The Specter of Taylorism is Haunting the E-Ring ...
Or Why Promoting Lieutenants to Captain Quicker is a Dumb Idea

June 11, 2002

Comment: #451

Discussion Thread - Comment #s - 367, 372, 396, 426, 434, 447 (as well as thread references within each comment)

Attached References:

[1] Press Release: Army News Service, May 14, 2002, announcing policy of faster promotions to Captain, reducing time in service from 48 months to 38 months

Reference 1 below, a report from the Army News Service, announces the Army's solution to its officer retention problem. It also represents yet another victory for the mindless number crunchers inhabiting the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles on the Potomac. Consider please the following

The Army has a problem: too many lieutenants and not enough captains.

The reason: there is a mismatch between input and output; namely the captains are punching out faster than the required number of lieutenants are getting promoted to captain. The most frequent complaint made by the "best and brightest" of our captains as they depart is that they are fed up with being micromanaged to death in a zero defects, power-point driven culture that does not give them enough time in the field to learn the arts of soldiering, like troop command and tactical leadership.

The solution: balance input with output by pumping up the input - in this case by promoting lieutenants more quickly and thereby decreasing the time available to learn the soldierly arts at the small unit level.

The Army's solution is akin to increasing the size of the bilge pump rather than plugging the hole that is sinking the ship.

This kind of bilge also helps us to understand why the first four letters of the word "analyst" are "anal."

The following two essays explain in a more thoughtful way why promoting lieutenants faster is a dumb idea. The first is by Mark Lewis, a former infantry captain that served in both the ranger battalion and 82nd Airborne-both as enlisted and as an officer. The second is by Bob Krumm, a newly minted major, a graduate of West Point, with a background in armored cavalry. The third commentary by Major Donald Vandergriff places the first two essays in a historical perspective.

The Definition of Fodder
Mark R. Lewis (former Captain, US Army)

Recently, the Army announced its decision to reduce the time-in-grade requirement of lieutenants for promotion to captain to 38 months. This is the latest move in an effort to address the Army's continuing critical shortage of captains, and is part of trend that has brought the time-in-grade requirement steadily downward from 54 months in the mid-90s. It is a shortsighted solution that will exacerbate the very problem it is trying to address while mortgaging an Army dependant upon well-trained, highly competent officers to face the complex threats of a future battlefield.

Standing on the brink of Transformation, the Army is short thousands of captains. Captains are pivotal. They are the commanders closest to the troops in garrison, training, and combat. Yet the number of captains leaving the Army has doubled over the last several years. Even in the face of the struggling economy of 2001, when unemployment skyrocketed and 2.4 million Americans lost their jobs, the attrition rate did not slow by even one percent. This is a concern not only because of the current demand for manpower, but also because those captains are the senior commanders of the future.

The Army's solution for the captain shortage is clear: promote them earlier, promote more of them, and commission more new officers to make into captains as fast as they can. Besides time-in-grade reductions, promotion rates to captain have increased until they are now nearly 100%. Furthermore, in the later half of the 90s, the Army opened the spigot and commissioned hundreds more officers than they needed; by mid-2001 they had more than three thousand surplus lieutenants swelling the ranks.

The Army acknowledges that low job satisfaction is a driving factor for captains leaving the service, but has ironically adopted a solution that will aggravate the problem. Young officers clearly express that less time with troops is a strong indicator that officership was not what they thought it was and thus a prime motivator to seek a new career. Yet, in an effort to make captains faster, the Army will reduce troop time even more. The Army is locked in this self-perpetuating loop. Making more captains quicker is a misleading statistical game. The Army may fill those vacant captain positions but the fill is the very definition of fodder.

A RAND study recently found that over the decade of the 90s, there was a 50% reduction in annual training opportunities for junior officers. Link this decline to faster promotion to captain and you'll find a dramatic compounding effect. Every new officer must shuffle through lieutenant jobs to gain needed experience before promotion. Since each lieutenant spends the better part of their first year or more at their basic school, promotion to captain is coming sooner, and there are more lieutenants than jobs, that shuffle is getting faster and faster. Factor in a peacekeeping deployment, and some lieutenants never train on their combat-related mission essential tasks before promotion.

The second order effect is that complex collective task training suffers Army-wide. Enlisted soldiers and non-commissioned officers bring the new lieutenant almost up to speed just in time start all over again. Battalion commanders, charged with developing these officers, resort to less demanding training events and more restrictive control measures. This decline in experience carries over into the battalion and brigade staffs as displaced lieutenants fill vacant captain positions and produces a bow-wave of inexperience that never goes away. This bow-wave will carry these young officers straight into important future command positions in the Objective Force.

Commonly cited as a cause of the continuing hemorrhage of captains from the Army is the loss of trust between junior and senior officers. When the Army issues a news release that lists a number of General Officers - including the Chief of Staff - who were promoted to captain at 24 months during Vietnam, they are underscoring that rift. Junior officers are smart enough to see a link between the Army's faster promotions to captain during Vietnam and the loss of captains in Vietnam, and the general relationship between combat losses of all ranks and leader inexperience. The legacy of Vietnam for this generation of platoon leaders and company commanders is the suspicion that there is more than one name on The Wall as a result of a young officer in over his head. They are rightly determined to avoid it and cannot understand why their Generals - who should know better - are using a wartime, stop-gap measure that produced questionable results as justification for a peace-time policy.

Comparisons to Vietnam - and consequently the bonds of trust - also suffer when these young officers read General Shinseki's own White Paper on the Concepts for the Objective Force. In this blueprint for Army Transformation, the Army makes it clear that the battlefield of 2005 will be quite different from the battlefield of 1965 and will place a tremendous burden on the Army's tactical leaders. Any dictionary tells us that experience is the "active participation in events or activities, leading to the accumulation of knowledge or skill." When officers move rapidly through the ranks - as is happening right now - they have fewer chances to fully learn the basic skills that form the foundation of further development. Battlefield complexity is increasing as junior officer experience is decreasing. It makes no sense.

© Mark R. Lewis 2002.

Fix the Source of the Leak
Bob Krumm Major, United States Army
Fort Monroe, VA

While the senior Army leadership has risked the ire of politicians to push a new weapons system, it has been virtually silent about a crisis in the ranks that shows no signs of letting up. For most of a decade the Army has hemorrhaged young officers at an unsustainable rate. Should the exodus continue, it will matter less than ever what kind of weapons a transformed Army fields, because it won't have sufficient talent and experience to employ them."

In response to the flight of officers, the Army recently announced that it will reduce to 38 months the time it takes for an officer to be promoted to the rank of captain. This most recent four-month drop continues a trend begun in 1994 that has reduced the amount of experience of new captains by 30%. One group you would not expect to object to this change would be the Army's newest officers. As a result of this change, lieutenants can now anticipate an earlier promotion and a significant pay raise. You'd be surprised, however, that they are the ones complaining the loudest.

One new lieutenant found the policy change "disappointing." She said that instead of trying to give captains a "reason to stay in," they are replacing them with more junior captains. Another said that this policy change, "will actually have the effect of making it worse." And these are comments from those who stand to "benefit" most from the new policy.

In announcing the change, the Army said that this "should help alleviate a shortage of 1,900 captains." The Army also said what it believes is the cause of the captain shortage: commissioning too few lieutenants in the early 1990s, and attrition during the "booming economy of the late 1990s." On the latter point, I find it disheartening that the Army still clings to that myth. By 2000 the rate of captains leaving the Army had climbed to 13.2%—more than twice the rate of attrition of 1994 and 1995. Yet, even with the burst of the economic bubble, captain attrition in 2001 had dropped only slightly to 12.5%, still well above historical levels. Conveniently covered up by the excuse of a good economy are the real reasons young talent is fleeing the service. Even more alarming, there is evidence to believe that the steps the Army has taken to eliminate the captain shortage—commissioning more officers and promoting them earlier—has actually quickened the exodus of officers.

Army officers generally follow the same career path. They are platoon leaders and company executive officers while lieutenants. As captains they command companies. While majors, they are senior battalion staff officers. Today's new officer can expect to serve in these plum assignments for only about five of their first twenty years. This "time with troops," is key to an officer's development. If during these jobs an officer demonstrates sufficient potential, he may be among the lucky few to command a battalion. However, because of successively earlier promotions to captain, today's lieutenant can expect to serve 25% less time in these pre-battalion command assignments than did his predecessor of only a decade ago.

Exacerbating the shorter length of time one is a lieutenant is the fact that there are more of them. This is in spite of the fact that the Army is smaller than it was in the mid-1990s. In the mid-1990s the Army commissioned 3,500 lieutenants a year; this year the Army will create 4,500 new officers. The effect is that they will spend even less time in their first key assignments—platoon leader and company executive officer—because more of their peers must be shuffled through these positions.

One reason why this bothers young officers so much is that the Army says it will demand even more of its future colonels (today's lieutenants). A study just released by the Army War College indicates that there is a growing gap between the Army's rhetoric and its reality. The study indicated that, "leaders of the future force need to be more flexible, adaptable, creative, and innovative." The nature of the future Army "will require leaders to use initiative."

The experiences a young officer receives today do not bode well for that future. Dr. Leonard Wong, the author of the study, pointed out that "junior officers are seldom given opportunities to be innovative in planning training; to make decisions; or to fail, learn, and try again." He concluded that junior officers today confront a more "controlling, centralized environment." This is exactly the wrong environment today's young leaders need to be developed into tomorrow's leaders of a transformed Army.

Another aggravating factor is that today's young officers spend less time in actual field tactical training. In a 2002 RAND study, Maren Leed found that between 1990 and 1998 field training for lieutenants has decreased nearly 50%. Her conclusion was that the "tactical foundation of recent Infantry and Armor officers was weaker in 1998 than it had been previously." For junior officers this meant "a more limited base for them to take forward to all future assignments."

The net result is that in contrast to their predecessors of only a decade ago, today's junior officers have less opportunity for leadership experience, they have fewer tactical opportunities during those fewer leadership experiences, and they chafe under greater over-supervision even while they are doing less. This is not the recipe for creating brigade and battalion commanders of the near future who will be expected to exercise proven initiative.

Further eroding the quality of the officer corps is that for the last three years, the Army's rate of selection to captain is near-universal. In fact in 1997 the Army lowered its official standard for promotion to captain. By 1998 the Army had actually begun to retain lieutenants whose chain of command had found "unqualified for promotion." The situation had become so bad that Mark Lewis, one of those captains who left the Army in the late 1990s and who is now an analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses, wrote that, "The Army was driven by necessity to keep even those whom local commanders-commanders who knew these officers best-had deemed unqualified." Still, these measures have failed to level off the falling number of captains, even at the enormous cost of the decreased average quality of the Army's junior leaders.

Young officers know that it is the Army's leadership that has placed greater priority upon the temporary expediency of meeting a "numbers" requirement than on doing what is right for the future of the Army. This corroborates an increasing cynicism in the Army at all levels, but especially at the junior officer level. A recent blue-ribbon panel reported this to the Chief of Staff of the Army when they found that the Army's practices were "out of balance with Army beliefs." That same panel concluded that "personnel management requirements drive operational assignments at the expense of quality developmental experiences." This latest personnel policy further exacerbates the negative trend and the cynicism, and further indicates to junior Army leaders that their very real concerns are not being heard.

The fact that the Army does not have enough captains is a symptom of the problem, but it is not the problem itself. Until the Army fixes the source of the leak instead of just trying to capture the runoff with successively larger buckets, the leakage of quality young officers will only grow.

Luckily, within the Army there is one group that does understand the relationship that officer experience has to quality and to retention. The Army's Special Forces have announced that they are reducing the number of officers coming into the branch and are increasing the amount of time officers spend in operational assignments. They believe that the increased experience they gain as a captain will show itself later in their majors and lieutenant colonels. Unlike the rest of the Army, the Special Forces believe that "smaller numbers" mean more average time in operational assignments, "which means better job satisfaction, which means lower attrition." Someone needs to tell that to the rest of the Army.

End Krumm Essay

I asked the philosopher-general of the Army's personnel problems, Major Donald Vandergriff, to place the thoughts of Lewis and Krumm in a historical perspective.

Vandergriff is the author of an important new book (i.e., The Path to Victory, Presidio, 2002) that analyzes the Army's personnel problems in terms of its historical determinants. He concludes by laying out an evolutionary pathway for exiting the Army's cul de sac. What follows is his response.

Time to Root out the Taylors That Haunt the Pentagon
By Major Donald Vandergriff.

Without saying so, Mark Lewis and Bob Krumm show that the Army still views the management of its people through the tired old eyes of Secretary of War Elihu Root and the turn-of-the-century industrial theorist Frederick Taylor.

The Army's new plan to retain junior officers by promoting them faster [Reference 1] aims to solve a structural problem by bribing people to stay

—the positive incentive of faster promotions will buy their loyalty, patriotism, and the moral strength to go in harm's way. Yet this kind of appeal to self-interest is precisely the kind of policy that has failed repeatedly to stem the exodus of our "best and brightest" young people, like Mark Lewis. It is based on the dehumanizing assumption that our officers (and NCOs) are mindless, undifferentiated, replaceable cogs in a machine.

A little history will help us understand where this hidden assumption came from. In 1899, President McKinley picked Elihu Root as Secretary of War to bring "modern business practices" to the "backwards" War Department. Root was a highly intelligent lawyer specializing in corporate affairs. He acted as counsel to banks, railroads, and some of the great financiers of that era. Root's approach to reforming the American military was to insert the ideas of management science then in vogue into the Army's ossified decision-making process. His wanted the Army to run like a modern large corporation.

To this end, Root took Progressive ideas in personnel management—ideas such as social Darwinism—and applied them to the Army's personnel management. This approach should not be surprising. Root was a product of the big corporations that dominated the Progressive era and would soon dominate the U.S. government.

Root was also a disciple of the management theories propounded by Frederick Taylor. He believed that Taylor's theories could used to make the military more efficient and therefore better.

Fredrick Taylor is one of the intellectual fathers of the modern industrial production system. Perhaps his greatest contribution to production efficiency was to break down complex production tasks into a sequence of simple, standardized steps. This permitted him to design a standardized mass production line around a management system that classified work into standard tasks and workers into standard specialties. This combination established work standards and the people who were trained to these standards became interchangeable cogs in machine. This greatly simplified personnel management in a vast industrial enterprise.

To be sure, Taylorism transformed industrial production, but it also had a dark side: Taylorism treated people as unthinking cogs in a machine. By necessity, these people had to accept a social system based on a coercive pattern of dominance and subordinance and centralized control from the top. Every action and every decision made in the organization was spelled out in the name of efficiency. In theory, the entire regimen flowed from the brain of one individual at the top of the hierarchy.

A complimentary management dogma also emerged during the Progressive Era. This was the theory of Ethical Egoism, which asserted that all people are motivated solely by self-interest. By extension, all people would respond predictably to a variety of positive incentives (money, pleasure, advancement, distinction, power, luxurious prestige goods, and amenities) or negative incentives (which took the primary form of a fear of losing the positive benefits, but also outright punishment and pain).

Faster promotions and quicker pay raises are fully consistent with this theory of human behavior.

Taken together, the idea that people are interchangeable cogs in a machine and the idea that self-interest is the only significant motivator of behavior help explain why the Army thinks reducing the promotion time to captain will solve its retention problems.

The ideas of Taylor and Root dominated management science and war department circles a century ago, but as Reference 1 shows, their ghosts are haunting the Pentagon's E-ring. Moreover, the Ghosts of Taylor and Root will continue to haunt the E-Ring as long as Congress shows no interest in rooting out causes of our personnel crisis.

But Congress and the press are blinded by the sterile promises of another techno-centric analogy—the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), which is based on the idea that war is a mechanistic process and that machines are the true source of military prowess. The RMA is the specter of Root and Taylor that haunts the Pentagon.

End Vandergriff Commentary

One final point: Vandergriff is discussing the dangers of reasoning by analogy. Used properly, analogies are powerful reasoning devices because they unleash the genius of imagination and creativity, Einstein's thought experiments being cases in point. But analogies are also very dangerous, because they simplify complex problems and capture our imaginations. Used improperly, they shackle the mind and take it off the cliff.

Believing that the Army is like a business or that good business practices will solve military problems are example misplaced analogies that take its leaders off the cliff. Effective business practices are often very different from effective military practices. This is particularly true in the area of personnel policies, where the idea of soldierly virtue embodies the ethos of self-sacrifice, and where, as Napoleon said, the moral is to the material as three to one.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, May 14, 2002) - The Army will promote officers earlier to the grade of captain, beginning in October. The accelerated pin-on of bars should help alleviate a shortage of 1,900 captains, according to Army personnel officials. They said many lieutenants are now filling captain jobs. The Army also has 2,200 more lieutenants than it is authorized and the early promotions will help level that out, officials said.

The early promotions will help align the company-grade "inventory" with available positions, said Maj. John Thurman, an operations research analyst in the Directorate of Military Personnel Policy, G1. The new policy will take effect in October with a gradual implementation, Thurman said. Officers promoted to captain in November will have 40 months of service, instead of the current 42 months. Those promoted in December will have 39 months. A new captain's board is scheduled to meet in November. Those promoted in the spring will have 39-40 months of service, Thurman said, and by June the new policy should be fully implemented with all promotions at 38 months.

The Fiscal Year 2002 Defense Authorization Act authorized the Army to promote officers to captain after just 36 months of service, but Army leaders determined that 38 months would help solve the shortage and still allow lieutenants developmental time as platoon leaders. "It will require management at the battalion-commander level to make sure lieutenants get trained," one officer said. Before 2000, captains were not promoted until they had 48 months of service. The exception to this was wartime, officials said. During the Vietnam War, some of today's generals were promoted to captain with just two years of service.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki was promoted to captain in 1967 after 29 months of service. Many officers in Vietnam were promoted to captain after 24 months of service, including Gen. Montgomery Meigs, now head of U.S. Army Europe; Gen. John N. Abrams at Training and Doctrine Command; and Gen. Thomas A. Schwartz, commander of U.S. Forces Korea. The congressional authorization for early promotions to captain has a sunset clause and expires Oct. 1, 2005. At that time, Thurman said leaders will need to reassess whether early promotions to captain would still be beneficial.

The accelerated promotions may substantially bring down the shortage of captains by that time, Thurman said, but added that it won't be an immediate fix.

"Our deficit was a decade in the making," Thurman said, explaining that it will take some time to reverse it. The captain shortage was caused by an under-accession of lieutenants in the early 1990s, Thurman said. Then it was compounded by attrition durin! g the booming economy of the late 1990s, he said, when job offers were plentiful from the private sector. Thurman said there was never any intent for the new policy to have an affect on retention of captains.

"We don't think this policy will have any affect on an officer's decision to stay or leave," Thurman said. "Getting promoted to captain four months early is not going to change your world." Army personnel officials said that captain attrition rates have "stabilized, at or about normal levels." Last year, about 60 fewer captains left active duty than in fiscal year 2000.