The Process Story
The dog handler was apparently vaporized in the explosion along with his dog, Ben.
I heard the patrol commander - almost laconically - report ‘the dog’s gone’ on the radio in the operations room and was able to make it outside in time to see a cloud of smoke towering into the South Armagh sky, followed by the unmistakeable ‘thud’ of the fatal IED going off in the far distance.
For the past 18 years I have been helping people in all kinds of organizations work together to improve their business processes. Frequently, I find they struggle mightily with the complex reality of their daily business lives to the extent that they become bogged down in the detail. Many well intentioned management consultants (yours truly included) try to help out by providing flowchart software and other tools in an earnest effort to make it easier; but we can frequently create more problems than we solve.
W. Edwards Deming, the ‘father of Continuous Improvement, once famously noted that ‘If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing’. So, for me anyways, a good process is like a good story with a happy ending. My dog handler story at the start of this piece had a very unhappy ending, unfortunately, largely because the chapters weren’t told in the proper order.
As you can imagine, with most things in the army there is a process for doing just about anything, including employing a trained search dog and handler for detecting Improvised Explosive Devices, or ‘IEDs’. When told properly, the story can be told by anyone on the team and it usually has a happy ending. It goes something like this:
Chapter 1: When a patrol member spots something unusual in a hedge or a field or a street the escorting patrol forms a defensive perimeter and covers the dog handler and the dog as they go to work.
Chapter 2: From a safe position the dog handler then ‘casts’ the dog – directs it using voice commands and gestures –to move up to sniff out any possible explosives in or near the suspicious object (As an aside, this is both a fascinating a humbling process to see in action)
Chapter 3: If there’s no problem, the handler recalls the dog and the patrol carries on. However, if the dog ‘indicates’ or ‘points’ at the object or surrounding area, as they are well trained to do, the handler recalls the dog to safety and the patrol commander then seals off the area so no one can approach the suspicious object.
Chapter 4: A large scale clearance operation, using engineers and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), units is then launched to neutralize or remove the danger and we ‘all live happily ever after’.
Really, it’s that simple.
Of course a variety of other things can be going on at the same time as these four main ‘chapters’ in the story. But it is these four simple steps contained within the context of a story about IED clearing, told in the same order every time, that are the important things to remember. During my time in leading soldiers during counter insurgency operations in Northern Ireland I led operations like this on an almost daily basis with no problems at all.
So what went wrong with this particular story?
Someone, somewhere got the sequence of events wrong in this particular story and 'boom': no more Ben, no more handler.
Luckily, most of the frustrating process stories we wrestle with on a daily basis deal with consequences that are somewhat less dire than the example I’ve shared here. Nevertheless, if you find yourself mired in the detail, take a step back and work with your team to tell a story about the process you are trying to fix.
If one of the chapters seems out of place, work together to retell the story until it makes sense -- and more often than not, I think you’ll find that you will, like me, live happily ever after!