Performance Lessons from Pearl Harbor

Some recent client work with the intelligence community took me out to Honolulu.  Despite being busy with client demands, I had an opportunity to take a US Navy tour of Pearl Harbor.

Seeing the sites and revisiting the lessons from Pearl Harbor attack are a sobering experience.  The picture you see is from the USS Arizona memorial.  The Arizona still rests on the bottom of Pearl Harbor with over 1,000 of her sailors and marines still entombed within her hull.  Oil from the hull still leaks out to this day (that’s what the picture shows—the oil slick from underneath the Arizona Memorial).

This isn’t intended to be a review of military tactical and strategic insights from the attack on Pearl Harbor.  But from a performance consulting perspective, there are some critical insights.

A high percentage of performance gaps are due to information issues.  At Pearl Harbor, the destroyer the USS Ward spotted and sank a Japanese midget submarine prior to the attack and issued a warning but no-one sounded a general alarm until the aerial attack actually began.  US radar operators spotted the Japanese planes before they even reached Hawaii but this was discounted as either being a technical glitch or a flight of US bombers (which could not have been approaching from that direction) so no warning was given.  This lack of information was critical because a number of analysts felt that even as little as 10 minutes advance warning for battle stations would have been able to thwart the Japanese attack.

Process and structure issues create performance problems.  In this case, despite a wide range of intelligence sources indicating a possible attack the structure and culture of the US Navy in the Pacific led to a discounting of these threats or overconfidence.  Senior US leaders had publicly stated that a successful attack on Oahu was impossible, that it was the most impregnable fortress in the world.

Traditional attempts at fixes will usually fail.  Most organizational efforts to fix a problem don’t work because they don’t engage the system.  It’s hard to believe that training sailors at Pearl Harbor (HR fix) or mooring the battleships further apart (structure fix) or deploying more antiaircraft batteries (resource fix) or replacing one or two senior commanders (leadership fix) or paying sailors more (incentive fix) would have altered the result of the Pearl Harbor attack substantially.  Any of these actions, taken by itself, would have failed to engage the system and address causes responsible for the performance gaps that produced the Pearl Harbor result.

Overall, to tour Pearl Harbor, to see the oil still leaking up from the Arizona over 50 years later, is a sobering reminder of how badly most organizations do performance—and the consequences of underperforming.

Joe Willmore, President

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About Joe Willmore

Joe Willmore is the President and founder of the Willmore Consulting Group. With over two decades of experience as a consultant, facilitator and trainer, he has worked with a wide range of public and private sector organizations within the United States as well as internationally. Joe Willmore is highly regarded by his peers and is a leader in his field of human performance. Specifically, he has authored four books in the field. He has been a leader within the profession, serving on the Board of Directors for the American Society for Training and Development. He was one of the first facilitators certified by ASTD to lead their Human Performance Improvement workshop series. He has been selected as a presenter or workshop facilitator for conferences by over 14 different professional societies.