Monday, December 14, 2015


I know a thing or two about priorities. I learned them much the way most of you learned. Faced with the need to accomplish required tasks in a timely fashion one has to determine which one to start with and which one to finish first because resources and time and money are always limited. While I was still reading books on Strategy and Politics an interesting book came into my hands. I bought the book and then made the mistake of loaning it to a friend. He was a lawyer but I thought I could trust him.

The book is A Report from the Field THE STRAW GIANT Triumph and Failure: America's Armed Forces by Arthur T. Hadley. It was initially published in 1971.
     The critical importance of making the proper decisions at the correct level burst on me in such compelling fashion during World War II that it is worth a brief detour to record the moment. At one time, one of my loudspeaking tanks had gotten a bit chewed up. Not only could it no longer loudspeak, it couldn't even croak. I clanked back to division headquarters and got a priority order to  have the tank repaired, and then clanked off to the repair battalion. I arrived at the tent of the lieutenant colonel commanding the maintenance battalion at the same time as did a jeep that belonged to one of the assistant division commanders, a brigadier general. The jeep needed a new roll bar welded to it. 
     The lieutenant colonel in charge of the maintenance battalion called in his heavy maintenance and repair officer, a captain, and said to him, "Here is the loudspeaking tank that has to get back to combat right away and here is the general's jeep that needs  roll bar. Get them fixed up." 
     "Yes, sir," said the captain. "Which one has priority?" 
     "Give them equal priority," said the lieutenant colonel. 
     The general's jeep and the talking tank followed the captain into an apple orchard, where beneath the trees we met the repair officer, a first lieutenant, my own rank.
"Lieutenant," said the captain, "here is the talking tank for a new loudspeaker and the general's jeep for a roll bar. Work on them first." 
     "Yes, sir, " said the lieutenant. "Which one has priority?" 
     "They have equal priority." 
     Now following the lieutenant, jeep and tank arrived at the welding section, where stood one corporal with one blowtorch. "Corporal, said the lieutenant, "here is the loudspeaking tank for a new loudspeaker and the general's jeep for a roll bar. Stop what you are doing and work on them first." 
     "Yes, sir, " said the corporal. "Which one has priority?" 
     "They have equal priority." 
     The corporal looked at his single blowtorch with its single jet of flame and shook his head.
The above is the preface to his lead in to discussing how far out of the box the Air Force went when it was ordered to design and build the first solid fuel land-based intercontinental ballistic missile back in 1957. The author compares and contrasts the successful design and fielding of the Minuteman missile with the TFX program. The entire book is fascinating and covers the broad spectrum of war, preparedness, acquisitions and leadership.

My own best/worst experience with Priorities! Dammitttt!! came when I was but a humble Chief Engineer working to keep the ship underway even though the Engineering Department was down to just 18% manning. Most of the crew was away in the Persian Gulf having fun on ships at 250% of normal manning. My temporary commanding officer had told me that he had rich experience as an engineer since he was fresh from being the Main Propulsion Assistant on USS CONSTELLATION (CV-64).

"CHENG," he said to me, "I only have 5 number one priorities that I expect you to complete perfectly and I'll be satisfied and you'll be happy." He claimed his 5 priorities included fairly important things but considering that 82% of my snipes were vacationing abroad it left me wondering just how I was going to manage.

We managed to bumble along for a few weeks just fine and then one day it came to light that we had been gigged in a letter that had arrived in the Ship's Office, addressed to the Commanding Officer, announcing that at some point, in the months past, the ship had been delinquent in sending lube oil samples to the lab for analysis. We were put on report.

The skipper, in a rage, killed me and danced on my burnt corpse screaming about the black eye he had just received over the Lube Oil Analysis Program failure. I pointed out from my not unpleasant little corner of hell, that something as stupid as "programs" was not on his list of 5 priorities, or mine, and had joined little things like gauge calibration on the list of 'things to do later." He was unrelenting in his merciless kicks to my head and body and screamed at me that, "of course it's not you idiot! I expect you to do your damned job in addition to the 5 number one priorities!"

He was the only skipper in Group ONE that I know, who never went on to command frigates, destroyers or cruisers. He really had no sense of priorities at all. One of his favorite expressions insisted that, "if you just take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves." He kept repeating this to me as he kicked and stomped which left me time to reflect on how we had just finished realigning two main propulsion diesel engines and the number one Ship's Service Diesel Generator with 3 other guys, making our own phenolic shocks on a milling machine we borrowed and passing a diesel inspection that week. None of them were what anyone would call, little things and yet they had to be done.

It's very important for all parties to know what the real priorities are, particularly when resources are strained and agendas conflict. And, really, one can only have one number one priority. Everything else takes more time, money or effort.

No comments: