Flying Lessons: How stories from Aviation can make us better Managers – Improve

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In this, the fifth installment of our six part series, we look at the role of Improvement in business value creation and examine, through the lens of lessons learned, and example of improvement from the field of aviation.  

The picture of Boeing’s iconic 737 airliner represents a culmination of aviation lessons for business managers.  In microcosm, the 737 represents the result of five activities all organizations must do to be viable.  Boeing observed their environment and communicated, organized and delivered a product that it has improved over time.  The ability to Observe, Communicate, Organize, Deliver and Improve are critical to business success.  Moreover, the business that does these five activities well is on its way beyond viability towards achieving enterprise excellence.  Last month we covered Delivery with a look at TP Wright’s observations linking production quantity, costs and learning.  We applied the Learning Curve from both product and workflow perspectives to improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness.  This month we look at Improvement and take a lesson from aviation that can help us improve business performance.     

Businesses improve to become better.  Approaches taken to improve performance are as varied as businesses themselves.  So where do we start?  One place is in the initial decision to view your enterprise as a set of singular characteristics or as an integrated set of activities.  The former has a long record of accomplishment; there was a time when a breakthrough in a single aspect of your business almost guaranteed market superiority.  Unfortunately, this approach no longer holds the same promise it used to.  The wide spread availability of information precludes simplistic solutions to competitiveness.  We are at the point where enterprise excellence depends upon the integration of activities to deliver value.              

An example from aviation of how improved integration provides superior results comes from John Boyd.  Colonel Boyd was a United States Air Force officer who saw combat as a fighter pilot, flying the F-86 Sabre jet during the Korean War.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s he developed tactics and trained pilots in air combat.  Later, he contributed to the design of fighter aircraft, particularly the F-16 Falcon and F-15 Eagle.  After retirement in 1975, he continued to influence military doctrine as a consultant.  Boyd developed significant insights about how two seemingly similar aircraft (American F-86 Sabre and the Soviet MiG-15) could have dissimilar results in combat – with an estimated 8:1 F-86 kill ratio over the MiG-15 during the Korean War.  

Boyd attributed the performance difference between the F-86 and MiG-15 to (a) superior situational awareness for the F-86 pilot since the aircraft cockpit sat higher and allowed a clear field of view, and (b) hydraulic controls in the F-86 allowed for quicker responses by the aircraft from pilot input.  While the MiG-15 possessed superior armament and ability to singularly climb, turn and accelerate, the more aware F-86 pilot had a better understanding of the evolving environment (situation awareness) and due to the F-86’s superior controls (aircraft responsiveness) could react faster.  The MiG-15 showed all the attributes of excellence in terms of individual performance characteristics (see the chart Performance Characteristics Comparison).  In a sense, the F-86 was imperfect and lacked the capabilities of the MiG-15 (i.e. Rate of Climb, Ceiling, Weight, Guns, and Range).  In combat, the MiG-15’s superior potential to perform individual activities failed to achieve superiority over a seemingly ‘inferior’ aircraft.  The F-86, as an integrated system (Pilot + Aircraft), proved superior.   

Boyd observed that within the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop in an aerial dogfight, F-86 pilot leveraged his situation awareness and aircraft responsiveness and incrementally improved his tactical situation compared to the MiG pilot (See “Boyd Cycle” diagram).  The Sabre pilot was able to more effectively cycle through the OODA Loop faster and with greater accuracy due to better visibility and the F-86’s superior controls.  These two rarely measured aircraft attributes directly impact reaction speed and execution quality.  The F-86 (Pilot + Aircraft) as an integrated system delivered situational improvement with each OODA Loop cycle until the F-86 prevailed.  The lesson from Boyd’s OODA Loop is that superior capability evolves from the integration of activities related to individual characteristics, more than from singular characteristics themselves.      

Typical representation of the Boyd Cycle: (OODA Loop)

Putting the OODA Loop in an Organizational Context.  What aspects of your business correspond to the F-86 pilot’s situational awareness and the F-86’s quick response?  The ability of your team to accurately observe and reliably communicate ensures they are able to organize themselves and deliver value.  Viewed individually, the ability to Observe, Communicate, Organize and Deliver provides the foundation of business viability.  The integration of these activities provides a means for the business to excel.  As your team learns to improve with each cycle, the integration of activities becomes the key to improved performance.  Just as the pilot in Boyd’s example cycles through the OODA Loop faster and incrementally improves his position, the business leader who can leverage the team’s ability cycle through the Observe, Communicate, Organize and Deliver Loop will incrementally improve enterprise performance.  

Example: A cabinet shop may possess all the right characteristics – the best equipment, highly qualified artisans and an excellent order tracking and accounting system.  However, if these organizational characteristics are not integrated, they run the risk of underperformance – and the business becoming the Mig-15 of the market!  An organizationally integrated competitor with older equipment, less skilled workers and antiquated manual systems may very well provide superior outcomes.  This is because the integrated competitor executes the Observe-Communicate-Organize-Deliver Loop better and faster, improving with each cycle.     

Lesson for Managers.  The integration of activities provides an important means to improve performance.  In seeking improvement and enterprise excellence, managers face many obstacles: resources are often scarce, people are busy and unexpected things happen.  To improve performance the first step is to understand who you are and where you are at (Situational Awareness).  Understand your businesses capabilities and environment.  Second, see your business as an organic set of activities that flow together to deliver results (Integrated Functionality).  By doing so you can prioritize resources based upon results and not focus solely on individual activities/characteristics that will not deliver the intended outcomes.  Third, develop your team so improvement is part of their daily work (Continuous Improvement).  Provide your team with the tools and training to make incremental improvements in both the speed of reaction and executional quality.  Fourth, clearly define expected outcomes (Explicit Goals).  Without goals, no improvement effort can succeed.  As a leader, carefully choose priorities that emphasize integration excellence over a focus on singular enterprise characteristics.     

Further reading:

1) McKay, Brett and Kate.  John Boyd’s Roll Call: Do You Want to Be Someone or Do Something? ( 

2) Richards, Chet. 2012, Boyd’s OODA Loop (It’s Not What You Think), J. Addams & Partners, Inc.

3) Thompson, Fred. 1993, The Boyd Cycle and Business Strategy, Proceedings of the Aomori-Atkinson Conference, Aomori Public College, Aomori, Japan.

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Jim Myers is the principal and founder of Praxis Analytics, Incorporated.  Jim serves as a trusted advisor to business leaders in their quest to operate efficiently, improve continuously and prosper.  His background includes two decades working in manufacturing, supply chain, customer service and maintenance management roles within markets that range from capital equipment to aerospace and defense.  Jim balanced his practical operations experience with theory and served as the Associate Dean of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at Willamette University where he led projects to improve school operations and taught graduate courses in Operations and Information Management, Strategy Alignment and Project Management.  

Jim can be reached at      

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