Another fascinating bit of WWII history, courtesy of Cornelius Ryan

After watching the movie A Bridge Too Far again recently, my thoughts turned once more to one of my favorite historians – the man who wrote the book on which the movie is based, Cornelius Ryan. Poking around on the Internet, I was pleased to discover a book of his I’d never read: One Minute to Ditch! It’s a collection of articles he wrote about a variety of dangerous and deadly events. I ordered up a copy and read it immediately. It didn’t disappoint (other than leaving me wanting more of his stories…)

Most interesting to me, as an avid WWII history buff, was a very moving tale from that war I don’t remember hearing before. I’m reprinting it here in its entirety with permission from Mr. Ryan’s daughter, Victoria Ryan Bida. My thanks to her for her kindness.

 

The Major of St. Lô

By Cornelius Ryan

In the little French town of St. Lô, the elders often gather on the bridge over the river Vire to talk about that which elders know most about – the past. And at this time of the year, now that the apple orchards are in blossom once again and the sun drenches the countryside, there is much to remember. Was it not another time like this, back in 1944, when the invasion began across the beaches only a few miles away? How many brave men died in the hedgerows? And who would believe now that twelve years ago all that remained of St. Lô was a pile of rubble – the aftermath of the invasion’s greatest battle? So it goes. But as always, when they talk of the war, the conversation soon turns to the day the town was liberated after 43 days of battle, and to the story of their own personal hero, the American soldier they call the “Major of St. Lô” – a man they never knew.

And if in the telling there is much brandishing of canes and much quivering of down-swooping Norman mustaches, it is only because some point has not been emphasized enough or some detail has been momentarily forgotten. For it is the story of the “Major of St. Lô” that the elders love best – and here on the bridge that saga has been interwoven with legend and the legend has become inseparable from history.

The kerosene lamp hissed quietly. In his battalion command post Major Thomas D. Howie eased his stocky frame into a more comfortable position against the earthen wall. Outside it was dark, but war has no real night. Along the 40-mile American beachhead heavy guns flashed intermittently; streams of tracer bullets waved up into the clouds, and flares hung here and there in the sky.

In the command post – an oversized foxhole with the remains of a barn over it as a roof – the major and his company commanders sat watching Captain William Puntenney, of Phoenix, Arizona, Howie’s executive officer, mark up the battalion situation map. Working on the map’s plastic overlay with a grease pencil, Puntenney quickly sketched in the 29th Division’s latest positions. “That’s the picture, Major,” he said.

The front lines remained much the same – Howie could see that at a glance. Here a field had been taken or lost; there a ditch or sunken road had been captured or recaptured. But the advance of the 29th, “the Blue and the Gray” Division, through the bloody hedgerows of Normandy could be measured in yards. Major Howie’s unit – the 116th Infantry’s 3d Battalion – had gained less than 100 yards in 24 hours. But it was within three miles of the division objective – St. Lô.

Howie ached to take St. Lô, as did every battle-weary soldier in the division, right up to Major General Charles H. Gerhardt, the commanding general. Once the town with its vital network of roads fell, the full force of American armor could begin to maneuver and the longed-for breakout might be achieved. For beyond the pile of rubble that had once been a town the hedgerows ended and the plains began.

The Germans appreciated what St. Lô’s loss would mean. Until their front could be reinforced, the Allied forces had to be contained in their shallow bridgehead, their backs to the sea. And what better place to fight for time than in these natural trenches of Normandy, where mounds of earth topped by a jungle of bushes surrounded every field? The German high command had issued the order: “Starre Verteidigung.” (“Stand fast.”)

But to Tom Howie the capture of St. Lô had become a personal matter. The men of the 3d Battalion had fought almost continuously for 41 days without rest – from the moment they hit Omaha Beach on the misty morning of June 6th. That morning the thirty-six-year old major (a former English literature teacher and athletic director at Staunton, Virginia, Military Academy) had captured a machine-gun post, singlehanded. Howie felt that casualties alone had earned his men the right to be first into St. Lô. And when they took it, maybe the whole battered division would be relieved.

Tonight, in the smoky closeness of his command post the major had little time to think about relief. His foot soldiers were dug in near Martinville, a hamlet straddling a dirt road leading into St. Lô. And the fighting had been toe to toe all day. The 3d Battalion and the Germans laced one another’s hedgerow positions with machine-gun fire, tossed hand grenades across the narrow fields, fired rifles at one another at almost point-blank range.

But a mile to the south, on the outskirts of La Madeleine, a small village near St. Lô, Major Sidney Bingham’s 2d Battalion was in much greater trouble. The Second had been hit with everything the Germans could throw at them – from artillery bombardment to tank assault. Now they were surrounded and cut off. Out of food, short of ammunition and with casualties mounting, their situation was hourly becoming more desperate.

Major Howie studied the new attack order before him. He had many vital decisions to make within the next few hours. The Third had been ordered to attack directly through the Germans’ tough Martinville line. Howie was going to the rescue of Bingham’s lost battalion.

While other units of the division were to attack on either side of his battalion, Howie’s men had been given the toughest assignment. The Martinville line had held them up for days; now they were being asked to drive through it fast and advance more than a mile. Although all the other officers present knew how Major Howie itched to capture St. Lô, none saw the bitter disappointment for him in the attack order. After relieving the lost battalion, Howie’s unit was ordered to stand fast and hold the La Madeleine positions. Bingham’s men were to push on to St. Lô.

Howie outlined his plan: the battalion would make a silent attack, using bayonets and hand grenades—nothing else. “We’re going to give the jerries a touch of steel,” he said quietly.

At the end of the briefing, Howie asked his executive officer, Puntenney, to stay behind. When the two were alone, the major spoke: “Bill, take a look at these boots. I’ve had the same shoes since I left the States. Look at ‘em! I’ve marched and fought in ‘em for days. But I’ll be damned if I’ll make one more attack without a new pair.”

“Where in the world am I going to get you a new pair now?” said the surprised exec.

“Bill – I don’t care where you get ‘em, but get ‘em,” the CO barked.

Puntenney left the dugout to carry out the order.

In the dank blackness of their foxholes, Howie’s men quietly sharpened their bayonets and sweated out the dawn. In his own lighted dugout Tom Howie read his Bible, as he did every night, and wrote a letter home. Earlier he had written his wife, Elizabeth, and their six-year-old daughter at Staunton: “I have no physical reason for thinking so, but I’ve always felt that your prayers would be answered and that we’d have a grand reunion some fine day.” Now, he wrote to another member of his family: “There is no need to worry about me….” He did not mention the impending attack.

It began at 4:30 A.M. A thick early-morning fog carpeted the area when Howie – in a new pair of boots – and his veterans fixed bayonets and rose quietly out of their foxholes. Ahead of them the German hedgerows lay quiet, as though anesthetized. In silence the helmeted figures slipped quickly from their hedgerow positions and disappeared into the fog.

They raced across the cut-up fields, soft earth deadening their footsteps. Nobody spoke. They darted into the hedgerows. Bushes rustled. Twigs cracked sharply. There was a startled shout. Suddenly all along the German line there were quick shouts, muffled screams, the compressed blast of grenades, the abrupt stuttering of Schmeisser “burp” guns—the awful commotion that soldiers make when they are surprised into death.

The first German positions fell fast. Howie’s men were through and beyond before the enemy knew what had happened. Deftly, quickly, the men of the Third hit the next line of outposts, and the next. In this way, with surgical preciseness, the major’s battalion cut through the Martinville line in less than an hour. Shortly before 6:00 A.M. Howie’s men made contact with Major Bingham’s 2d Battalion east of La Madeleine.

Down the road, not more than a mile away, lay bombed and shelled St. Lô, the shattered spires of the Cathedral of Notre Dame reaching defiantly out of the heaping ruins. To Howie’s cocky infantrymen, huddling in their foxholes, St. Lô seemed only a bus stop away.

The staffs of the two battalions immediately conferred. The linkup, at best, was only temporary. Although the 29th Division’s dawn attack along the St. Lô front had been successful, with troops now almost astraddle the heights overlooking the town, it would be some time before supply lines could be opened. Howie’s men had brought communications, ammunition, medical supplies, rations and – more important – themselves. La Madeleine could be held, but it was obvious that the relieved 2d Battalion was exhausted. After three days of almost continuous assault its ranks had been decimated. Bingham’s men could not push on to St. Lô. The job was up to Howie – if regimental headquarters agreed.

Howie waited impatiently for his communications to be set up. Speed mattered now. If the Third pressed on before the Germans fully recovered from the attack, Howie felt sure his men could make St. Lô. But the Germans wouldn’t sit still for long, especially with a strong force sitting on their doorstep. Both Howie and Bingham knew better.

So did Major General Gerhardt back at division headquarters.

All night Gerhardt had sweated out the advance of his men. Previously he had told his assistant division commander, Brigadier General Norman (Dutch) Cota, to assemble an armored task force and hold it in readiness to dash into St. Lô from the north. Now, as he stood before his big war map with Cota, he thought about this powerful trump card. Had the time come up to send Task Force “C” storming into St. Lô?

“You better get ready, Dutch,” he said. “Sometime within the next twenty four hours, you’ll be on your way. It’s near the end, but it isn’t over yet. Jerry’s going to counterattack hard wherever he can.” He tapped the map with a forefinger. “And particularly here. They’ll throw everything they’ve got at La Madeleine.”

At La Madeleine the lull had already ended.

Far away, the trained ears of the infantrymen heard the shrill birth of the first barrage of mortar shells. They held their breath, listening in the strange hypnotic way that soldiers listen to determine direction by sound. Down they crouched in their foxholes. The barrage screamed toward them like a hundred express trains all converging on a lonely station. The earth shuddered. Bursting shells fine-combed the ground above them. Then it was over and the next shelling began.

Howie crawled from foxhole to foxhole. “Keep down.” he yelled at his men. “Keep down. We’re getting out of here soon. We’ll get to St. Lô yet.”

Doubled up, dodging from foxhole to foxhole in between shell bursts, he returned to his command post. His company commanders were waiting for him.

“Have you got regiment?” he demanded.

Somebody handed him a phone. Above the noise Howie tried to quickly explain the position.

“The Second can’t make it,” he yelled into the phone. “They’re too cut up. They’re exhausted. Yes – we can do it. We’re in better shape. Yes – if we jump off now. Okay.” A big smile crossed his face.

“See you in St. Lô,” he said.

He slammed the phone down and, still smiling, turned to his company commanders. “Well, you heard it,” he said. “We’re going in. Where’s the map?”

Almost deafened by the incessant mortar shelling, Howie’s officers gathered around as the major gave the order for the attack on St. Lô. None of them heard the incoming whine of the mortar shell that ended the conference.

The shell burst a few yards away. In that millisecond of destruction, most of the officers were picked up by the blast and slammed to the ground unhurt. Captain Puntenney, standing on the dugout step, was hurled bodily into a hedgerow. Dazed and shaken, he extricated himself from the bushes and saw Howie standing upright a few yards away. The major had his arms in front of him, holding his body. Puntenney rushed over. “My God, Bill, I’m hit.” Howie said.

Puntenney carried him to the bottom of the dugout and held him for a few minutes in his arms. He didn’t get much wear out of these boots, thought Puntenney as he lowered the body of his CO into the dust.

Several hours later, at division headquarters, the operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel William J. Witte, gave the news to General Gerhardt. “General,” he said, “Tom Howie is dead. The 3d Battalion attack never really got going.”

Gerhardt said nothing. He was sad and terribly angry – sad, because of his fondness for Tom Howie and angry because of the awful casualties his division was suffering. His silent anger infected everybody in the headquarters. Somehow Tom Howie’s death crystallized all the courage and all the heartbreak spilled over in the battle of St. Lô.

Gerhardt called General Cota. “Dutch,” he said, “one of the last things Tom Howie said was, ‘I’ll see you in St. Lô.’ We’re going to fulfill that promise. Take Tom Howie with the task force – he’s going to lead the 29th into St. Lô.”

The next day in St. Lô the townspeople heard a rumor. A powerful column of American tanks, it was said, was heading for the town.

At first they did not believe the story, for there had been many such rumors since the invasion began. But this time it was true. Far off, along the road leading into St. Lô from St. Clair, they heard the rumble and clank of tanks mixed in with the thunder of the enemy’s exploding shells. And so in the cellars, in the crypt beneath the church, in all those places where families had survived the bombs and the shells the news spread swiftly. People spoke in whispers, in fear perhaps that they still might be wrong. “They are coming,” they said. “Today is the day.”

The sounds of the tanks and the exploding shells grew closer. Now, in ones and twos the townspeople left their shelters; they climbed the walls of rubble, stood behind shuttered windows or crouched in doorways oblivious of the dangers. They had waited too long to miss this moment.

The approaching column was clearly marked by a great cloud of dust which bowled along, reaching above the trees lining the road. Here and there black smoke tinged with flame spiraled up through the dust from burning and exploding vehicles. Overhead, clusters of shells whistled toward the road as the Germans stepped up the tempo of their artillery barrage. But under the rain of bursting shells the great cloud of dust came rolling steadily forward and suddenly it rolled into the outskirts of St. Lô. The Americans had arrived.

General Cota’s task force poured into the town in an apparently endless column. Prowling tanks swarmed through the streets overrunning the German rear-guard antitank positions; self-propelled guns swung into position and began answering the incoming artillery fire; infantrymen climbing through the rubble routed out the last snipers; and the townspeople threw flowers and from hiding places produced bottles of wine which they had saved for this great day.

In their happiness some cried and others remained dazed, unable to believe that the town had been liberated. But in the midst of it all, as the townspeople watched they saw a strange procession threading through the town.

Slowly down the main street rolled an olive-drab ambulance surrounded by an honor guard of armored cars. The column drove through the debris, passing the men and machines who had captured the town, passing under the limp blue and gray flag of the 29th Division now hanging in victory from a second-story window. And as the townspeople watched, hushed and incredulous, the little procession turned into the shell-pocked main square and came quietly to a stop before the shattered Cathedral of Notre Dame.

The ambulance doors opened and a detail of men carefully lifted down a stretcher. Struggling upward, they climbed to the top of a great mound of brick and stone before the ruins of the cathedral. And there, to lie in state on this altar of rubble, they placed the bier with the flag-covered body of Major Thomas D. Howie.

Standing today on a pedestal of concrete, near the bridge over the river Vire, there is a bronze bust of Major Thomas D. Howie. It was erected by the townspeople of St. Lô, and at this time of the year the base of the statue is covered with flowers. The townspeople honor not only the memory of Major Howie, but also the 7,000 men—almost half the 29th Division’s fighting strength —who were killed or wounded in the battle for the town.

The elders shrug their shoulders and try to explain the sentiments of the townspeople this way: “L’homme n’est rien, I’oeuvre est tout.” (“The man is nothing, the work is everything.”) But they look admiringly at the statue and in the same breath they say wonderingly: “Such determination this man had – surely there was some French blood in his veins.”

 

“The Major of St. Lô,” © 1956 by Cornelius Ryan.

Two Scout heroes

Last week, in the Webelos Den I lead, we learned about heroism. One part of the program was to discuss a Scout hero. I figured there had to be some good examples among Eagle Scouts. Sure enough, Bing.com led me to the story of Marine Sergeant (later Colonel) Mitchell Paige, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1942 for his bravery in battle on Guadalcanal in WWII.

As I searched various sites for details to share with our Scouts, I discovered another thread to the story. While Sergeant Paige was indeed a Scout hero, he wasn’t technically an Eagle Scout when he won the Medal of Honor. You see, he’d completed all the requirements for his Eagle rank, but hadn’t yet received the award before he signed up with the Marines and was shipped off to the Pacific. He just figured the award would be waiting for him when he got back from the war.

But it wasn’t. And I guess life took over and he simply forgot about following up to get the Eagle rank he’d earned at age 17.

Fast-forward fifty or so years. Colonel Paige, now retired, had become involved in ferreting out Medal of Honor winner imposters (yes, disgusting as it is, there really are such people) and in stamping out the flow of fake medals. While doing so he met Special Agent Thomas Cottone Jr. of the FBI, who was also involved in stopping the sale, theft, and illicit manufacture of the Medal of Honor. Eventually Special Agent Cottone – an Eagle Scout himself – discovered from Colonel Paige that he’d earned his Eagle rank but never received the award.

Getting the Eagle award isn’t easy, even after you’ve completed all the required advancement work. Proof of those accomplishments must be submitted, along with letters of recommendation, unit leader and council verifications, and an Eagle Scout application, to the Boy Scouts of America. After the passage of over five decades, obviously all that documentation for Colonel Paige no longer existed, and his Scout leaders had long since passed away.

So Special Agent Cottone spent the next five years investigating Colonel Paige’s Scouting history, making numerous contacts in his hometown of Charleroi, Pennsylvania. He eventually assembled enough documentary evidence to request the award on behalf of Colonel Paige.

Fifteen years ago, in March 2003, 67 years after he’d earned it, 84 year old Colonel Mitchell Paige was finally awarded his Eagle Scout rank.

Sadly, he would pass away just eight months later.

I shared this story with three different groups of Webelos at our meeting last week, and I choked up every time. What an amazing testimonial it is for my boys of the kind of love, honor and commitment that are part and parcel of the Scouting community, and of the different faces of heroism.

I wound up with two Scout heroes to highlight with my Webelos: one a highly decorated war hero, and the other a hero for his tireless efforts to recognize his fellow Eagle Scout. And, together, both are also heroes for their work to preserve the integrity of our nation’s highest award for valor in combat.

 

If you like what you’ve read here (or even if not!), let me know in the comments, or send me an e-mail at jim@vinoski.net. Please share! And please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

©2018 James M. Vinoski. All rights reserved.

In which I celebrate Godly masculinity

I was disgusted last Saturday to read about some virtue-signaling nitwit who said Hollywood should stop making movies like Dunkirk, because they reinforce a negative version of masculinity.

Now, there’s stupid. We’ve always had lots and lots of that.

Then there’s dangerously, malignantly, criminally stupid. We seem to have more and more of that.

And that’s just what this previously mentioned nitwit is. Think about what he’s saying: that the impossibly brave men who saved Western civilization (and whose fortitude, I feel compelled to point out in this same week as the International Day of Holocaust Remembrance, unwittingly created a last tiny thread of hope for the entire European Jewish race) demonstrated a manliness (honor… courage… sacrifice… and a willingness to die to protect the tribe…) that must now be stamped out. (By the way, here’s a bit I wrote a short while back about the uncommon courage on display at Dunkirk – even by non-combatants!) (And here’s one I wrote about the broader war on men.)

Well, the good news is that I’ve seen just one more reference (a viciously caustic one) to this Grima Wormtongue since then, so perhaps he’s crawled back under the same putrid rock he briefly emerged from. And who knows, maybe his staggering misandry will start the long-overdue process of upending the whole putrescent notion of “toxic masculinity.” A man can hope…

But in the meantime, I’ll not link to anything else about that vermin’s utterances.

I have lots of other links to share, though. Because my positive reaction to that clown’s verbal bowel movement was to dig out my DVD of the 1977 war movie A Bridge Too Far for viewing that very night.

First, and most important: the movie is an adaptation of a brilliant popular history of the same name by Cornelius Ryan, one of my favorite historians. It’s his story of WWII’s Operation Market Garden, a plan by British Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery to drive across Holland, seize a series of towns and vital bridges, and establish a conduit across the Rhine to Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr, thus ending the war in a few more months (this was in late summer and early fall, 1944, so those of you who know your history are already aware that the operation failed.)

Now, back to the movie. Talk about a star-studded cast: Laurence Olivier, Sean Connery, Maximilian Schell, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, James Caan, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Gene Hackman, Liv Ullman, Elliott Gould, and a very young John Ratzenberger. It was directed by Richard Attenborough. (Midway through the movie, there’s a scene where a British Airborne unit is laughed at by a group of escapees from a nearby insane asylum that had been bombed earlier. Attenborough has a cameo as one of the lunatics.)

This has been one of my favorite films since I was a young boy. I remember vividly how much I loved the score the first time I heard it; I still do. Listen to the whole thing here – but if you don’t have the 14-odd minutes, at least watch this scene, which features not only key sections of the music but also a flight of C-47s the likes of which you’ll never see in real life. What I love about the music is how it artfully conveys the emotions: stirring and martial at first, when the participants believe they’ll be ending the war early, then slowly turning more somber and eventually sad, as all hope for that rosy scenario is lost.

The film was scored by John Addison. I never knew until this past weekend that he fought in Operation Market Garden, as a tanker with the XXX Corps of the British Second Army. So yes, I guess he indeed knew the emotions of the time intimately. He used them to make a beautiful piece of music.

It’s not a beautiful movie, though. I read something once that said Attenborough had made a very anti-war war movie in A Bridge Too Far. (All of them should be in some way, shouldn’t they?) But I don’t see it as much anti-war as anti-triumphalist. It’s that rare humble and brutally honest look at a setback, a failure, for the eventually victorious saviors of civilization.

Still, the healthy masculinity that saved the world for real back in the 1940s is every bit as much acted out here as it is in a more positive adaptation of another Cornelius Ryan book, The Longest Day. I’ll save that one to salve the pain of the next malignant moron’s destructive utterances.

 

If you like what you’ve read here (or even if not!), let me know in the comments, or send me an e-mail at jim@vinoski.net. Please share! And please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

©2018 James M. Vinoski. All rights reserved.

#BestAdvice: Scouting – an update

Three years ago, LinkedIn invited articles featuring the author’s best advice (hence the hashtag). I was just re-reading the one I published there (on 2/15/15), and decided to re-publish it here on my blog, with an update, because it’s even better advice today in my opinion.

Here’s my #BestAdvice:

Several years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Graver, President at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana. In asking about his background, I was impressed and not a little intimidated to learn his first career was navigating B-52 bombers. A guy with his experience is certainly worth listening to, I thought.

In asking about my background, he learned that I have two young sons, the older of whom at the time had just started in Cub Scouts, and that I’d signed up to be his Assistant Den Leader. Mark jumped all over that, recommending highly that I do everything in my power to try to see both of my boys through to earning their Eagle Scout rank. He shared an observation from his military career that it was very common to see, among the military awards senior officers display in their offices, their Eagle Scout badges as well. He added that it was something he saw routinely with the civilian business leaders he visits in his current career too.

Mark’s endorsement of Scouting for my sons bolstered my already existing belief that it would be a boon for my boys. Only the willfully obtuse can miss that our society is failing boys in many vital areas, and I was already convinced of the value of Scouting for teaching my sons important lessons they wouldn’t get anywhere else.

More important, Mark did a fantastic sales job for one of the most important aspects of Scouting: it not only makes our boys strong, self-sufficient and ethical; it makes them leaders. Not just any leaders, but in-the-trenches, put-others-first, humble, productive, lead-by-example leaders. You know – the kind we sorely lack in every corner of the world today.

Now, several years into the Scouting experience, I realize it’s not just the boys who gain valuable leadership skills. Both my sons are now in Scouting, and my older one just entered his final year as a Cub Scout. I was his Assistant Den Leader his first year, then his Den Leader and Assistant Cubmaster, and now I’m Den Leader for my younger son. Leading the young Cubs, along with their parents and guardians, has taught me things about leadership I never would have learned in my job or anywhere else in the adult world. Best of all, we’ve had loads of fun along the way, and have made some great friends.

Thanks for your advice, Mark Graver. I’ll continue to work to keep my sons on track for Eagle. And I’ll continue to value greatly the lessons I learn personally along the way.

UPDATE 1/26/18: Since I wrote this, my boys have continued to advance in Scouting. My older son John moved into Boy Scout Troop 292 and is a First Class Scout, working on his Star rank (second-to-last before Eagle!) My younger son AJ just started the one-year countdown to crossing over to the Troop as well, and is a Webelos Scout in Pack 3391. I continue to be amazed at what Scouting is doing for them. And for me – I’m now also a Committee Member of the Troop, and actively involved in planning their outdoor activities every month. We’re all doing things we never would have without Scouting, like indoor climbing walls and spelunking and sailing and wilderness survival and on and on.

Both boys are now active leaders in their respective groups.

One of the biggest things for me has been the continued development of my own leadership knowledge. In addition to the work I do in the Pack and Troop, I’m a “novitiate” in Wood Badge, BSA’s advanced leadership course (a truly life-changing exercise). I expect to complete that, my adult version of Eagle (since I was never a Scout myself), this May.

 

If you like what you’ve read here (or even if not!), let me know in the comments, or send me an e-mail at jim@vinoski.net. Please share! And please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

©2018 James M. Vinoski. All rights reserved.

Continuous Improvement programs and why they fail

The best-running manufacturing plant I ever worked in (and I’ve worked in a lot of ‘em) used no Continuous Improvement (CI) methodologies.

No Lean, no Six Sigma, no TPM, no TPS, no TQS, none of it (at least none in any programmatic way – though I don’t think you can run a manufacturing plant without some activity that one of those programs now claims as its own).

The worst-running plant I ever worked in also used no CI methodologies.

They were the same plant. It was a General Mills cereal plant in Georgia, the smallest one in the Big G division at the time. When I first walked in the door, I was there to help start up the plant’s “new” packaging lines, which had been cobbled together from the old, obsolete cast-off and remnant machines from other plants that had either shut down or gotten actual new equipment. So it ran really, really poorly, at least to start with. (To be fair, the processing side, which had already been in operation making bulk product for several years, ran well. It was the packaging side that was the Achilles heel, because we were new to the game with crappy equipment.)

Over the next five years my team and I quickly and steadily improved those lines, and they went from having the lowest packaging reliability results in the company to the highest. At no time did we employ any of the CI programs that have become de rigueur now.

And I tell you this emphatically: If we had, I’m positive that we would have failed to get the results we did – and we became the lowest-cost producer in the Big G network.

Why? Because far too often, well-intentioned improvement programs get in the way of actual improvement.

Here are a few key areas where many of the CI programs I’ve seen have gone wrong, any one of which almost certainly would have derailed us:

Processes instead of people

At a leadership training event I attended recently (and greatly enjoyed), Barry-Wehmiller trainer David Vander Molen expressed this very criticism of Lean Six Sigma: it’s about machines, and the people who deliver results for us aren’t machines. It really hit home for me, because he put into words what I’ve seen and experienced dozens of times over in failed CI implementations. You can only make lasting improvements by engaging the people who run the systems, and really understanding their struggles and needs – then bringing the required resources to bear to solve their problems, and prioritizing the specific improvements they need rather than what a prepackaged tool tells you to do. Too many CI implementations are hammers seeing only nails, and they force the people to conform to the processes. But as Barry-Wehmiller’s CEO Bob Chapman put it in his book Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family, “Lean has become all about numbers, about waste elimination. Does anybody really believe that team members are inspired by the concept of waste elimination?”

At my cereal plant, our system improvements were driven by our technicians on the floor. Before we ever replaced or upgraded a single piece of our aged cereal packaging equipment, we invested in training and development for our people, and made numerous visits to our sister plants that were running better than us to see and learn from how they did things, so we knew what we were aiming for – then we made a people-centered, people-driven plan to get there. It’s not that we never had missteps along the way – but when we did, we adjusted our plan, keeping the focus and ownership with our people – and continued to move forward.

A friend of mine from the flagship plant of a Fortune 500 company, where they’ve been pushing CI programs for 20 years and loudly proclaiming their success, shared with me last week that his plant is “re-launching” its core CI effort – basically pushing the reset button on the exact same process that they now acknowledge has failed. Again, that it – because this is the 3rd or 4th re-launch of that same program at that same site! Forgive the indelicacy, but surely you’ve heard the old adage about polishing a turd…

Bureaucracy instead of results

I was once offered a job at a corporate headquarters as a CI consultant in a central process improvement group. The role specifically served another corporate department that already had its own internal staff of CI consultants!

I’ve long wondered why executives fail to question the existence of whole departments of Black Belts or Subject Matter Experts. The simple question of whether that overhead is paying for itself seems somehow off-limits when it comes to CI. There seems to me to be a herd mentality “easy button” effect at work here – after all, if all the big guys are doing CI, it’s gotta be good, right? But these costs should be scrutinized like every other line on the P&L to be sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

Beyond the money measures, care needs to be taken in how your CI experts behave. If they’re rudely telling long-time plant veterans how to do their jobs based solely on a cookie-cutter process they learned in some stuffy hotel conference room or corporate training center, the work will fail. Unfortunately, I’ve seen that happen many times. An effective CI expert realizes that the real experts are the people running the equipment and making the product – and the rest of us either serve them, or else we’re the waste we want to eliminate.

At my aforementioned cereal plant, other than some corporate packaging engineers who worked our start-up, the good folks at our fellow plants, and some vendor technicians who worked with us on training and troubleshooting, we pretty much helped ourselves and paid our own way. I’ve seen other efforts where CI expertise also paid for itself, when the activities were correctly targeted and the experts served the people doing the real work.

Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork

What’s with all the audits and documents and checklists and reports and such in the CI world? I’ve seen whole centralized databases built just to house forms that were filled out for every single CI activity, and then filed and never looked at again. When you’re burning more energy on the paperwork or presentations than on the actual improvement efforts, you’ve got it wrong.

We had no CI-driven forms or documentation in my cereal plant. We tried stuff the team thought would make us better, and when it improved our teamwork or our reliability or our finances, we kept doing it. If it didn’t, we stopped.

Too many tools at once, for too little benefit

Take a look at the many charts of CI tools here. The sheer numbers and names of the dozens of tools are just staggering. Now, I know that individually, many of these tools have value. But collectively, they’re a freaking nightmare. Too many CI programs are exhaustive lists of tools pushed out as an end in themselves. I remember a particular VP from my past not fondly at all – he tried to boost his career by mandating the launch of a chock-a-block CI program that looked like many of the busier lists at the link above, to be completed in just a few years. It was a giant, costly, exhausting, demoralizing flop. If you haven’t seen that kind of approach in action, you’ll be surprised how quickly people get “tool fatigue” and lose interest in the whole shebang – or even worse, get a permanent “bad taste in the mouth” about all such improvement efforts.

Any tool – the literal kind or the figurative kind – is useful only if it’s what’s needed for the job at hand.

Specialized language that leaves people behind

Take another look at the tool list. “Kano Analysis.” “SIPOC Map.” “RACI and Quad Charts.” “Gantt Charting.” “Pareto Analysis.” “Kappa Studies.” “Takt Time Analysis.” “Kaizen Events.” (I could go on for a long while yet, but…) Now put yourself in the shoes of a production line employee. These are not stupid people – some of the best and smartest people I’ve ever worked with worked on the factory floor. They are also not people who are into ridiculous corporate jargon. Yet we go in and throw around “Gemba” and “Kanban” and “Poka-Yoke” and wonder why they look at us like we’re idiots. Here’s a hint: it’s because we are when we speak and behave this way. Our #1 job as leaders is to engage with people in a way to make them feel comfortable, not to make us feel smarter than everyone else. This is my primary complaint about many CI programs: they seem designed to turn us all into that freshly-graduated engineer who thinks the whole world but him is stupid. (And trust me, I know – I was that engineer lots of years ago.) For the love of all that’s holy, let’s get rid of the obscure terminology and start using basic tools and measures that everybody can understand easily. That’s exactly what we did in my favorite cereal plant, and the results speak for themselves.

In conclusion…

I’m certainly not pushing to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. There are plenty of elements in all the various CI methodologies that have real merit when used appropriately. But unless you begin with your people, engaging with them one-on-one to respectfully encourage them to identify problems and help come up with solutions, and rewarding them for their efforts, you will fail. As many CI launches have shown, you will also likely wind up not eliminating waste, but adding to it with the money you throw out on the failed efforts (oftentimes over and over again). Here’s a good test: if your programs aren’t sustained by the people they’re supposed to be helping without you forcing them, they’re worthless and wasteful. (Look for my coming article on the best 5S project ever for an excellent example of sustained improvement.)

My worst plant became my best plant because we started with a great team and a great work system, and focused on making them better and better with the right training, engagement, empowerment and rewards. I’ll never forget one of my packaging technicians, Eric Morgan, who personally designed a retrofit for our aged cereal baggers to convert them to servomotor drive. I helped him get the money, the detailed engineering design work, and the parts and downtime he needed to make the conversion. We wound up with baggers that were better than new – better, in fact, than the servo-driven baggers the manufacturer of our machines was selling at the time. No CI program would have driven that – Eric did, because he was inspired and confident and he wanted to make things better. And he surely did.

That’s the power of people over process.

 

If you like what you’ve read here (or even if not!), let me know in the comments, or send me an e-mail at jim@vinoski.net. Please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

©2018 James M. Vinoski. All rights reserved.

Ebenezer Scrooge on leadership

“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Before we get too far down the road past the recent wonderful Christmas season, I want to share the new spirit (no pun intended) I drew from my annual revisiting of Dickens’s Christmas classic.

(As an aside, I remember seeing a caustic quote long ago about how foolish it is ever to re-read a book. While I didn’t make time to re-read A Christmas Carol this season, my wife and I have a favorite movie version we watch every year. Whether reading or watching, as you mature you see and learn different things each time. As Heraclitus of Ephesus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”) (I did, however, make time to re-read Philip Van Doren Stern’s The Greatest Gift – the basis for the most successful box-office bomb ever, It’s a Wonderful Life.)

I’ve written extensively about my deep appreciation for the message from Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia in their book Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family. When I read it a few months ago, it struck me as something entirely new and refreshing after my many years in the often crass and abusive business world.

And yet, as I watched George C. Scott’s performance as Ebenezer Scrooge for the umpteenth time, I realized that Chapman and Sisodia’s message dates back all the way to 1843, when Dickens’s tale was first published. There it was when the ghost of Jacob Marley spat out the lines at the start of this column. And there it was, too, when Scrooge – after his conversion through the “no pain, no gain” mercies of the spirits – joyously doubled his long-suffering employee Bob Cratchit’s salary, promised him help for his crippled son, and urged him to build up the fire in their freezing office.

Of course, the basis of the message goes back much, much further, another 1,800 years and then some: in the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) of the King of Kings whose birth we just celebrated, and in His native religion’s teachings from the Torah (love your neighbor as yourself). Those of you with other faiths, you will find a version in yours too.

At some point, many of us forgot these basic principles. For some, it was part of our on-the-job training that they just don’t apply in the world of business. Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia have done great good in reminding us that, yes, these rules are indeed still in effect, even for us as business leaders – and in presenting them in a way that shows how they benefit both our people and our business.

And as Charles Dickens taught us through Ebenezer Scrooge, so long as we’re alive it’s never too late to change our ways.

 

If you like what you’ve read here (or even if not!), let me know in the comments, or send me an e-mail at jim@vinoski.net. Please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

©2018 James M. Vinoski. All rights reserved.

Winning performance: it’s the preparation, stupid

Yesterday I read this wonderful recap of the 1967 “Ice Bowl” game in Green Bay, in which the Packers beat the Cowboys with a touchdown in the closing moments of an NFL Championship Game played in temperatures even colder than we’ve had this week.

This passage, a remembrance by Packers right guard Jerry Kramer, really struck me:

It’s really an amazing thing, that final drive. We had not had much success before that. Something turned on inside of us and all of a sudden everybody is doing their job and we’re moving down the field. I’ve wondered for years how to define and explain that. I use the analogy of the lady lifting a car off her baby. It’s impossible. It can’t happen. But something happens in her body and her mind. She has to lift that car to save her baby and somehow she does it.

It reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago about the 1984 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey game. In it, writing about the US victory, I said their win was impossible, too:

A year or two ago I watched a replay of the whole game. What I took away is that, logically, there is no way on earth the US team could have won that game. They were outskated, outmaneuvered, and generally outclassed by the Soviets, who were an obviously better team. But it was the pros from the USSR who were the ones outscored in the end.

My take on it was that the difference was “heart” – the will to win. I still think that’s a good perspective.

Even so, reading about the differences between the Packers and Cowboys teams of 1967 gave me another perspective. In one of Kramer’s other observations in the article, he says:

I don’t think it was the field. It was their mistakes that made the difference. They were a damned good team but they were an inexperienced team playing an experienced team.

In 1967, the Packers had been a winning team for several years. The Cowboys were just beginning to become one. Even if the skills of the teams were evenly matched, there was a stark difference in experience, to Kramer’s point – basic experience in flawless execution, plus experience with the field conditions, where Green Bay had a tremendous advantage.

In 1984, it was a different story. The USSR had huge advantages over the US in both playing experience and skills. But US Coach Herb Brooks foresaw those advantages (hence my use of his quote, “Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone”) and, to offset them, made sure his team was far and away the best-conditioned one on the ice. At the end of the game, the Soviets were unable to muster the reserves for the efforts it would have taken to wrest the lead away from the Americans.

I believe the will to win made a difference in both these historic games. And I believe, too, that preparation was a key element in both.

So how do you prepare? How do you get ready to win your “championship game” – be it in relationships, in health, in wealth, or in work?

Want to reinvigorate US manufacturing? Make it suck less

The chattering classes are all atwitter over the decline in US manufacturing jobs. And rightly so; the hollowing out of our manufacturing sector is a social problem, a fiscal problem, and even a national security problem.

Now, there are a whole lot of factors that have contributed to the decline in US manufacturing employment, so there are also many different ways to go about fixing things. I’m not going to begin to delve into all of them – that’s a book, not an article.

One key way to start fixing manufacturing in our country, though, is to make the work more appealing to current and potential employees, thereby making domestic manufacturing more appealing to entrepreneurs and investors who can help turn the tide of job loss.

There are a whole lot of factors that come into play here, too. But to mention a few glaring ones, I’ll start with working conditions. Manufacturing oftentimes involves miserably hot or cold work areas, awful odors, safety and health hazards, and hard physical labor. While it’s not financially feasible to make every job completely comfortable, doing what we can to mitigate the unpleasant aspects of the work will help us attract new workers and make our existing ones happier and more productive. That can be anything from modifying the workplace or the job itself to simply offering more or longer breaks from the most difficult jobs. Rotating jobs can often help.

Related to that one is work schedule. I’ve personally concluded that the twelve hour shift schedule commonly used in manufacturing (and in medicine and other industries too) is simply inhumane. You can’t work that schedule and have proper time for the rest of life. We in manufacturing should commit to eliminating it. Equally, overtime can be problematic; it’s a financial boon to the workers and therefore often desirable to them, but it can quickly become a difficulty for both finances and retention, and a detriment to employee health and well-being. Within reason, overtime is not a problem. But when it doesn’t allow for proper rest and recuperation, it’s dangerous and destructive. I don’t believe anybody should ever be scheduled for more than sixty hours in a week, and weeks with work hours approaching that should be the exception, not the rule. Indeed, we should take a hard look at what the time demands are for family, fitness and health, and allow that kind of time out of work, every week, for every employee as a matter of course. (I agree with leadership consultant Amir Ghannad that we leaders should take affirmative steps to support the health and well-being of our workers. As an aside along those same lines, I believe that, given the reality of the opiod epidemic, the current zero-tolerance drug policies of so many employers are destructive and unsustainable. The manufacturing industry should work on a uniform approach to treatment and rehabilitation for current and potential employees.)

In my many years of experience, I find that leadership and worker treatment are often substandard in the manufacturing world. For too long, managers were selected by seniority rather than ability, and we’re still suffering the consequences. Also, manager behavior has often seemingly been aimed at a Darwinian culling of the weak, rather than a proper caring for workers. I recently finished (and loved) Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family by Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, and Raj Sisodia. The title is self-explanatory, and should be the ideal for all leaders, especially in manufacturing where the work itself is often so trying.

One aspect of worker treatment I’ve come to loathe since I finished the book is the disparity in how we treat “professional” workers and wage employees. The descriptions themselves are telling: are my machine operators and maintenance mechanics not professionals, or are they less professional than my shift supervisors and warehouse manager? Why does one group have to punch a time clock while the other employees come and go as they please? Why do we routinely demonstrate distrust of the workers closest to the core jobs we do? I wanted to cheer out loud when I read Chapman describe how he ordering all his time clocks removed, and walls and cages around spare parts storage areas torn down. That is how we should treat everybody, and those kinds of changes will make manufacturing jobs much more inviting. As Chapman experienced, treating people with dignity also makes them more loyal and more productive. But most important of all, it’s the right thing to do.

The beauty of all the above is that we can do it for ourselves. It doesn’t take an act of Congress or a change in direction at the EPA or OSHA. Every one of us in a leadership position in manufacturing, right now, can begin making the jobs our most important workers perform more appealing – and therefore make our industry more appealing to customers and investors alike.

Andrew Jackson Higgins, industrialist and war hero

Photo by Robert F. Sargent, US Coast Guard

It’s one of the most iconic images from WWII. Usually it’s used to highlight the impossibly courageous men shown storming Omaha Beach during D-Day, and quite appropriately so.

This article, though, focuses instead on the boat, and its inventor and manufacturer, Andrew Jackson Higgins.

Who’s ever heard of Andrew J. Higgins? Pretty much nobody now, other than antique boat aficionados and die-hard WWII buffs.

And yet without him, we may well have lost that crucial conflict. None other than President (and former Supreme Allied Commander) Dwight D. Eisenhower called Higgins, “the man who won the war for us.”

Higgins was simply a builder of small boats. But first he was a failed logger. Prior to the war, he moved from his native Nebraska to Louisiana to harvest hardwoods in the swamps. Once there, he quickly realized he needed a good way to get to them. So he enrolled in a boat-building correspondence course, then developed his own shallow draft boat with a protected propeller and a “spoonbill” bow, and enough power to beach and extract itself. The boat worked great, but the logging business didn’t, and eventually went bankrupt. However, in the meanwhile Higgins had built up a parallel operation to build his swamp boats, and this became his focus. Thus was born Higgins Industries.

He thought his boat might have some military use and pitched it to the US Navy. Despite some fits and starts in the 1920s and 1930s, that effort never went anywhere.

But the Marine Corps had taken notice and had a very different approach:

The ramp boat was typical. In China, the Japanese had been using ramp boats along the coast and up the shallow creeks for years. We did not possess a single boat of this type. Yet, without it, the Marines never could have landed on a Japanese island and the Army would have been crippled in Europe. To get the boat, we went straight to the builder, Andrew Higgins, discussed plans with him and he built the ramp boat while the Bureau of Ships was still dazed by the temerity of the suggestion. (Holland M. Smith and Percy Finch, Coral and Brass: A Life Fighting With the Marines)

Higgins’s LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) became a cornerstone of the Marines’ Pacific island-hopping campaign that turned the tide against the Japanese. Along the way it also became a key tool in the serial invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France that helped win the war against Germany, and of course became famous in that invasion of all invasions, Operation Overlord.

Back in the Pacific, another key element in defeating Japan was disrupting the supplies of men and materiel to the chains of distant islands Japan had conquered. That effort took submarines, battleships and cruisers, yes – but also relied heavily on the tiny PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat made famous by President John F. Kennedy. Higgins was a key designer and builder for these boats too, putting his own money into getting the thing right:

Higgins Industries had considerable difficulty translating the Sparkman and Stephens design into a satisfactory boat. PT 5 was eventually placed in service on March 17, 1941, but its performance was disappointing. The original PT 6 was never placed in service. It was sold to Finland in 1940. On his own initiative and with his own capital, Andrew Jackson Higgins decided to build a modified version. When it was delivered in February 1941, it was a Higgins design rather than a modified Sparkman and Stephens, and was accepted enthusiastically by operating personnel, many of whom considered it superior to any previous type, including the Scott-Paine. (At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy, Captain Robert J. Bulkley, Jr.)

US Navy photo

When all was said and done, Higgins Industries would produce the largest number of PT boats of any manufacturer.

The PT boats would also provide a template for Higgins Industries after the war they helped the Allies win was over. Higgins formed Higgins, Inc., to make a variety of handcrafted wooden boats for the personal watercraft market. His company not only made great boats, but was ahead of its time as an employer, hiring racial minorities, the elderly, and the disabled, and paying all equally.

Andrew Jackson Higgins died in 1952. His company continued to sell watercraft under various owners until 1975. Only about 200 remain, and are highly prized by collectors.

Article sources:

http://www.higginsmemorial.com/higgins.asp

http://www.nola.com/300/2017/06/andrew_higgins_landing_craft_world_war_ii_06042018.html

https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/higgins-and-his-war-winning-boats/

http://www.higginsclassicboats.org/

Coral and Brass: A Life Fighting With the Marines, Holland M. Smith and Percy Finch, ©1949 Charles Scribner’s Sons, ©2017 Motte Publishing

At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy, Captain Robert J. Bulkley, Jr., ©1962, 2017 Naval History Division

 

You! Start treating people better right now!

As I’ve increasingly published my thoughts about the proper way, the moral way, to treat the people we’re privileged to lead, I’ve seen an interesting phenomenon among some of those who agree with me.

They’re waiting for someone else to do something about it. Look at the comments to this LinkedIn post by Caroline Fairchild, for example. Good people, people interested in making a change and improving the business world, are waiting for capitalism to change, or corporations to change, or this or that or the other thing to change.

They shouldn’t be.

Capitalism isn’t going to change, because we didn’t design it in the first place. It’s spontaneous order – an economic system based on many things, including the rule of law and our monetary system and relatively free trade, but most of all on the aggregation of millions of people making thousands of decisions each, every single day. We couldn’t “fix it” if we tried (though we can sure screw it up without trying). Besides, it can’t and won’t fix our moral failings. And treating people poorly is indeed a moral failing.

Corporations might change, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath. There are too many people with too many agendas involved, lots of them honorable and some of them not, to think we can wait until a CEO or a Board of Directors charts a new course before we act to fix our corner of the business world.

The way to make things better is for you to begin acting, starting right now.

I’m just finishing up Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family, by Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia. I love this book and its message. (But please, in subsequent printings, can a kindly editor go in and remove three of every four of its authors’ uses of the word “journey?” I thank you.) This passage near the end caught my eye:

Embark on your journey now. You don’t need a memo from the almighty wizards of corporate to tell you that it’s OK to do the right thing. A spreadsheet can’t show you how to treat people. No executive order is required to allow you to pause each day to have a thoughtful conversation with someone in your organization. Listen to them. Show them that what they do and who they are matters. You – and everyone else in your organization – already have everything within yourselves to start living the universal truth that everybody matters.

That’s exactly right. The whole list of improvements you want to see around you may not be entirely in your power to bring about, but that’s no excuse for not getting started, today, on the ones you can.