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Government Productivity and the Cold War

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Over at the Lean Blog, Mark Graban reported on a Wired story about former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Apparently when he ordered secure numeric codes to be placed on the weapons nuclear arsenal, the Strategic Air Command set the passwords to all zeros.

Graban quoted the original Wired article:

When: 1960s

What: Midway through the Cold War, American leaders began to worry that a rogue US officer might launch a small, unauthorized strike, prompting massive retaliation. So in 1962, Robert McNamara ordered every nuclear weapon locked with numerical codes.

Effect: None. Irritated by the restriction, Strategic Air Command set all the codes to strings of zeros. The Defense Department didn’t learn of the subterfuge until 1977.

Lean Blog contributor Mark Graban responded directly:

Isn’t it amazing to see how clever people can be in working around a top-down management mandate? Would Secretary McNamara been more successful if he had involved all of the stakeholders and gotten buy in instead of issuing an order? How did DoD not know about the “subterfuge”? Because they weren’t going to the “gemba”??

There’s considerable wisdom in Graban’s commentary. He noted, for example, that the decision makers were probably not going to the gemba, a Japanese word roughly meaning “scene of the crime.” Graban also wondered if McNamara should have worked with stakeholders instead of sending down another mandate.

government productivity

© Flickr user Victor1558

However, there’s even more going on here than just  the usual issue of top-down management, command and control thinking, and a failure to engage stakeholders on their own turf. The greater question is why did leaders feel that officers might be untrustworthy? After all, the original motivation for the change was due to the concern that a rogue US officer might order a small nuclear strike without proper authority. (It’s not clear if this fear came from the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, in which actor Sterling Hayden plays this very character.)

To improve process at organizations, we must recognize that workarounds often represent frustration, lack of communication and mistrust. Yet, they are also a fundamental source for improvement: a workaround usually illustrates what stakeholders truly desire. If you need help identifying challenges in your organization, contact our consultants at AccelaWork. We help companies realize that passwords set to “all zeros” illustrate that perhaps there is a better way to design access and control.

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