Lessons from Marine Aviation: Five Rules of Thumb for Fast Decision-Making and How You May Apply Them in Business and Industry

I recently read a pretty interesting blog post on the Farnam Street Blog entitled Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World . This article was basically a review of the book by the same title, written by Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt. The blog post did a great job highlighting how simple rules can help with decision-making in complex environments.

This was an interesting article about simple rules for complex situations. One reason I liked this is because my background is from a high-risk/high operational tempo environment. I spent years in the Marine Corps and flew several different types of high-performance aircraft and in many cases my crews and I needed to make rapid decisions in dynamically changing situations. However, in some cases, such as in slower-tempo complex environments, simplifications can sometimes lead to problems. However, while I think that in many cases it can be argued that complex problems rarely have simple solutions, sometimes when there is a great deal of uncertainty and the need to take advantage of speed of execution simple rules may help. For example, a simple rule like "No Single Points of Failure allowed in operations-critical systems" would help teams understand that a level of redundancy must be built into a system to help protect operations-critical functions. It provides guidance, without being overly prescriptive.

Here are a few examples of how I think simple rules helped me in my previous career in Marine Corps aviation and how these types of rules may help in business and industry.

1. Create Go/No-Go criteria for rapid decision-making. Go/No-Go criteria are decisions that allow leaders to cancel missions for specific reasons. Rather than hemming and hawing (yep, sounds like a real technical term for indecision), about a decision, the pre-defined Go/No-Go Criteria would make the decision for us. For example, we might say, “We need a minimum cloud ceiling of 5000 Feet. If we don’t have that the mission is canceled.”

Additionally, we might make the Go/No-Go decisions based on operable aircraft equipment. For example, we might state something like “Out of our 6 radios we need at least one VHF and one UHF radio to complete the mission. If we don’t have that we will cancel the mission.” For aircraft refueling we may say something like, “We need one functioning refueling hose,” meaning that out of the two hoses at least one of them must function properly. Essentially, this process forces planners and operators to examine what they would optimally like to have, what they can make due with, and what their acceptable risk is.  Risk assessments and analysis would be done in advance of operational execution, during the planning phases, but the process would be carried forward into operational execution phase to help operational leaders make rapid decisions. For example, in that hypothetical scenario, if the crew takes off with two operational refueling hoses, then realizes one of them isn’t functioning, they can still perform the mission during operational execution.

2. Predetermine necessary redundancies and backup requirements: As mentioned above, it can be helpful to identify operations-critical functions and safety-critical functions and redundancies that may need to be layered into the system for an operation to be effective. As an example, for extremely important missions we might use the rule “We need two to make one.” This meant that if we absolutely needed a properly functioning aircraft, the maintenance crews might have two aircraft ready to go. If the primary aircraft failed we could then roll to the backup aircraft. It is helpful to identify where Single Points of Failure (human and mechanical) are unacceptable. We can ask ourselves “Where do we need to build in redundancies and incorporate slack so we don’t cut too much off our safety or operational performance margins?” That type of question can help with the development of simple rules.

3. Identify areas where you can use a less-than-perfect system. Is life perfect and are operational assets always functioning at 100%? Many real-world systems are never perfect and there will likely be problems involved somewhere in the systems. In Marine Corps aviation we had two types of aircraft capabilities, called Full-Mission Capable (FMC) and Partial Mission-Capable (PMC). This way it wasn’t a binary, yes/no decision about an aircraft being operational. A PMC aircraft could still be used for certain missions, but not others. This distinction allowed for a degree of operational flexibility and resilience. A rule could be “For X type of mission we can use a PMC aircraft.”

4. Create limits to adaptability and create clear cutoff points where adaptation will stop. Organizations can likely create rules that foster adaptability and flexibility, but in many cases we can’t adapt indefinitely without committing to a decision. We must draw limits. For example, military air traffic controllers would sometimes ask aircraft to accept a different instrument approach than what we desired so they could perform their own training. We often wanted to help them, so we would frequently accommodate their request as long as they asked it at the appropriate time. So, we came up with the rule, that went something like this: “We can change instrument approach options up to the point where we have systems dialed in and we are on final approach. At that point we will only change for an emergency or threat.”  This made the decision to say “no” easy.

5. Create If This, Then That approaches. For example we may define rules, such as “If X Happens We Will Do Y.” From a time sensitive risk management perspective this may be helpful. During operational execution there isn’t always a lot of time to make risk-informed decisions. I have experience using IFTTT rules in aviation in time-sensitive situations, particularly in high-risk training missions where we had to take rapid actions to avoid mid-air collisions. These were pre-defined rules that were planned, briefed, and then executed rapidly (if needed) during operations.

So, this is fine for USMC aviation, but how can this apply to industrial, business, and operational risks? Can these types of rules and techniques be applied to product development, operational execution strategies, product launches, and order fulfillment processes? As an example, rule #1 product development teams could ask, “What are the minimum features we need to launch our product?” This is the Go/No-Go criteria. If these determinations are made during planning, when transitioning into the execution phase, if the features aren’t ready the decision may be easier. Rule #2 could be applied to product launches. Leaders may ask, “How many people do we need on hand at “zero-hour”, when we launch our product?” “Do we need redundant power systems in case our servers fail?” What if the company is a small startup with only one customer service representative and calls and emails start flooding in? Will that person be able to handle the call and email volume? What if that person quits the day before launch day? This may lead to the simple rule, “We must have at least X number of customer support representatives on launch day.” That rule may also loop back into planning to help with the onboarding and training process to make sure they will be ready on launch day. Some of the more technical questions may be dealt in service level agreements, or other partnering agreements, but the time to think about them is not on launch day. Rule # 5 is becoming more ubiquitous with the IFTTT (If This Then That) rules that are helping to simplify tasks through automation. ifttt.com is an example. If decisions are well understood and pre-defined IFTTT approaches may make automated actions based on simplified preset decisions. However, this strategy should not be limited to using electronic tools and organizations should be able to apply these rules to numerous business decisions.

What about from a safety standpoint? For safety-critical functions where people and assets must be protected, and where redundancies must be built in, rule # 2 could help leaders understand where redundant systems might be needed to reduce risk. For example, if a generator is absolutely required to provide power and lighting during a high-risk operation, the crews may decide they must have two generators on hand in case the primary generator fails. Rule # 5 could be applied to lengthy jobs to help deal with fatigue. Operational teams could create a rule that went something like this, “If the job looks like it will exceed X number of hours we will bring in a backup crew and conduct a detailed shift turnover.” This could help crew leaders avoid punting the decision about whether or not to continue an operation with a fatigued crew.

So, where do you think you might be able to take advantage of simple rules to aid with decision-making? If you liked this post and if you think others would also like it, please forward it to others who may benefit from it. Also, if you like our content and want to simply share the subscribe link, it is here.

Thanks for reading and have a great, productive, and safe day!

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