Thursday, January 5, 2006

Process Improvement

Gunfire at Sea: A Case Study of Innovation

In 1899, five ships of the US Navy, aiming at a lightship hulk at a range of 1600 yards, hit the target twice in 25 minutes of firing practice. Six years later, a single gunner with essentially the same equipment managed to hit a much smaller target at the same range 15 times in one minute. This 3000% improvement in accuracy was achieved by introducing a new technique of firing, called continuous-aim firing, which however the Navy establishment at the turn of the century was extremely reluctant to adopt.

The introduction of continuous-aim firing into the US Navy was the work of one man, William Sims, then a junior lieutenant. He learnt the technique from a British naval officer, Percy Scott. Both men had difficulty persuading their superiors to take the idea seriously, despite the spectacular success shown on Scott's ship.

There were three reasons for this difficulty.

First, there was honest scepticism about the new technique: it was hard to believe that such enormous improvements were possible - especially from such a relatively small change in working practices.

Second, the traditional techniques commanded much loyalty: in a changing world, people need to identify with familiar tools and techniques.

Third, the existing structure of the navy relied upon the current technology: relations of power and influence would be altered by the improved status of the gunner, thus disrupting the closed society that the navy was. Sims only succeeded by going over the heads of the admirals and appealing to President Roosevelt, who forced the admirals to accept the change.

Source: Elting E. Morison/MEN, MACHINES, AND MODERN TIMES, (Cambridge, MA: THE MIT PRESS), 1966, pp. 17-44. Extract available from US Navy (html) (pdf)

In 1986, I wrote an article on productivity in the IT industry, which drew heavily on this example (pdf).

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