The following case study/profile was originally published by BI Review. For similar industry implementations and profiles please visit BI Review's Web site.
With 40,000 enlisted personnel, the United States Coast Guard is the smallest of the seven military branches of the United States Armed Services. Largely known for its humanitarian missions, modern times have long since called the Coast Guard to a broad national defense role: in drug interdiction, environmental protection, port security and anti-terrorism activity. Most Americans don't know that the Coast Guard's duty to protect American interests extends to international waters. As was the case in Vietnam, the Guard has seen multiple deployments to the Persian Gulf since 9/11 to block contraband, provide port security, address potential oil spills and otherwise augment the U.S. military presence.
Throughout a proud history that dates to near-revolutionary times, the Coast Guard has operated under the motto Semper Paratus-Always Ready. With many responsibilities and resource limits that have been further constrained due to well-publicized contracting problems, data analysis has become increasingly critical to readiness with each passing year. Resource optimization is nothing new to the Coast Guard, but was not formalized in the modern sense until 1998, when a seminal event occurred. "What happened was that a person in one of our small-boat stations basically encountered the perfect storm in terms of personnel management, a lot of things hit him at the same time," says Lt. Cmdr. Joe Staier, USCG. "He sent a casualty report up the chain of command detailing why he could no longer perform the tasks assigned to him with the staff and equipment he had." Analysis of that incident led then-Commandant Admiral James Loy to ask a series of penetrating questions: "How could this have caught us by surprise?" "Why are we not measuring the things we need to measure so things like this don't catch us by surprise?" "Why can't we see the warning signs and make data-driven decisions?"
The ruthless self-appraisal that followed led to the creation of a Ready Management Task Force, and later, the Readiness Management System (RMS), which Staier heads today as program manager. To an outsider, RMS looks more like an operational task force than project management team, in part because the Coast Guard faces geopolitical variables uncommon in conventional management reporting. In the Coast Guard's case there never seems to be a perfect set of key performance indicators. A private organization with the usual management turnover would have problems with such an approach. The good news for the Coast Guard was that it was able to institutionalize its strategy within a culture of career employment. Vice-Admiral Thad Allen delivered marching orders in his own words shortly after Y2K: "Transparency of information breeds self-correcting behavior."
"We have what I would call alpha, beta and production system," says Staier. "In software terms the alpha stage is trying to figure out everything we want to do, the beta stage is products we've developed and are testing with users toward the idea of what they want, and the production part is the reports we are pro-viding right now that the fleet relies on daily. Balancing these things is an interesting task." Critically, RMS needed to incorporate data into operational processes, not just deliver more reports. In other words, if cultural change did not spread better decision-making, the project would be considered a failure.
The RMS reporting approach is three tiered. "We have the top-down requirements that the readiness taskforce started with, the bottom up approach which comes from determining the reporting the fleet needs on a daily basis to do its job and the operations research piece for the hardcore analysts," says Staier. There are three sets of tools: one providing a high-level tool for senior managers; another to provide KPIs to the fleet level that warns of corrective action needed; and a set of "hard core" analytic tools and cubes for analysts. The system is based largely on products from business intelligence platform provider Cognos, and delivered through CGCentral, a versatile portal infrastructure that provides reporting, collaborative sharing, geographical mapping and analysis application tools.
The Guard's aviation community was targeted early, in part since this unit already tracked much critical information on pilot available hours, fitness and training updates. There is a wealth of data on aircraft flight hours and maintenance, right down to the location and tail number of each asset. "If I'm a unit-commanding officer, I want to see the overall states, the percentage of my people that are deployable and what can I do to get my numbers higher," Staier says. Medical information ties in with other readiness data with reports on vaccination and immunization status. "It's easy to drill down and see where something is out of range. Someone hasn't weighed in, it might be because of a pregnancy or waiver. With CGCentral, the information is at our fingertips and we don't have to send it out and wait three days to get the report." Enlisted personnel use the portal to manage their own status, a red, green or yellow light indicate their on-duty status regarding annual physical and dental examinations and regional requirements for active duty, along with self-service guidance to corrective steps. When the Coast Guard sends 110-foot cutters on a Gulf War assignment, it doesn't want to be dealing with tooth problems.
A given scenario might reference resource hours by cutter and aircraft, diver ratings and innocuous HR issues such as sexual harassment training. The Readiness Management System taps into 23 different source systems and pulls records into an enterprise data warehouse, which has a catalog and full metadata search. Reports are generated through the Web portal along the three tiers mentioned, where portlets distribute information appropriately.
Measuring success comes with the usual complications, a mix of spending, savings and trend data on readiness. One unique and sobering metric the Coast Guard presents to Congress each year is the percentage of lives (at risk) that are saved during operations. "The customer is the American taxpayer, the culture is to do more with less, so we want to shine the light on the true resource constraints we face and not gloss over them," Staier says. "That involves measuring the right things in a climate that often presents too much data to consume. Return on investment can be tricky, but when you have a Katrina and you are able to immediately see who has the good flight hours and how quickly you can get them there, that's clearly a gain."
Data quality presents the same issues as it does in the private sector. Staier needs to ensure that Atlantic and Pacific units measure boat hours and other metrics the same way. It's the only way to roll up reporting in the aggregate and provide insight to higher levels, and does require some picking and choosing. "We're kind of in that phase now where every time we add more information, we learn there's more we don't know, but we have to boil things down along the way." At his Washington, D.C. office, Staier spends his time as troubleshooter and works with system architects to consolidate redundancy and lower the pain threshold for data entry people, which also cuts down on human errors. At other times when he's visiting Coast Guard bases, Staier acts as advocate and interrogator, showing the tools and reports and gathering feedback, all to make adoption as viral as possible.
"You want to find the quickest impact, so we've done user analysis and figured out who is using the system the most, who is hitting the most reports or cubes and what they did with them," Staier says. "Those are the people you want spreading the word, the best people to ask what we could be doing better." He's also picking hotter targets such as Alaska, where analysts can't always query the D.C. headquarters because of the time difference.
Across two centuries, the Coast Guard's altruistic underpinnings and career culture have delivered cadres of strong leaders who arrived where they are without the benefit of data at their fingertips. "They were promoted because they were good decision-makers based on a thousand points of individual experience," Staier says. "The mission today is to codify those qualities - the seat of the pants measurements successful officers use to be successful - and bottle that for the current generation of computer friendly recruits." The Coast Guard has reenlistment rates at double the percentage of other service academies, and to meet these people is to admire them and see why they love what they do. The new and future Coast Guard is no different except that it is building leaders with technology and data driven decision support.
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