25 October 2006

Timetables, Benchmarks and Other Ways to Avoid the Hard Questions

Bush announced that he is going to establish benchmarks for leaving Iraq and explained why benchmarks are not the same thing as timetables about as well as he has explained his reasons for the Iraqi invasion in the first place. This is to say that anyone listening was simply left perplexed.

Putting aside the fact that the difference between timetables and benchmarks is trivial, there is a problem with both. One of my heroes, management guru W. Edwards Deming, used to admonish managers to do away with exhortations and slogans in the work place. What Deming continually asked is "By what method?" You want to increase sales by 10%? First he'd splay his fingers, look at them and say, "10 ... that's a nice round number. I wonder how they ever thought of that. If they can just increase sales by 10%, why didn't they do that last year? If they already know the method, why did they wait until this year?" If you don't have a method to achieve a goal, the goal is merely speculative.

What is worse, Bush is basically admitting that the US is unable to "solve" the problem of establishing a stable government in Iraq and is now turning on his heels to point the finger at the immature Iraqi government, foisting off responsibility for establishing security to them. He's turning to them to ask, "How long do you think you'll need for this benchmark?" If someone had asked US officials how long they thought it would have taken to establish a secure Iraq, they would have (Rumsfeld actually did) say that it might be about 3 months. This speculation turned out to be speculative, based as it was on neither an accurate assessment nor clear strategy.

Bush has not yet shown that he knows the difference between a strategy and an admonition. This is not so very rare for men in power who can simply make declarations and see things happen within their staff. But when the declarations are made against complex forces, against the tide or winds, against social dynamics he doesn't begin to understand, the consequences are never as satisfactory.

Bush says that he will soon have benchmarks. The real question is, "By what method?" So far, the operating theories that the Bush administration has used at every step of this invasion and occupation have been proven false. Until they offer a new, overarching operating theory, benchmarks will be meaningless.

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