Monday, May 19, 2014

Vacuous VA

The following was published in The Washington Examiner.

Shinseki must go.  It is unconscionable for a leader to be so asleep at the switch.
Secretary Shinseki’s lack of curiosity is a fundamental flaw.  No leader, especially a Cabinet Secretary responsible for the well-being of America’s veterans, should be allowed to remain after their inaction caused unwarranted deaths.  Shinseki’s after the fact display of concern is not a sufficient atonement for what happened. 
Real leaders are pro-active and follow-up.  No matter how much they trust their subordinates, a real leader random checks and deep dives within their organization to independently verify actions, gain important insights, and connect with their colleagues.  Shinseki did none of these and lives were lost.
An example of a real leader is Gerry Carmen’s tenure as Administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA) under Ronald Reagan. In1980, the GSA was one of the most scandal ridden agencies of the federal government.  President Reagan picked Carmen, a no nonsense auto parts entrepreneur from New Hampshire, to clean up the GSA. 
Carmen immediately took steps to turn around the GSA. He elevated three whistleblowers (who had been ostracized and marginalized under President Carter) to key positions and began to hold people accountable. In league with the whistleblowers and investigative journalists, Carmen and his team dusted off mountains of unread Inspector General Reports, worked closely with the Justice Department, and sent forty eight corrupt GSA officials to jail.   The signal was crystal clear; GSA was to be an honest agency with zero tolerance for waste, fraud, or abuse.
His first opportunity for operational change was reducing processing time for federal supplies.  The average “work in process” (WIP) time for an agency supply order to move from order entry to shipment was 45 days.  Carmen ordered that WIP be reduced to nine days. A new reporting unit, Program Control, was established to directly monitor operations and measure performance. 
Within the first weeks, WIP magically fell to nine days in reports from the GSA warehouses.  Carmen did not believe it.  An immediate audit of the warehouse reports showed that warehouse managers had redefined WIP to only cover activity related to preparing supplies for shipment.  Just like at the Department of Veterans Affairs, career bureaucrats created a parallel set of measures to erase a backlog.  Unlike the V.A., Carmen and his team, ferreted out the subterfuge and fired those who cooked the books.
One Washington, DC area GSA warehouse did not “cook the books”.  However, the warehouse manager complained that he could not reduce WIP unless he had ten more fork lifts.  Once again, Carmen wasn’t buying it.  He made an unannounced visit to the warehouse and discovered forty fork lifts, fifteen of which were disabled waiting long overdue repairs.  Carmen also reviewed the operational logs and unearthed the fact that there were only twenty certified fork lift operators.  No effort had been made to certify new operators after a dozen had left or retired.  The Washington warehouse manager was immediately placed on administrative leave and was jettisoned from government service within the month.
Shinseki was not confronted with flim flams over supply chain management; he confronted manipulations that impacted lives.  His passivity is unforgivable.  He insulted everyone involved by hiding behind the lamest excuse of all – trying to minimize the scope of his negligence.  Shinseki declared, “Most veterans are satisfied with the quality of their V.A. health care, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care.”
The removal of Dr. Robert A. Petzel, the under secretary for health, is clearly not enough. Tom Tarantino, with The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, correctly asserted, “We don’t need the V.A. to find a scapegoat. We need an actual plan to restore a culture of accountability throughout the V.A.”
That can only happen with a new leader, who actually knows how to lead.

[Scot Faulkner led the Office of Program Control for Gerry Carmen at the GSA.  He also led the clean-up of Congressional operations as the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. ]

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