The unsuccessful Christmas Day terror attack (a.k.a. the underpants bomber) involving Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit has highlighted inefficiencies and process breakdowns that a reasonable person would have thought would have been eliminated years ago.
In spite of receiving what should have been considered actionable intelligence from the terrorist’s father, critical information was not acted on appropriately or in a timely fashion by governmental agencies. This breakdown could have caused the death of 288 people on the aircraft and perhaps more on the ground.
The American people deserve better. This predictable event was an entirely avoidable business execution failure on the part of those charged with protecting us.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security[i] (DHS) was established on March 1, 2003. Its stated goal is to prepare for, prevent, and respond to domestic emergencies, particularly terrorism. This cabinet-level department’s mission is to protect the U.S. from terror attacks and to respond to natural disasters. This cabinet-level department was created after the September 11, 2001, terror attack by the Bush Administration. The Department of Homeland Security works in conjunction with other federal departments.[ii] Homeland security policy is coordinated at the White House by the Homeland Security Counsel.[iii]
A Simple Solution
I am for simplicity in business process and system design. I prefer speed and agility over elegance. From a simplistic viewpoint, here’s what should have happened after any human being in any government agency receives a report about a real, possible or potential threat.
- DHS is immediately notified by any government employee about any potential threat,
- The individual(s) is/are added to the terrorist watch list and no-fly list,
- A report dispatched to all federal agencies and international partners who need to be aware of this intelligence,
- Any outstanding U.S. visas are immediately revoked,
- Appropriate post-report actions are taken
If it turns out the report is a mistake or a hoax, apologize and move on.
Political correctness, not having sufficient details of a threat, etc., is no reason to not immediately escalate our response to a potential threat.
How Anti-Terror Processes Should Be Designed
The business processes should consist of a series of business process modules with each module reflecting a likely scenario that may be encountered.
Example: Human #1 advises Human #2 within a government agency that Human #3 represents a specific threat. The response to the specific scenario should consist of very simple business process steps that can be executed with a minimum of delay and minimal need for training. The process described under "A Simple Solution" above could be adopted very quickly.
Information technology availability always lags the needs of the organization. Therefore, information technology may not take a lead role in a solution. As information technology becomes available to tie together the modules together, this can be implemented. It is not, however, acceptable to wait to eliminate gaps and breakdowns in current business processes until information technology is available. There can be incremental improvements over time.
Impediments to Change in the Federal Government
Forming the Department of Homeland Security has not immediately resulted in business process improvements or improvements in business execution. Lesson learned: we cannot legislate improved business execution.
The biggest impediments to improving business execution are leadership and culture.
All governmental departments are led by political appointees. The career employees in each department know that they need only stall for 4 years, 8 years or sometimes even less, and this new political appointee will be gone, they won’t have to radically change what they do or how they do it, and they can pretty much be impervious to all but the most minor amounts of change.
Whenever people want to push back on major change, one of the first things the change agent will hear is, "Well, you just don’t understand." And, by the time the person does understand, the gig is up, a new department head comes in and the process starts all over. Net impact: almost none. The "line in the sand" barely moves.
Why is Change So Difficult?
Most people start with the details rather than the view from 20,000 feet, get clear on the required objectives or outcomes, and adjust the processes to fit the objectives or outcomes. It is so easy to get mired in details that one loses sight of the desired outcomes.
Making required changes to existing processes requires intense, laser-like focus on specific objectives and outcomes that have to be achieved within a rapid time frame. It is important to remember that, all the while, the culture is pushing against change.
The leader must keep pushing back to make sure that changes are not being undermined for the sake of delaying or denying change. The leader must also overcome the inertia and resistance to sharing information outside of agency silos.
Roles and responsibilities need to clearly defined for employees in each scenario. Employees need to be held accountable for executing the process in accordance with expectations and need to understand that there are immediate and dramatic consequences for non-compliance.
There is never a viable excuse for not being fast. Just as readers here are looking to become fast companies, government processes must become fast as well. And, please, if you think I don’t understand, help me understand how you would make change to improve the efficacy of this critical need, not why change is not possible.
David Gardner is a management consultant, speaker, author, blogger who specializes in eliminating business execution problems that threaten profitability and growth. He can be reached through his web site at www.gardnerandassoc.com.
[i] The Department of Homeland Security has over 200,000 employees in federal organizations that include:
- United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
- Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
- U.S. Coast Guard
- National Protection and Programs Directorate
- U.S. Secret Service
[ii] Several key federal departments that are also charged with protecting the U.S. include:
- The Department of Health and Human Services
- The Department of Justice
- The Department of Energy
- Central Intelligence Agency
- Department of State
[iii] The Homeland Security Council is chaired by the President of the United States. The statutory members include the Vice President of the United States and the department heads from treasury, justice, defense, homeland security, health and human services, federal emergency management agency, FBI, and the homeland security advisor. Other cabinet-level secretaries may be called upon to participate as well as the chiefs of staff for the President and Vice President, and other key members of the executive branch.