An Airborne Ranger’s take on process improvement
One of the most impactful things I learned as a US Army Ranger was the discipline of continuous improvement through after-action reviews (AAR). Civilians use a similar tool, sometimes known as process improvement meetings. AARs are a primary tool used to improve an Army Unit’s performance. An AAR’s format is familiar to anyone who has participated in a postmortem, retrospective, or other formal process improvement meeting. Process improvement meetings seem like just another meeting, and when done poorly, they are virtually fruitless. However, process improvement meetings are a mechanism for generating a remarkable volume of positive organizational change when done well.
I participated in a dramatic organizational change while serving in the 3rd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment (the Rangers) from 2001-2009. During that time, the Ranger’s specialty transitioned from using Ranger Battalions (thousands of Rangers) for quick invasions to using Ranger Platoons (fifty Rangers) for nightly raids. Furthermore, the modern Rangers have sustained geographically-dispersed combat operations for seven-thousand days and counting. That is a staggering amount of organizational change. Without a solid process improvement model, the transition could not have been successful. Partaking in the Ranger’s evolution ingrained the habits of process improvement in me.
The Rangers treat AARs deadly seriously. After nightly raids, we returned to our morning ritual of brutally honest yet comfortingly objective AARs. After each mission, we reviewed the raid’s plan, recapped what happened, discussed what went well, what didn’t, and what we would do differently next time. We learned that meaningful AARs require objectivity, pragmatism, thoroughness, thoughtfulness, and creativity. Additionally, we learned that meaningful AARs left no room for ego or arrogance. Since the AAR’s purpose was to ensure we continually executed raids better, we focused on our own decisions and the assault force’s tactics, techniques, and procedures rather than finger-pointing or excuses. The essential characteristic of AARs in the Rangers is the immediate implementation of agreed-upon changes, often that very night.
The adoption of such a professional approach to AARing is pervasive in an organization’s culture. In the Rangers, it affects the way individuals solve problems and interact with one another. In particular, it influences the development and mentorship of young Rangers. The spirit of the AAR, if not its format, sets the tone for how leaders interact with their subordinates. That is to say; Rangers encourage one another to seek self-improvement by demonstrating their individual pursuit of that ideal.
This AAR process has been going on in the Rangers since the Global War on Terror (GWOT) began on September 11th, 2001. Process improvement may very well be the secret weapon of one of the most impactful GWOT units, the 75th Ranger Regiment. The Ranger’s zeal for process improvement has sustained its remarkable continuous battlefield productivity since the GWOT began. Additionally, it turns out that Ranger Regiment is a superb business school.
As a Ranger, I learned to “AAR everything.” As a business professional, I have refined my perspective. I say the more opportunities you take to improve your team’s performance now, the less likely your team will fail later. And, since all teams suffer some failures, those that gracefully recover will quickly resume productivity. A team adept at turning feedback and constructive criticism into implemented solutions will turn a perceived failure into a milestone on the path to success. In other words, process improvement is a profitable investment of your team’s time and, perhaps, the most economical approach to making the team you have into the team you need.
Process improvement doesn’t have to be painful or formal. Rolling your chair a few cubicles down, or making a quick video call, is often all it takes. Additionally, process improvement should not only happen after shortcomings. It is equally critical to identify beneficial naturally occurring process changes and re-instill mature processes that warrant sustainment. As a team’s work progresses, seize opportunities to improve the things you do every day and then go from there.
Process improvement does more than improve processes: it also improves teams. The act of coming together and collaboratively seeking improvement enhances a team’s culture and continuity. Playing a part in process improvement gives team members an additional stake in a project’s outcome beyond its stated objectives. After all, team member buy-in is desirable for a project’s success. Conducting process improvement exceptionally well further amplifies cultural and member buy-in. For instance, when the team’s leader starts the process by saying, “this is what I did wrong,” it signals that a professional runs the team and membership is desirable.
As I learned in the Rangers, process improvement results in increased team output and a culture of success. Process improvement is a vital component of any organization’s success. A team that is better today than it was yesterday will eventually be the best around. Being better today than you were yesterday is the mark of a true professional in any field.