The closed loop system

  • Published
  • By Col. Chris Crawford
  • 21st Space Wing commander
A lesser-known fact about my front office is that both my executive officer and action officer are engineers. That means three things: First, I hear more than my share of corny jokes and puns in the office. Second, it means I often overhear the run-down of last night's Modern Marvels from outside my door. Most importantly, though, it means I pick up a lot of engineering jargon through osmosis.

One interesting concept is how engineers describe "open loop" and "closed loop" systems. An open loop system consists merely of an input, some action, and an output. A more sophisticated closed loop system, on the other hand, provides a feedback mechanism that adjusts input to regulate the output.

One of those new automated air fresheners is a great example of an open loop system. It pumps out floral scents every five minutes whether the room already smells like a bucket of roses, week old trout, or the Alabama locker room after a big game. It is not reactive to the environment. On the other hand, the HVAC system in your house is closed loop. It operates at a set temperature (the input) but turns the heat or AC on or off based on the current temperature in the house, as read by the thermostat. I would argue that the closed loop system is superior, as I presume you would as well.

Why does this matter? Why should you care about thermostats? You should care because the closed loop engineering concept relates directly to the need for human feedback - both up and down the chain of command. An open loop leader, who keeps putting forward the same requirements regardless of the environment, is about as useful and dynamic as a timed air freshener. A leader who "closes the loop," on the other hand, is often more effective.

Let's take a closer look at how the closed loop HVAC system provides a model for leadership. In this comparison, the thermostat itself is the leader. The first thing that a thermostat does is set a temperature, or set an expectation, for how warm that house needs to stay. Next, it checks progress to see where the ambient temperature sits. Finally, it uses this information to provide feedback to the furnace - for example, it's still too cold in here, stay on until I say to stop working.

Leadership works the same way. Air Force leaders are expected and required to give initial expectations and provide formal feedback at least once a year. How can Airmen know whether they are doing a good job - or whether they need to turn up the heat a little bit - without feedback?

It sounds simple, but it's often not done. Some units do an outstanding job of consistently performing and documenting feedback, but others pencil-whip the dates on evaluations and routinely skip feedback sessions. This is unacceptable for several reasons.

First, it defeats the purpose of the system and inhibits the ability of a leader to guide their personnel. Perhaps more significantly, though, it stunts the growth of the leader. Leaders learn much about themselves, learn what they know about their people, and get a better understanding of what their goals are when they must write it out and concisely explain it to someone else. Finally, though, lack of feedback and/or expectations makes it impossible to correctly hold personnel accountable for poor performance. Worse, it makes it difficult to properly frame and reward them for outstanding performance.

Let's put it another way. Say your house is always cold because the furnace never kicks on for long enough and it runs infrequently. But let's also say the thermostat is not telling the furnace when to run, or even that the house temperature is unacceptable. Which one is the real cause of the problem? Similarly, underperforming Airmen might have more than themselves to blame. Sometimes leaders share that blame as well.

That covers top down leadership, but what about leading up the chain? After all, the Air Force doesn't recruit followers - we are all leaders. All Airmen should lead up the chain with feedback. This feedback should be complete, accurate and constructive, and it is vitally important. How much better would our HVAC system work if the furnace was able to give feedback to the thermostat? What if the thermostat was smart enough to take some of the feedback below:

-My filter is dirty; recommend requesting filter change to increase air quality
-Owners are on vacation; recommend reducing temperature setting to 65 degrees until return to save fuel
-You told me to turn the temperature down to 40 degrees, are you sure you want that? The pipes will freeze and burst.

Leaders must be able to accept, and should actively encourage, feedback from their subordinates. Those subordinates should, in-turn, be prepared to provide specific feedback and recommendations. This is especially true in the case of innovations (which is a key tenet of our wing vision) and correction of major mistakes.

Of course, real leadership is much more dynamic, and more challenging, than this simple example - but the process for feedback is the same. Take the case of a platoon sergeant in Vietnam, as relayed in the book Leading Up by Michael Useem. When one of his soldiers was killed by a sniper, a lieutenant, angry at having lost a man, ordered the approximate position of the sniper shelled by artillery. The sergeant was able to respectfully convey to his leader that the sniper was in a town - and he convinced him that the action was immoral. When that platoon swept the town, they found mostly women and children - and no sniper. The NCO's actions, his feedback, saved dozens of lives. That's a lot more significant than a burst pipe, but it's the exact same concept.

The Air Force mandates feedback because it is vital, because without it we're just an open loop system - a system that can never improve, never measure progress, and never grow future leaders. I encourage all of you to take a lesson from the engineering community and adopt the closed loop approach. Watching documentaries and then discussing them at work is purely optional.