Improving the Productivity of the Field Army

Fighting fit: soldiers from the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment training in 2020. Image: Defence Imagery / OGL v3.0

The Field Army has demonstrated a methodology for achieving a more productive and ready force, which has already seen significant results.

In his 2022 RUSI lecture, the Chief of the Defence Staff discussed tackling productivity as one aspect where Defence needed to think big, and this follows much debate about improving productivity across many sectors of UK Defence. This article discusses the ‘think big’ programme to improve productivity across the Field Army, ‘Empowerment’.

There is a large literature on improving productivity being linked to gains in effectiveness and efficiency as measured by inputs and outputs. These can be complicated to define and measure in Defence contexts. Productivity gains in Defence often need to be achieved by a focus on outputs, since many inputs (such as fixed personnel costs) are not easily manipulated. A key output of the Army is operational effectiveness. However, since this output cannot be easily measured in ‘peacetime’, a proxy measure that we know contributes to it must be used.

Defining a Unit Level Productivity Measure

A thorough academic review of efficiency and productivity in operational army units in ‘peacetime’ was undertaken by Torbjørn Hanson and concluded that ‘Outputs related to training activities are the relevant outputs in peace time … to study productivity change’. The Field Army devised a programme in conjunction with McKinsey to improve the amount of time units devote to training and other key activities that enable operational effectiveness. This was defined as Fighting Power Enabling (FPE) activity, which – if more of it was performed – would improve the fighting power and operational effectiveness of the unit.

The FPE category allowed the various Field Army units to define their FPE key performance indicators (KPIs) in a way that made cultural sense and that could be measured. The focus was on improving FPE output to maximise the value of the Army’s major financial input cost, staff time. Pilot diagnostics across Field Army units confirmed this was the right approach, as FPE time was considerably lower than expected across most units.

There is much research demonstrating that a more productive, efficient and stable work environment will retain more of the workforce

There were many reasons why FPE time was lower than expected. There was no agreed system to organise the day-to-day activity in Army units outside operational deployments. The knowledge and skills needed to operate a unit effectively and efficiently were very variable. Objectives from above were often difficult to translate into measurable KPIs to hold units to account for performance. Activity/training plans tended to be high-level, siloed and subject to last-minute change when they met with reality. Units could not easily quantify and articulate the impact of changes and trawls from higher HQs. There was little review of how time was actually spent, and too few meetings were focused on improving performance. There was little data-informed decision-making and a lack of sharing of good practice. Soldiers' time was not focused enough on FPE activity.

The Unit Management System Solution

A Unit Management System (UMS) was designed to enable improved productivity, smarten units’ ways of working, accelerate data-informed decision-making and allow KPIs to be output-focused. The UMS was developed from the Army’s operational planning process and continuous improvement principles. The UMS enables mission command by focusing on KPIs and providing tools and techniques to reduce the friction in everyday activities, including minimising the gap between planned and actual activity. At the heart of UMS is the Plan, Execute, Review, Improve and Lock (PERIL) cycle, supported by a growing set of digital management information tools for informed decision-making. To implement the UMS requires successful procedural and cultural change to take place, led and modelled by the chain of command. The UMS also depends on a performance cascade up and down the chain of command to track productivity gains, enable continuous improvement and encourage sharing of best practice.

UMS Productivity Benefits

The UMS, under the banner of ‘Empowerment’, was rolled out across Field Army units between 2019 and 2021. A recent external review of the benefits showed dramatic results when the system was fully implemented, but also lasting improvements even when it was only partially implemented. Pilot trials in 2018 showed that unit productivity doubled with UMS, and the large-scale roll-out data from 2019–21 showed the same doubling in productivity (with a before-and-after diagnostic across a sample of 50 units), albeit from an initial low level alongside a reduction in non-priority ‘waste’ activity. As with most large-scale interventions, initial gains have faded slightly, but the average unit FPE productivity is still well above pre-rollout levels. Units have also provided a long list of local improvements and efficiencies. Crucially, readiness metrics in highly ‘empowered’ units are better than those that are less so, with more personnel deployable and higher Individual Training Requirements (ITR) metrics in fitness, education and core combat skills.

It was also found that highly empowered units had a significantly higher retention rate of personnel (where there had been no difference with comparator units prior to UMS roll-out), saving much voluntary outflow replacement training costs. There is much research demonstrating that a more productive, efficient and stable work environment will retain more of the workforce, and that satisfied workers are more inclined to be productive. Improved work-based satisfaction has also been reflected in the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey. Items such as ‘I am encouraged to find better ways of doing things at work’, ‘I have a choice in deciding how I do my work’ and ‘I am given sufficient authority to make decisions’ have significantly improved since 2019.

The historical independence of British Army units means introducing standard practices requires strategic patience and communication of the need for change

It is clear that ‘productivity’ within Field Army units can be improved. The Empowerment programme provides an enabling UMS with a focus on KPI-driven activity and evidence of improved FPE activity, readiness and retention. This last year has been spent sustaining gains and reviewing the programme in detail. The 2019–2021 roll-out was not perfect, and there were many lessons to be drawn. The implementation of the UMS has not been uniform, and the programme met with cultural resistance, some of which was of its own making. Ultimately, proposed changes must be culturally appropriate to succeed.

Pushing Further with Productivity Across the Army

Demands on Field Army units are increasing in a smaller and financially constrained British Army. Making time for changing ways of working can be difficult to achieve. The historical independence of British Army units and commanders means introducing standard practices requires strategic patience and communication of the need for change. How to lead and manage units productively must be taught in core military education for sustainment.

Improving productivity requires smarter ways of working and data-informed decision-making. Digital tools are key and need to be designed for planning and reviewing as well as reporting. A digital performance cascade can hold commanders and staff to account for their productivity both up and down the chain. However, the provision of more digital information must be followed up with designed behaviour change to have maximum impact, including on the behaviours of HQs.

The Chief of the General Staff articulated to RUSI that the Army must be more effective and efficient (that is, productive) to achieve the increased focus on readiness required. The Field Army has demonstrated a methodology for its vision of achieving a more productive and ready force.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Vincent Connelly

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