Out With The Old

I’ve been meaning to put together one of those “What’s Out, What’s In” lists.  Recently I was speaking at an event and I came up with an abbreviated list of outs and ins that I thought I would share.  You know the list I’m talking about? The Washington Post usually puts one in the Style section in the week between Christmas and New Years…probably because all the highly-paid writers are off on holiday, so the hoi polloi stuck in the office get the task of putting one together.  Lately the list has served as notice to me that I seem to have lost track of what’s hot and what’s not in the world these days.  Here’s a link to this year’s list.  I got about 10% of the items.  Swedish Death Cleaning?  What’s that?  I did think the “Plastic Bags Stuck in Trees ⇒ Cardboard Stuck in the Gutters” was pretty funny, given the huge number of Amazon boxes in circulation.   You could spend all day clicking on the links to try and understand the humor, but why bother when I’m about to give you a much easier to understand list?  Feel free to send me some more and I’ll put them in.  Here goes:

 

What’s Out

LPTA

R&D

Big IT Buys

Servers

Desktop

Single Awards

Last of the Boomers

Office

Multiple Services

Service Medical

Audit Prep

Pokémon

Continuing Resolutions

Fires/Floods/Hurricanes

2016 Presidential Election

Service Dogs

National Security Strategy

What’s In

Performance Based

Innovation

Agile

Cloud

Mobile

Multiple Awards

Millennials/Xers/iGen

Flex

Shared Services

DHA

Audit

Poke

More Continuing Resolutions

Meteors/Earthquakes/Zombie Apocalypse

2020 Presidential Election (Already?)

Service Ducks

National Military Strategy

 

 

OK. That’s all I could come up with on short notice, but it’s a fun exercise to think about what seemed to be so critical 365 days ago is all but forgotten now. Every time I do this exercise, I am reminded about the progression on leadership themes I have seen in the Navy since I was a midshipman. Let’s see if anyone remembers: Day-long Sensitivity Training, Management by Objective (MBO), Total Quality Management (TQM), Lean, Six Sigma, Navy Enterprise Model, Accelerated Learning, Business Process Reengineering.  I can still see the TQM workshops with the red and white balls in my mind as well as watching videos of Demming droning on.  I remember when it was declared that all SES and Flags should be at least a Brown Belt. I’m not quite sure what management fad we are in now, but if you have some ideas, please comment.  By the way, I hope this page looks decent.  It taxed my knowledge of HTML to get columns into the article…And harder still to get them to stop.  By the way, for all you retired Flags and SESers, I will be happy to collect your brown belts and sell them on consignment.

 

 

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Whoa Nellie!

So I guess you have to be an old guy like me to remember Keith Jackson, long-time ABC Sportscaster,  shouting “Whoa Nellie”KeithJackson1 but that’s what came to mind as I read the latest on the US Marine Corps audit saga.  Apparently GAO has forced the DoD Inspector General to retract the Marine Corp’s clean audit opinion because of problems in the suspense accounts.  Here’s a link to an article in Defense News with  the details. I have opined on DoD audits on several occasions….first shouting with joy at the accomplishment, then wondering if it really mattered and finally pointing a limp finger towards the Defense Finance and Accounting Service for using “plugs” to fix differences with the Treasury.

So for the record……I told you so!  It’s hard for me to believe that the underlying problem has existed for so long without apparent remedy.  Here’s a link to a 2005 GAO Report in which GAO finds:

Until DOD complies with existing laws and enforces its own guidance for reconciling, reporting, and resolving amounts in suspense and check differences on a regular basis, the buildup of current balances will likely continue, the department’s appropriation accounts will remain unreliable, and another costly write-off process may eventually be required.

 That was almost 10 years ago folks!  This has been a continuing report topic for the GAO with various status updates being published throughout the years.  Here’s an excerpt from the Summary of a more recent GAO report from December 2011:

Neither the Navy nor the Marine Corps have implemented effective processes for reconciling their FBWT[Funds Balance With Treasury].

Huh?  Navy and Marine Corps have been preparing for audit for years and yet it doesn’t appear that they were able to make any progress in fixing a problem identified by GAO way back in 2005 as a key impediment to a clean audit opinion.

So what are the “Suspense Accounts” that are causing such a problem?  Technically GAO defines them as “Combined receipt and expenditure accounts established to temporarily hold funds that are later refunded or paid into another government fund when an administrative or final determination as to the proper disposition is made. “ Translation: The place where a transaction is put when the documentation is incomplete so that it can not be assigned to a specific appropriation before it’s written off.  To get an idea of scale, in 2005 GAO reports it was an absolute value of $35 Billion.  Who knows what it is now? But I point out that it’s just about the amount of the DoD Sequestration hit.  Perhaps if they fixed this problem, sequestration wouldn’t have such a bad effect?  It seems to be to be awfully hard to go the the Hill and say that $35 Billion in spending cuts would kill the Department, when they are not exactly sure about $35 Billion already sitting around.  Those on  the defensive will say that the differences are eventually reconciled, but I am skeptical…and since they are already written off, does it really matter?  My guess is the money goes straight into the US Treasury Black Hole that all checks drafted to the US Treasury go…you know…that big ever increasing dense ball of greenbacks sitting in the Treasury Department basement.

This problem is precisely why DoD needs to get on with the audit….so they can be sure they know where the money is and provide accurate estimates of the impact of budget cuts.  If my kids came to me and said” We need more allowance”, and when asked what did they did with allowance I already gave them they reply, “We don’t know, but we need more!”, I would be highly skeptical of their requirement.

As it stands now, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines will spend around $45 Million this year for audits they already know will fail because of the DFAS Suspense Account issues.   Why not spend the money to fix that problem before plodding ahead for a pre-ordained result? To be sure it’s a tough problem…after all we have her unable to fix it for 10 years.

Who’s to blame, you ask?  Well, there’s enough to go around….DFAS for not fixing it, but also the Services for not taking actions to fix the paperwork before it gets to DFAS.  Ultimately, the fault probably rests on the shoulders of all those folks in DoD who improperly enter information at the command level.  I would also guess that given the kludge of IT systems required to record transactions, that errors are also introduced between systems, hand-jammed data is incorrectly transferred, and  by improperly trained people entering data.  This is what is referred to as a “Wicked Problem,” in management parlance. A “Wicked Problem” is defined as ” a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Moreover, because of complexity, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. For more info on “Wicked Problems” you can download the original paper written by C. West Churchman for $30 here.

Is the problem of unresolved transactions so complex that it defies correction?  Perhaps given the current architecture within DoD it is, and that alone is reason for the new DCMO to tackle it.  A fresh look is needed and the DCMO might be just the person to do it.  Right now DoD has an acting DCMO, and given the current political environment, I am not too sure the current nominee, Peter Levine will get confirmed….But for now Mr. Dave Tillotson has the dot.  Can someone in an “acting” position draw enough water to tackle this problem?  Don’t know, but why not give it a whirl. If and when Mr. Levine gets in the chair, it would be a great legacy to fix this problem once and for all.  Given his reputation, I have no doubt that he could fix it.

 

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Small Business Risks and Aerodynamics 101

I had the honor to participate on a panel recently at an event sponsored by the Reston Chamber of Commerce focused on the challenges faced by small businesses as they become “big” businesses. It was titled, “Breaking the Barrier: Launching Government Contracting Businesses Through the Small Business Threshold.” We discussed a variety of challenges faced by small businesses as they become successful and graduate into the “regular size” world of competition. LoverD a good topic for you small business owners to consider because the Small Business Administration cites unexpected growth as a major reason for small business failure. This is something that CCA has focused on as we developed our market strategy. Take a look at some of my thought on “Breaking the Barrier” on this web site in the Small Business Transition tab. I won’t rehash it here, but in a nutshell, as your business grows and is facing the loss of advantages of being small, you have to think about things differently.  That’s what “Breaking the Barrier” is all about……thinking about your business 2 or 3 years from now.  As a small business owner the temptation to remain focused on the current task order or the next deliverable is powerful, but you have to pull yourself above the fray and think about the future.  That’s hard to do!

I like analogies and being an aviator I frequently rely on my aviation experience to explain things. That’s why I think comparing the small-to-large transition as breaking the sound barrier is appropriate on several accounts.

First of all, breaking the sound barrier just doesn’t happen.  It required countless amounts of energy, money, blood, sweat and tears to get Chuck Yeager to nose through the Mach 1.0 barrier in the Bell X-1.  X1 It also took some sophistication because  we discovered that more power was not the answer in breaking the sound barrier.  Turns out something called the Area Rule is the key to supersonic flight.  The Area Rule basically states that in order to go supersonic, an airplane ‘s fuselage must be shaped like a Coke bottle.  Who knew?  I flew the venerable A-6 Intruder and no matter how hard we tried ( and believe me we tried) we could not hit “the Number.”  Breaking the small business barrier also requires more that just “more power (contracts).”  It requires the owner to look at his/her business in a different way.  How do I need to look when I become a $50 Million business? I guarantee you it’s different from how you look now.

Next, one wants to blast through the sound barrier as fast as possible. Airplanes can do screwy things in the trans-sonic phase of flight.  Controls act funny, engines sputter, sonic booms scare the bejesus out of the “earth-lubbers.”  In short, it’s not a good place to be or stay.  So when flying supersonic aircraft, pilots tend to want to blast through it and not deal with all the goofy things that happen….And guess what?  The same is true for the small business owner as the dreaded revenue limit is approached.  You don’t want to hang around at that limit….either stay below it or blast thorough it, but don’t hover around it.

Someone asked about the risks associated with transitioning from small to not-small and I think the risks can best be described as a stall in aviation terms.  When flying, stalls are bad, especially when near the ground.  Just look at what happened to Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco….they ran out of airspeed and stalled straight into the seawall. So here’s my take:

Small businesses sometime stall when approaching the applicable revenue limits for the same reasons airplanes do:

  1. Lost of lift
  2. Loss of power
  3. Too much drag
  4. Too much turbulence

Loss of Lift.  As a newly joined member to the “not small” club you will lose some of the factors that gave your small business “lift.”  The big primes will no longer be seeking you out in order to satisfy demographic requirements or take advantage of your lower rates.  You are now on your own and must do the seeking yourself.  There are also no set-asides for formerly small businesses.  That perk has vaporized, forcing you to go toe-to-toe with the big guys.  You have to anticipate that loss of lift in your business plan as you contemplate life as a “not small” business.

Loss of Power.  Power in the business world is what drives your business forward.  That power comes from the strength of your pipeline and the relationships you have.  Small businesses tend to not pay attention to pipelines, lead qualifications and where to focus business.  As you become bigger, you have to focus your attention on what will power you through the barrier, and that means re-thinking your market strategy, tailoring a pipeline process that supports it and developing a process that allows you to focus limited resources on what matters most.  The value of relationships in the marketplace can not be over-stated.  As a small business, chances are you had a pretty small universe of contacts because you didn’t need to spend a lot of time figuring out whose team you were going to be on. Your probably have a go-to prime (perhaps even a mentor-protoge relationship) and you don’t have to go shopping around for primes.  Now you are the prime in many cases and if you don’t have a robust contact file, you just might be SOL (technical term).

Too Much Drag. There are many factors which can be a drag on your business’ profitability.  I submit the most significant ones are:

  • Doing too many things.  In my experience, many small businesses are a “mile wide and an inch deep” because they have tended to try and be all things to all people in order to avoid turning down opportunities.  At my old firm we had just a handful of NAICS codes, but many times when I look at a small business they may have a dozen or more.  That’s not going to hack it when you are no longer small.  You are going to have to figure out what three of four things you are going to focus on and let the others go.
  • Overhead increases.  As you get bigger more and more overhead begins to drag your profitability down.  You have to bring on people to handle the tasks you used to do yourself….finance people, proposal people, people people…All of these put a drag on your ability to blast through the barrier.  A wise owner will think ahead and develop a plan to accommodate theses requirement. You may not have to hire people.  Why not outsource your finance function for a while?  do you really need to buy a very expensive software bundle to handle your finances or could you go to the cloud?  These are all things you need to think about before you get to the barrier, not after.
  • People.  Another drag on your business can be having the wrong people doing the wrong things.  They were hired for one purpose, but as contracts changed they were repurposed.  This may or may not be a good thing.  Small businesses tend to hang on to people too long and as an owner you need to constantly evaluate your personnel situation.  The last thing you want is inadequate or mediocre staffing as you blast through the barrier.
  • Lack of process. The final drag can be the lack of repeatable processes within your organization to handle the transition to big business.  The pipeline discussion above applies here.

Too Much Turbulence. The final reason you might stall is too much turbulence over your lifting surfaces.  Turbulence in your business can come from many sources.  The competitive environment can overwhelm some firms if they are not expecting it.   Proposals become more difficult to write.  You are not just completing a couple of sections for some prime, you have to write it all.  That can be a real disruption if not properly managed.  Remember that you are now in the wake turbulence of the large company business development machine and that most likely, wherever you go they have already been.  I can tell you from experience that the last thing you want to do in your little airplane is to land in the wake of jumbo jet.  You will find yourself in the BD wake all the time and need to plan for it, or avoid it all together.

Horizon
that’s my pitch for the day.  Think about your business in aviation terms and anticipate  the risks that are out there just waiting for you.  They can be predicted, avoided or dealt with.  But only if you go in with eyes open and scanning on the horizon.  As the proud owner of a successful small business about to become large, your scan needs to move to the horizon of your business not right in front of your nose.  If you aren’t scanning the horizon then you are a candidate for failure.

 

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Power Counter-Point

Breaking News
  SECDEF Power Point Guidance.  Looks like he reads my blog!

 

Who loves Power Point?  Let’s see a show of hands….What?  No hands?big pp

Like just about anyone in government, Lord knows I’ve seen my share of Power Point presentations.  I remember the Granddaddy of them all from my first year as the Navy’s money guy.  It was time for the requirements folks to brief the Chief of Naval Operations on their budget proposal.  I should have suspected something when the calendar was blocked for three days, but what the heck?  I was a new guy and thought this was normal. We sat down in the PEC ( I can’t remember what that stood for, but it was the big CNO conference room where we discussed such matters) and girded our loins for the fireworks.  Now those of you who have ever attended a meeting in the Pentagon where money is being discussed know that there is literally no conference room in the Pentagon big enough to accommodate all of the Importants, the not-so-Importants, the strap-hangars and even one or two people who actually know what’s going on.  The 20 person conference table had 40 people around it.  The walls were thick with one and two stars and their civilian counterparts sitting in hard, folding chairs taken from the WWII surplus locker.  The EA’s, aides and Navy Hospital Corpsmen (in case someone had a heart attack after seeing the numbers) were standing wherever there was room.  Of course, being the junior Three Star, I had the honor of sitting right next to the projector….hot air blowing in my face and the fan so loud I could not hear what was being said (I always suspected they put me there to break me down so that I would agree to anything just to get out of the room!).  Nonetheless, I felt pretty good.  After all, I was BIG!  I had the $130 Billion checkbook……and I was sitting at the table!!!DoD Chart=

Then the first slide went up.  There was a collective groan when all eyes focused on the very small, 8-point numbers at the bottom right of the first slide:” 1 of 1329.” I remember the N4 leaning over to me and whispering YGTBSM!  “Maybe we’ll just zip right through them,” I naively said.  ” After all, if we look at each slide for just 10 seconds it will only take three hours and forty-seven minutes.”  Around 11 AM, I realized just how wrong I was as I heard the presenter say, “Next Slide” and my eyes were drawn to the lower right side of the slide—“6 of 1329.”  I did a quick calculation (after all, I used to be King of Ops Analysis for the Navy) and realized that at this pace it would take roughly a month to get through all the slides (not counting breaks).  What were they thinking?  How did they possible hope to get through all those slides? By the way, there were over 4000 back-up slides, just in case one of the 1329 didn’t cover all the bases.

That’s why over the years I’ve relied less and less on Power Point and more and more on one, well-designed visual aid whenever I have an important presentation to make (Don’t pay any attention to those PP presentations on my web site.  They don’t really exist). I am one of the original Power Point Rangers.  I remember when the presentation software suite of choice was Harvard Graphics (Whatever happened to HG?). As a newly-minted action officer on the Joint Staff I was sent to a one week course on the new software in use on the Joint Staff….Power Point.  It was certainly a step up from HG, but like all IT improvements, the Bosses expected miracles and demanded more and more sophistication.  Back then, in order to make a PP slide you had to first make it on the “Wang Computer”, then print it out on the ONE color printer in the Joint Staff on special, clear acetate sheets.  They were forever sticking to the hot parts of the printer and in general a pain to work with.  Once you got all that done, you still needed to tape the sheet to a cardboard holder that you could slap on the overhead projector.  My office was just down the passageway from the Tank (where the Joint Chiefs met) and our boss was always changing the slides at the last minute.  So I can remember a “bucket brigade” of PP slides moving from the office to the backdoor of the Tank just as the Boss was saying “Next Slide.”  No wonder I hate Power Point.

Of course, nowadays it’s a piece of cake.. Hook up the laptop and off you go!  Except there are always the inevitable “What button do I press?”, “Which way do I point this thing?”, “Can someone find my slides?” questions that the briefers always wind up asking.  (this is where your audience checks out and begins to check e-mail, write the grocery list, and go to the bathroom) So I’m not sure we are that much better of now than back in the day!  I guess my point is why detract from your presentation with slides and all the hiccups that come with them?  Pick one good  visual aid and go with it.  Give people copies of slides (best done after your brief) but don’t rely on them.

But, sadly, “we will always have Power Point “(apologies to Bogart), so I thought I would put out a few “Points about Power Point” (Damn, I’m clever!)

  • Keep them simple.  Pictures and graphs are best.  Use few words.  Remember people will be reading the slides and not listening to you if there are words on the them.
  • Make sure the words are spelled correctly.  Most Admirals and Generals spend more time checking the spelling on slides than either reading what the words say or listening to you. One misspelling and you are labeled an Idiot For Life and all future slides are null and void!
  • Have a time budget for your slides.  It’s hard to spend less than 5 minutes on a slide.  If you have to spend less that that, then you probably don’t need it.
  • DON”T READ THE SLIDES!! Guess what?  Everyone in the room can read.
  • Speaking of reading, make sure the material on the slide is large enough that it can be seen in the back.  I hate it when someone flashes up a slide with a 50 element spreadsheet and says, ” You probably can’t see this, but……..”  Why waste my time with something I can’t see?
  • Don’t read the slides!! (Did I already say that?  It’s worth repeating…..Don’t read the slides)
  • Don’t use Power Point.  I have found that speaking from a placemat-sized piece of card stock is far more effective that using slides.  Put the things you want your target to know on the placemat.  Force them to look at you and to listen to you by having nothing else for them to do.  If you need Power Point slides to be effective, look for another line of work.

OK.  Hope this helps.  Remember the source… A professional and seasoned Power Point Ranger, and someone who had suffered though more bad PP briefs than Carter has pills.

Oh Yeah, one final point: Don’t Read The Slides!

 

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Command Performance

I attended a two day session put on by The Performance Institute and Association of Government Accountants this week on the subject of performance management in government.  It was a great session ( and I managed to knock out 14 CPEs) with some interesting insights on measuring performance in Federal, State and Local agencies.  We heard from David Walker (former Comptroller General), Mark Reger (Acting Comptroller at OMB), Lisa Danzig (Associate Director for Personnel and Performance at OMB) and a host of other performance gurus.  I came away thinking that although there has been a lot of progress made in measuring performance of agencies, we probably still have along way to go.

So what performance is being measured?  Is it the performance of the organization or the performance of its people.  I suppose one could say it’s both.  Most of the conference was focused on the performance of the organization as far as I could tell.  As you might think, some organizations are more easily measured than others.  Take US Patent and Trademark Office for example.  It’s fairly easy to put into place metrics that not only are easily measured, but reflect the actual performance of the organization…..number of patents issued, length of time to issue, etc.  But other organizations are not so easy.. Take DoD for example.  So what do we measure to evaluate the performance of the Defense Department?  Here’s a possible list:

  • Number of wars won
  • Casualty exchange rates
  • Ratio of  of wars deterred/wars fought
  • Number of Humanitarian Responses and lives saved
  • Number of successful defenses of the Homeland
  • Numbers of allies gained vs. lost
  • Number of states which have a military base

The list could go on and on.  The problem is none of these things can be easily measured. So the Department must use metrics which are all about input, not output.

  • Topline Budget number
  • Amount of allocated budget spent
  • Numbers of ships, airplanes, vehicles purchased
  • Number of people
  • Number of audited financial statements
  • Amount of money allocated to anything

In the Navy, we were pretty good at the input part.  I had all sorts of models to help me figure out how much money I needed to ask for…Flying Hour Model, Steaming Day Model, Installation Service Level Model, etc.   But none of the models actually reflected reality.  We never went back to check and see if we modeled for 26 flying hours per month per pilot, that they actually flew 26 hours per month.  In fact, we discovered that instead of relying on a hugely complex flying hour model for the budget, in the end it’s just as simple as multiplying the number of airplanes in the inventory by average flight hour per model the previous year.  In the end it didn’t matter how many pilots we had, you could only get so many hours with a fixed number of airplanes.  The Chief of Naval Operations frequently uses number of ships deployed, number of sailors deployed and percentage of the fleet deployed as a metric.  Here’s a link to the current data.

A few years back, then Secretary Rumsfeld tried to put a pay for performance-based personnel evaluation system in place….the National Security Personnel System.  In the end, it failed because we were horrible at trying to link what Pentagon workers did to measurable performance criteria.  This turned out to be an impossible task.  How do you  measure the performance of a budget analyst, for example? Do you link the funding level given by Congress to the analyst’s work?  If his or her particular program is cancelled does that mean they failed?  The truth is most in the Pentagon work their tails off, but on things over which they have little or no control.  I remember the classic example of why the system was flawed.  The dialogue went something like this:

Boss: Joe, you just won a performance bonus of $10,000.  Tell us what you did to earn it.

Joe:  I was in charge of  XYZ grants to the field.  The goal was to deliver grants to the field elements by July 1st.  In the last 6 years the best we have ever been able to do is get them out by July 15th.  I set a goal this year to get them out by June 15th.  In fact, we got them out on June 10th, not only 5 days earlier that the goal, but almost a month better than we’ve ever been able to do.  For that I got the big bonus.

Boss:  That’s great work.  What did you do that made the difference.

Joe: Nothing,  In fact, the dates we get the grants out is solely dependent on when the Congress gives us the money.  This year we got it early! Thanks for the bonus!

The moral of this story is make sure that  your people have clear goals and that they are measured on things that they can control.  NSPS was a good idea.  Who can criticize paying people for performance?  The problem is in figuring out exactly what people do and how to measure it. Performance management is a great tool, but only to the extent that you can measure performance.  Think about the people who work for you.  What do they do all day?  Who uses their outputs?  Where do they really make a difference?  Set up your metrics around those questions and you will be well on the way to having an effective performance management system.

One Final Thought

Don’t let your infatuation with metrics become so great that you lose sight of your outputs or mission.  In the case of the VA it appears that people were so focused on making the metrics look good that they forgot why they exist…..to serve Veterans. People do funny and unpredictable things when they perceive their jobs are at risk.  In this case, people were tweaking something over which they had no control.  They would have been heroes had they pointed out that wait times at VA hospitals are not meeting the metrics, instead they are zeros for putting self above service to our Veterans.  Time for a change at VA!

 

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