Modernize Coast Guard Workflow Management

Senior Chief Petty Officer Michael Hvozda, U.S. Coast Guard

I submitted the following article to U. S. Naval Institute Press last year for their 2021 Coast Guard essay contest. This grew out of a challenge a mentor of mine gave me in 2016 to go beyond just leaving a passdown for my replacement and instead draft a white paper recommending organizational change based on what I had learned in that position.

Karen did her best to refine my draft but alas, it did not make the cut. However, I did learn a few things in the process and will submit another essay this year:

  1. Write for yourself, not them and you will eventually find the right audience.
  2. Multiple focused essays are better than one muddy.
  3. “Writing about something, even something you know well, usually shows you that you didn’t know it as well as you thought.”

Introduction

This article will describe the Coast Guard’s executive decision-making and apply Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints to realign responsibility with accountability through knowledge workflow management.  The Coast Guard’s Headquarters exists to manage the policies and resources for an 88,000-person organization executing $11.3 billion annually.  If one were to view the daily effort contained in its 1.1 million square feet as a production system, it is the decisions that are the final product.  Every production system is a series of dependent events of uncertain duration subject to a single limiting constraint at any given time.  Break the constraint, and productivity increases.  

The Coast Guard’s three logistics and service centers adopted business management systems integrating international quality, occupational health/safety, and environmental standards decades ago to maximize their production given known constraints.  There are thought experts on applying physical production control to knowledge work in the Coast Guard Headquarters’ backyard at Georgetown, such as Cal Newport (Newport, 2020).  They send high potential senior officers to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who teaches to apply industrial engineering and lean manufacturing to office work (Dodge, Kieffer, & Repenning, 2018) as well as Harvard Business School, which teaches how modern collaborative software can reduce real estate costs, improve talent management, and increase production (Choudhury, 2020).  The Coast Guard needs to evolve their highest-level processes and imagine a future where:

  • Orders to a staff tour can mean remote work from one’s current duty station and not relocation to an expensive housing market with long commutes.
  • The Commandant shares his objectives in collaborative software in which subordinate commanders then nest more detailed plans and tactics, ensuring alignment of both intent and priority.
  • Real property, relocation, and transportation requirements reduce with smaller office footprints.

Coast Guard Decision Making

The Coast Guard has myriad doctrine, strategies, plans, policies, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) to convey expectations.  In production terms, it is how they conduct process control and quality assurance.  Leaderships expect individual contributors to follow that guidance and supervisors to monitor compliance.  However, bureaucracy begets bureaucracy, and over time organizations locally optimize processes to the detriment of organizational-level goals.  The manuals get longer as we attempt to remove gray areas, the processes forget their reason for existence, and the executive brief becomes more about the quality of the read-ahead package than the decision at hand.  Simply put, tactical execution decouples from strategic intent.

The Joint Professional Military Education program teaches that descriptive doctrine informs increasingly prescriptive strategy, operations, and tactics.  Innovative field tactics are, in turn, captured as doctrine in a virtuous cycle.  Since not all eleven Coast Guard missions align with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) strategy, I will focus on the Service’s ends, ways, and means:

  • Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Planning, defines ends as the broad objectives to be achieved. The DHS sees the Coast Guard’s as preventing and responding to maritime safety, security, and stewardship threats (Department of Homeland Security, 2013).  To this end, the Commandant’s intent is to maximize readiness today & tomorrow, address the Nation’s complex maritime challenges, and deliver mission excellence anytime, anywhere (U. S. Coast Guard, 2018).  
  • Ways are “how” one will achieve a given strategy or for the purposes of this essay, the executive decisions and strategic intent that set in motion lower-level planning.  The Coast Guard formalizes this in the Commandant’s Executive Decision-Making (EDM) Process, COMDTINST 5420.40.  The outputs of this top-level process are inputs to all lower-level decisions.
  • Means are the capabilities that carry out the strategy, and they are expensive.  The Coast Guard integrates into the greater federal system through the Coast Guard PPBE Process, COMDTINST 7100.1.  Finances are the best measure of an organization’s basic strategy. 

Together ends, ways and means steer the entire organization in the long-term direction desired by its most senior leadership.  If they are not integrated, the organization will be fighting against itself.  Subordinate commanders break down strategy into operational plans.  The Coast Guard, for instance, has plans for its operational domains, workforce initiatives, and geographic areas.  Lastly, organizations decompose plans into the policies that prescribe and TTP that describe tactics.  In theory, one should be able to draw a clear line from the work being performed to the strategy it supports; however, the Coast Guard lacks an enterprise system even to try.  Along with many large and historic institutions, they thus fail to measure effort towards their objectives, correct those not in alignment, and risk wasting taxpayer dollars as a result.  Executive schedules become filled with tactics that squeeze out time for strategic focus while those who should be trusted with those tactics try their best to establish a strategy for their world of work.

            The Coast Guard is not alone in failing to remain strategic in decision-making.  In Proceedings, a recent article noted that the “crush” of daily routines leaves Navy leaders with little time for deliberate thought (Hone & Rielage, 2020).  The alignment will never be perfect, but transparently synchronizing strategy, decisions, and workflow through collaborative software will reduce much of the seven forms of muda that continual improvement processes like the Toyota Production System seek to eliminate.  Elimination of unnecessary effort would increase resiliency, reduce employee frustration, and if we are willing to change some fundamental culture lead to the “efficiencies” for which governments constantly search: 

  • Transportation: unnecessary relocations for staff assignments, commuting to an office, etc.
  • Inventory: as of writing this, the Coast Guard Headquarters Task Management System (TMS) has 15,643 active tasks.
  • Motion: the physical routing of documents by administrative assistants, the electronic ping-pong of asynchronous email collaboration, etc.
  • Waiting: the oldest active TMS task was due December 27, 2016.
  • Overproduction: staff time answering questions asked by executive staff “just in case,” effort spent on initiatives that do not align with strategic intent or fiscal reality, etc.
  • Overprocessing: I worked on a [possible] record version 14 of a four-slide PowerPoint to fine-tune the layout of text boxes and colors desired by one executive.  It was never referenced in the brief.
  • Defects: the principal-agent problem, poor coordination, and quickly finding needed information drive most staff rework.

Theory of Constraints

            The Guard Aviation Logistics Center (ALC) implemented the Theory of Constraints (TOC) in 2015 to address the same coordination issues in an industrial setting.  At the time, ALC’s component repair and manufacture shops struggled to make intelligent production decisions while their aircraft product lines fought for shared industrial resources.  Their supply and engineering cells were stove-piped, and supervisors used heuristics that relied more on relationships or outdated assumptions than data.  Successful leaders managed by personality and not process.  There was more work in process than necessary, and most of it was overdue.  They lacked a common production picture synchronizing everyone towards a shared goal.  Everyone believed that the paint shop was the overall production constraint, but the team proved that it was ALC’s ability to manage workflow for the entire system.

The first few weeks of full-time telework after COVID-19 hit Washington, DC, was also a production challenge.  Information systems were not ready for the volume of remote employees, so the collaboration was poor, and efforts were duplicated in isolation.  Without physical presence forcing interaction, communications were inefficient, and workdays lengthened to accommodate.  Focus was fractured as we became more comfortable with electronic communication and began reacting to a flurry of interruptions.  Thankfully, we settled into a rhythm.   We learned to quickly transition from an inefficient email exchange to a quick phone call.  We refined our electronic routing system and how we tracked the progress of deliverables, eventually implementing it across the rest of our directorate, and learned that videoconferencing shouldn’t replace all communications.  In sum, we used technology to synchronize individual contributors not in the same room into a single powerful effort.

By implementing TOC, ALC lowered the proverbial river to reveal the issues that had always been there but were unseen due to all the work-in-process.  They shifted the burden of improving workflow from employees who had the ideas to management who had the responsibility.  They replaced speed with velocity (Parrish, Understanding Speed and Velocity: Saying “NO” to the Non-Essential, 2020) and reaped the corresponding benefits of both effectiveness and efficiency.  They focused on the highest priority work and quickly finished it.  Producing policy and resources in an office building is not nearly as sexy as producing aircraft and parts at an industrial facility, but the same focusing steps apply (Goldratt, 1992):

  1. Identify the system’s constraint: executive time to reflect on strategic level decisions.  
  2. Decide how to exploit the system’s constraint(s): reduce executive work in process via a decision gate similtar to the Eisenhower decision matrix (Parrish, The Decision Matrix: How to Prioritize What Matters, 2018).  
  3. Subordinate everything else to the above decision(s): capture, configure, and control all staff work within a single, prioritized knowledge work queue.
  4. Alleviate the system’s constraint: use artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) to create the first draft of complicated decisions.  
  5. Warning! If a constraint has been broken in the previous steps, go back to step 1, but do not allow inertia to cause a system’s constraint.

AI/ML may seem like a new-school solution within an article that mainly talks about turning back the clock to an industrial production mindset.  However, the Coast Guard has begun a technology revolution (U. S. Coast Guard, 2020), and it was applied to Navy assignments with success (Kuzma, Shaw, Dannelly, & Calcagno, 2018).  As the Coast Guard integrates data systems through their logistics information technology consolidation effort and Naval Operational Business Logistics Enterprise acquisition, they would be remiss not to intentionally incorporate AI/ML to reduce the mental effort of all decision-makers.  For instance, it could be applied to search their TMS for related tasks to improve collaboration or mine draft documents to prevent duplication of effort.

Conclusion

            The Coast Guard is charged to protect those on the sea, the Nation against threats delivered by the sea, and the sea itself (U. S. Coast Guard, 2014).  Title 14 U. S. Code § 89 is their authority to act, and together they either execute or support Coast Guard operations.  However, there are many echelons of command between the front-line operator and the Commandant.  Some level of bureaucracy is necessary, but modern technology allows us to respond to uncertainty (as DHS desires) with a common focus rather than react within individual stovepipes.  Coast Guard executive leadership must adopt a production mindset for decisions, align effort through a knowledge workflow management system, and realign responsibility with authority through decision making at the appropriate level.

One cannot simply adopt new technology such as Microsoft Office 365 or AI/ML and hope to reap the benefits without evaluating the underlying processes.  The federal government does not seek profit for shareholders but does seek to maximize value for taxpayers continually and needs to adapt to change often.  The Coast Guard’s technology revolution can allow strategy to better drive resourcing and resourcing to better support execution.  When the entire enterprise is not moving us closer to the desired ends, the resource means can be adjusted via process-controlled ways. Transparency of priorities will minimize misaligned efforts and reduce waste.  Improving the process of decision-making will speed our observe-orient-decide-act cycle and increase resiliency.

Works Cited

Choudhury, P. (2020). Our Work from Anywhere Future. Harvard Business Review, 58-67.

Department of Homeland Security. (2013). 2013 White Paper on Resourcing the U. S. Coast Guard. Washington: Department of Homeland Security. Retrieved from U. S. Coast Guard: https://www.uscg.mil/Portals/0/Strategy/2013_USCG_WP.pdf

Dodge, S., Kieffer, D., & Repenning, N. P. (2018, 09 06). Breaking Logjams in Knowledge Work. Retrieved from MIT Sloan: https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/breaking-logjams-in-knowledge-work/

Goldratt, E. M. (1992). The goal: A process of ongoing improvement. Great Barrington: North River Press.

Hone, T., & Rielage, D. (2020, 5). No Time for Victory. Retrieved from U. S. Naval Institute: https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/may/no-time-victory

Kuzma, R., Shaw, I., Dannelly, Z., & Calcagno, D. (2018, 12 13). Good Will Hunting: The Strategic Threat of Poor Talent Management. Retrieved from War on the Rocks: https://warontherocks.com/2018/12/good-will-hunting-the-strategic-threat-of-poor-talent-management/

Newport, C. (2020, 06 03). On Running an Office Like a Factory. Retrieved from Study Hacks: https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/06/03/on-running-an-office-like-a-factory/

Oxford University Press. (2010). Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parrish, S. (2018, 9). The Decision Matrix: How to Prioritize What Matters. Retrieved from Farnam Street: https://fs.blog/2018/09/decision-matrix/

Parrish, S. (2020, 06 06). Understanding Speed and Velocity: Saying “NO” to the Non-Essential. Retrieved from Farnam Street: https://fs.blog/2018/03/speed-velocity/

U. S. Air Force. (2017, 2 27). Centralized Control and Decentralized Execution. Retrieved from Curtis E. Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education: https://www.doctrine.af.mil/Portals/61/documents/Volume_1/V1-D81-CC-DE.PDF

U. S. Coast Guard. (2014). Doctrine for the U. S. Coast Guard. Washington: U. S. Coast Guard.

U. S. Coast Guard. (2018). Coast Guard Stategic Plan: 2018-2022. Washington: U. S. Coast Guard.

U. S. Coast Guard. (2020, 06 06). Office 365. Retrieved from U. S. Coast Guard: https://www.dcms.uscg.mil/o365/U. S. Coast Guard. (2020, 12 23). Tech Revolution. Retrieved from U. S. Coast Guard: https://www.dcms.uscg.mil/Portals/10/CG-6/roadmap/C5i-roadmap-FINAL-v6.pdf

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