I recently had the pleasure to read ‘Spec Ops’ A Case Study in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice, by William H. McRaven. McRaven is a retired four-star Admiral in the United States Navy and was instrumental in crafting the plan that ultimately took down Osama Bin Laden.

In Spec Ops, the author vividly analyzes 8 of the most stimulating special operation events in world history. Six are from WWII: the German commando raid on the Belgian fort Eben Emael (1940); the Italian torpedo attack on the Alexandria harbor (1941); the British commando raid on Nazaire, France (1942); the German glider rescue of Benito Mussolini (1943); the British midget-submarine attack on the Tirpitz (1943); and the U.S. Ranger rescue mission at the Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines (1945). The two post-WWII examples are the U.S. Army raid on the Son Tay POW camp in North Vietnam (1970) and the Israeli rescue of the skyjacked hostages in Entebbe, Uganda (1976).

McRaven analyzes each mission through the lens of six principles he views essential to special operations success: Simplicity, Security, Repetition, Surprise, Speed, and Purpose. He also assesses the offensive team’s ‘Relative Superiority’ in each of the operations. That is, the team’s ability (or inability) to achieve a superior position to the enemy during the mission. He lays out a Relative Superiority graph for each that identifies critical factors such as point of vulnerability, key events during the mission, and relative superiority achieved. It also specifies the area of vulnerability, or the period the team is most at risk.

McRaven breaks down each mission in 3 phases – Planning, Preparation, and Execution – each of which is vital in managing the frictions of war – those unexpected events that seem to always surface. McRaven proposes in the book that the ability to reach and sustain relative superiority requires the intervention of what he calls Moral Factors – Courage, Intellect, Boldness, and Perseverance.

These, along with the six principles of special operations (from above) are critical to success in any special operation. In fact, McRaven points out that the absence of any of the six principles will likely spell doom for the operation.

Although I am far from a history buff, I enjoyed reading these historic accounts. It also motivated me to compare McRaven’s principles and practices to my life, both in business and personal situations.

While I hope I never find myself in any situation as grave and dangerous as the ones in the book, I did see many parallels and lessons.

The most salient lesson for me is the realization that to maintain relative superiority (or control) in a situation, the six factors really are critical. McRaven pointed out that Simplicity is the most important of these and, in my experience, that is certainly true. This principle (and others) is in line with basic lean principles including Hoshin Kanri/Policy Deployment. In fact, a cornerstone of Hoshin is to identify only significant breakthrough objectives and not clutter the direction with too many tasks. This is one that I see often in business where senior leadership gets greedy and overly aggressive with direction to their organization. This often makes it impossible to effectively execute the other principles. Certainly, if the objectives are too complicated then the Purpose will be unclear and Speed will be difficult.

McRaven puts it like this in the book; “The political or military situation dictates the strategic or operational objectives of the mission, but the planners generally have the latitude to determine the tactical objectives as long as the two objectives coincide. Therefore, it is essential to limit the number of tactical objectives to only those that are vital”.

The moral Factors also resonate with me. I often see organizations that have strong intellect and perseverance – that is, they have smart people at all levels who work hard to stay on task and get the job done. What is often missing, in my opinion, is Courage and Boldness. Too often there is a willingness to utilize the collective intellect of an organization to maintain status quo, rather than have the courage and boldness to embrace new breakthrough objectives that will take the organization to the next level. Again, this is foundational to the Toyota Way.

There are many other examples of strong business practices laced throughout the book. I recommend the book. Read it and look for examples that might resonate in your world.

Credit: Mcraven, William H.. Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice Random House Publishing Group

Alan Parsley is a LEAN/HR executive consultant, facilitator and speaker who leads LEAN improvement initiatives at companies from a wide range of industries. Alan is President of JaxHR Consulting and serves as a Sr. Associate for Honsha & Associates, a premier international lean consulting group.Alan gained the unique combination of operational and administrative experience over his 27-year career. Alan learned Leadership and Toyota Production System (TPS) methodologies while at Toyota’s Georgetown, Ky. Facility as well as the corporate headquarters in Erlanger Ky. Based in Jacksonville, FL, Alan has served as Vice Chairman of the Jacksonville Lean Consortium and is a member of the Board of Directors for the First Coast Manufacturer’s Association.