Department of the Navy Final Endorsement:
For more information on critical thinking and complex problem-solving, watch this video on our BlueDragon YouTube Training Channel
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