Every year, organizations invest millions of dollars purchasing equipment, vehicles, software, etc. in a bid to be more efficient and effective. Additionally, thousands of dollars are spent to train personnel on how to operate the aforementioned items. Consequently, the people involved have an expectation that these items will properly work. However, that is not always the case.
After the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, an order was issued to conduct unrestricted submarine and air war against Japan.1 In order for the submarine force to carry out their orders, torpedoes were needed to sink enemy shipping. That makes sense unless the torpedoes are not working correctly and they either miss the mark or bounce off the hull without detonating. The culprit was the Mark 14 torpedo.
Not only was the submarine force experiencing problems with their ordnance in the early part of World War II, but so was Naval Aviation. In the latter case, the defective weapon was the Mark 13 torpedo delivered by courageous aircrews flying the TBD-1 Douglas Devastator aircraft.2
The Backroom Quarterbacks
The torpedo problems were reported to the chain-of-command, but instead of listening to the complaints and taking an inquisitive approach, people not assigned to the Pacific Theatre of action made accusations against the submarine skippers and the pilots. These backroom quarterbacks reasoned that certainly the trouble was not with faulty equipment, the issue was human error.3 In other words, the men in the front lines risking their lives were simply screwing things up. Fortunately, the issue was finally resolved, and a lot of Japanese ships were sunk, contributing to the successful war effort.
Not Just a Problem in Our Past
Unfortunately, not listening to people on the front lines of work is a pervasive problem in our society. During management meetings, accusatory statements and questions such as, “they keep screwing this up,” “why can’t they get it right,” “why aren’t they on board with this,” and more are uttered in exasperation.
Often, these words come from people who are removed from front-line work and have forgotten what it’s like to be at the tip of the spear. Also, there are organizations where people in management positions have never been at the tip of the operational spear, yet they have all the answers and are quick to judge and criticize those doing the grunt work.
Are You Listening?
We must carefully listen to complaints and gripes to discern what the true problem is. After all, some people love to complain, but we must sift out the disgruntled and disenchanted from those who are truly reporting a problem. Be careful not to shut down people when they report problems or the torpedoes will continue to bounce off the hulls of ships, and employee frustration will increase wasting money in the long run.
1Craig L. Symons, The Battle of Midway, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011), 22