Sixteen years ago this week, I began one of the most challenging chapters in my time as a Marine. For the first 12 years of my Marine Corps career, I served in a variety of positions as an infantry officer, interspersed with time in the school house as either a student or an instructor. In those 12 years I learned a great deal about leadership, mostly by trial and error (with emphasis on the latter). By the time I was selected for, and advanced to, the rank of major I had managed to become a relatively effective leader, and, by my admittedly biased self-evaluation, a darn good tactician and practitioner of military operational art. The next three years would challenge every ounce of my leadership ability, introduce me to the compelling science of strategic planning, completely change my view of the Marine Corps, and redirect the path that my career had theretofore taken.
In the early Spring of 1990, I was aboard the USS Iwo Jima headed west at the conclusion of my second 6-month deployment to the Mediterranean in the past 2 years. On my first deployment I had served as the helicopter-borne company commander for Battalion Landing Team 1/8 with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), or, in the abbreviated parlance of military professionals, BLT 1/8, 26th MEU (SOC). As harmless as a "mew sock" sounds when pronounced, it was in fact a lethal combination of amphibious raid-ready units, for which my rifle company was one of the main weapons; and I had the time of my life leading the "best rifle company in the Marine Corps" on some of the most exciting escapades imaginable in some of the world's most interesting places.
On my second deployment, I served as the Operations Officer for the same BLT but with a different MEU, this time the 24th. The six months of preparation and six months of execution of that particular deployment added up to one of the most frustrating years of my life. Whereas my job as a company commander was short on planning and long on the fun of execution, as operations officer it was the reverse. Add to that the facts that I was a captain filling a major's billet (I had been selected for major, but not yet promoted), with all of the higher headquarters difficulties that produced; and I was working for one of the smartest and most connected colonels in the Marine Corps (he is the current Commandant), with whom I always felt two steps behind; and my frustration level was nearly crushing.
So, while I was loathe to leave an infantry battalion, the summer of 1990 represented the end of a three-year tour in "the fleet" and I was due for a reassignment and a respite from the break-neck pace of life in a deploying battalion. On the way out of the Mediterranean at the end of our deployment, we stopped in Rota, Spain and I took the opportunity to find a phone and call my assignment monitor at Marine Corps headquarters. His answer to my query regarding my next assignment was, "Ed, I have some good news for you. Your record is very competitive. Because your record is competitive, you have been screened for recruiting duty and chosen for the privilege of commanding a recruiting station."
I responded immediately with, "What's the good news?" and, "Take another look at that record, it's not that good."
But true to a pattern that had become and would remain all too prevalent in my life and Marine Corps career, I found myself thrust into a job for which I was too young and inexperienced. Still not officially promoted to the rank of major, I was "frocked," allowing me to wear the rank but not receive pay for it, and ordered to Macon, Georgia. A Recruiting Station can be likened to an infantry battalion in scope of action and battlefield effect. And Recruiting Station Macon, command of which I assumed on the 3rd of July 1990, was a monster. The largest in the nation at the time, in terms of numbers of recruiters assigned, RS Macon was responsible for officer and enlisted recruiting in Georgia and South Carolina. When I took command, we had nearly a thousand young men and women in our delayed entry program pool, waiting to ship to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. Most daunting to my leadership acumen, or lack thereof, was the dozen or so senior NCOs who comprised the organization's complement of recruiting professionals. These Marines had proven so adept on their first tour of recruiting as junior NCOs that they had been permanently assigned as recruiters for the remainder of their careers. These Career Recruiters were a leadership-challenging mixture of super sales ability, seniority, and independence by virtue of distance from the flagpole.
At the reception immediately following my change of command ceremony, one of the crustiest of my Career Recruiters sidled up to me and welcomed me aboard. "Major," he obsequiously began, "understand you just came from a tour as operations officer for an infantry battalion."
"That's right, Master Gunny," I proudly answered, "BLT 1/8, 24th MEU (SOC)."
"Well you can forget all that crap, Major. You can't run an RS like an infantry battalion."
"Master Gunny, that is great news! Means I won't be here long, because running an infantry battalion is all I know how to do and don't expect I'm going to try to adopt a style that I don't have the training for. If running this outfit like an infantry battalion won't work, I expect they'll fire me and send me back to the fleet, where I belong."
Of course what the old, out of shape NCO was trying to tell me was not to get too wrapped around the axle about enforcing Marine Corps standards. He, and his kind, also had a vested interest in keeping the tactics, techniques, and procedures of conducting a recruiting attack shrouded in the mysterious and alien language of systematic sales, and he was warning me not to try and make military sense of recruiting. I, however, had come to believe that every endeavor of man can be organized, planned for, and executed according to the principles and tenets of military operational art, and I was going to successfully apply them to recruiting or find another job.
On one of my first visits to an outlying recruiting substation, I took the NCOIC for a run on his Physical Fitness Test (PFT) three mile run course. We crossed the finish line in 17 minutes and 45 seconds. When I told the Gunny that I had only run three miles under 20 minutes once in my life--a 19:26 at OCS 13 years before--he didn't bat an eye. "Congratulations, Major! A new personal record!"
"Gunny, either your course is too short, or my watch is too fast."
"I'd go buy a new watch this evening, Major. Those cheap plastic ones don't keep good time."
Needless to say, we ceased the previous "time-saving" practice of allowing each recruiting sub-station to run their own semi-annual PFT and send the results to my headquarters. From then on, all 75 recruiters made the trip to Macon and ran the PFT with me. After an initial drop in scores, the embarrassment factor kicked in and run times, as well as waist lines, began to diminish.
Shortly after I began my recruiting tour, Saddam did the stupid and Bush the Elder drew a line in the sand. Convinced there was going to be a bloody fight, requiring lots of replacements, Marine recruiting went into overdrive through the fall and early winter of 1990. When the ground war resulted in less losses to the Corps than traffic accidents on a 96-hour pass, we were in a never-before-experienced position--we had too many recruits. As a result, we had unprecedented mission (quota) reductions for the last quarter of FY 91, and while many in recruiting saw an opportunity to rest the troops, some of us saw opportunity to advance our strategic position. It was during the long, sleepless nights of that fall that I read "The Deming Management Method," a book that turned my life upside down. I became, in short order, and much to the chagrin of my recruiting superiors, a Total Quality zealot.
Marine Corps recruiting has historically had a production mindset. Meaning that, while we say "quality, not quantity," we actually practice "quantity, at the minimum standard." Dr. Deming's theory, proved in the post-war Japanese industrial miracle, rested on a principle that I simplified for my pea-sized brain in the following equation: Higher Quality = Less Mistakes/Rework = More Time = Higher Quality. I was convinced, perhaps more than a bit naively, that I could retool my outfit's recruiting effort to focus on quality and still remain within the strictures of the official Marine Corps recruiting effort. The reduced missions during the summer of 1991 offered a golden opportunity to impose my version of Total Quality Management. I called it Total Quality Effort (TQE). The Department of the Navy later came out with their own version of Deming's departure from the American industrial practice and called it Total Quality Leadership, a name for which I did a headslap when I saw it.
Given a 1/3 reduction in our recruiting mission for 4 months, I arbitrarily raised (not exactly Deming's way) the quality standards (as measured by performance on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB) for my recruiters. The Marine Corps minimum standard was that 63% of our recruits had to score in the top 50 percentile on the ASVAB, and we constantly struggled to meet that minimum. For that 4 months, I told my recruiters that 100% of our recruits had to score in the top 50 percentile. At my first announcement of this, several of my recruiters clutched their chests in panic. Then I proceeded to show that the total number of "quality" recruits would be the same as we had recruited the year before; we just wouldn't recruit any who couldn't score a 50 on the ASVAB for the next 4 months. Since the majority of the young people we recruited in the summer months were rising high school seniors, my strategy was to present the Marine Corps as the "smart" choice when school went back into session in the fall and seniors started making decisions about what to do after graduation.
Although it was a near-run thing, my perturbed and occasionally apoplectic recruiting superiors did not follow through on their threats to relieve me as I experimented with a significant percentage of the Marine Corps' recruiting effort. In my estimation, the quality refocus we accomplished my second year on recruiting, made my third, and last, year dramatically easier than my first. My tour as a recruiter was a turning point in my career. Successful completion of my recruiting command tour placed me in serious contention for future commands, and successful implementation of an attack based on principles of quality improvement cemented in my psyche an approach that would color the rest of my career.
Stay tuned for "The Little Bald Colonel Imposes Total Quality On His Family."