Book Review: Blackett’s War

Rick Bohan

Maybe some of you have seen the recent movie The Imitation Game.  The movie focuses primarily on the life of Alan Turing during and after his and his colleagues efforts to break the German Ultra code.

Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare focuses on the same efforts without devoting as much attention to Turing.

So, why am I reviewing a book about WWII here in my blog on lean concepts and methods?  Well, the book’s title probably gives you a clue but here’s an anecdote from the book:  one of the team members was out in the field with the troops.  He noticed the soldiers lined up to wash their eating utensils.  They were queued in two lines; at the head of each line was one wash bin and one rinse bin.  He further noticed that the soldiers spent much more time at the wash bins than at the rinse bins.  He went over to the operation, turned one of the rinse bins into a third wash bin and formed the soldiers into a single line, so that, when a wash bin became available, the next soldier went to it.  Soon, there was no queue.  The soldiers weren’t waiting at all.  You see the connection with lean thinking, I’m sure.

Blackett's War
U.S. Coast Guardsmen aboard the cutter Spencer in the Atlantic watch the explosion of the depth charge that sank the German submarine U-175, 1943. This photo was obtained from the WSJ article mentioned in the post.

During the early days of Germany’s war against Great Britain, that country pulled together a number of scientists to develop methods for thwarting the effectiveness of Germany’s U-boats against merchant ships.  The initiative was aided by Churchill, who had a penchant for applied science.  These scientists developed a field of work that came to be called operations research (though the book manages to make it sound far more interesting than the utterly dreary Operations Research course I took in grad school many years ago).  Essentially, “operations research” was the gathering and analysis of data regarding what was actually going on out there in the world and using that analysis to make decisions, as opposed to basing decisions on precedent and intuition.

As a review in the WSJ says:

“Blackett and his fellow British scientists, and, from 1940, their American counterparts under the leadership of Vannevar Bush and the National Defense Research Committee, showed how careful quantitative analysis could provide far better guidance for decision makers than tradition.”

operations research
British and American scientists showed that careful data gathering and analysis often trumped precedent and conventional wisdom as a basis for good decision making.

The team and the data it gathered showed that large convoys were more effective than small convoys in protecting merchant ships from U-boat attacks.  That might seem intuitive to us but large convoys were seen at the time as too difficult to put together and maintain during the ocean voyage while not being any more effective than smaller convoys.  The tactics of depth charge attacks against submarines were changed based on data gathered by the team; the effectiveness of the new tactics were tenfold greater than the previous tactics.

In another instance, the team gathered data showing that British planes were locating U-boats less often than should be expected.  The team addressed the question as to why that should be the case.  Further inquiry uncovered the fact that most of the planes had previously been on night duty…and were painted black.  Black planes showed up well against the daylit sky, so U-boats were spotting the planes before being spotted themselves and diving below the surface.  When the planes’ bellies were re-painted, the number of U-boats spotted increased substantially.

There are enough of these sorts of examples in the book to warm the heart of any lean practitioner.

There’s another aspect to the story, though.  Astute lean practitioners won’t fail to be impressed by the teamwork and camaraderie exhibited by the scientists.  Coming from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, the scientists were exemplars of what a group of disparate personalities can achieve when it has a common vision.

I’d happily recommend the book to anyone interested in lean and continual improvement.


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