Managers can learn from Walter Reed debacle

  • Tuesday, September 2, 2008 1:29pm

Some failures are acutely disappointing. The disgraceful condition and reprehensible treatment of some of our wounded Army veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., was a failure of both leadership and management at virtually every level.

We shouldn’t overstate the problem. Many wounded and sick soldiers have received marvelous, near miraculous, treatment at Walter Reed. And the hospital continues to deliver a high level of care to most of the soldiers entrusted to its care.

Descriptions of the conditions in parts of the hospital are so saddening, though, that they are difficult to read without succumbing to a range of emotions that begin with shock and end with shame and anger. How could this happen?

At last count, President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates had launched eight separate investigations into the matter, and both the House of Representatives and the Senate are holding several hearings each.

One of the investigators, former Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh, already has announced that he believes that the problems at Walter Reed were due to inadequate staffing and funding. And while that pretty much covers the possibilities, excepting, perhaps, a localized natural disaster or demonic possession, it isn’t very helpful. Money and people issues are the outward symptoms of most organizational problems. The real questions are how and why the money and people problems happened.

A management meltdown of this order deserves to be remedied immediately. It also deserves an analysis, though, so that all of us, but particularly those of us who shoulder responsibilities for others — managers especially — can learn something from the high-profile mistakes that others have made.

Even though the results of the investigations are not in yet, there are some things that we can say about the situation at Walter Reed that can be helpful from a management analysis, or “lessons learned,” standpoint.

The most significant of these things involves the health of Walter Reed itself. It is an old facility that is very definitely showing its age — and has been doing so for some years. Visits there during the Vietnam War were like going back in time even then, and that was close to 40 years ago.

From a management standpoint, the advanced age of the medical buildings quickly translates into increased costs for both routine maintenance and the installation of necessary updates in electric power, communications and other service utilities.

In and of themselves, the increased costs were not the source of the problem. What converted the higher cost structure into a recipe for disaster was the decision made in response to them. In 2006, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended Walter Reed as a “planned closure.” The Pentagon was pulling the plug.

Anyone who has ever worked in a large corporation or a smaller business can tell you what happens after some part of the organization has been slated for disposal. On the financial side, it becomes harder and harder to get money to maintain the place. Instead, management looks to the departing function’s budget for money it can use elsewhere.

On the people side, it becomes harder and harder to get people to fill staff vacancies. Few people see joining the crew of a sinking ship as a career-enhancing move. There are dedicated people who ignore this issue, but they are not easy to find and keep.

From a management standpoint, we should be aware of how people react when faced with situations like these. It is a very human instinct to be attracted to organizations and people with strong vital signs. It is equally human to lose interest in organizations, operations and objects that have been marked for disposal. It is amazing, for example, how maintenance of our automobile requires so much more effort after we have decided to turn it in.

It is management’s job to be aware of this instinct and take the necessary steps to avoid its natural consequences — something that was obviously not done in the Walter Reed situation.

When we plan to shut down an operation, the longer the lead time between decision and action, the more discipline we have to apply to making sure that that operation is not victimized, directly or indirectly, by our natural instincts. It is one thing, for example, to neglect washing your car if you are going to turn it in next week. It is quite another to cancel the brake job because you plan to sell the vehicle at the end of the year.

Learning this management lesson now will not change what already has happened at Walter Reed, but it could help its future. And it can certainly help us, as managers, to avoid making the same mistakes.

James McCusker, a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant, writes “Your Business” in The Herald each Sunday. He can be reached by sending e-mail to

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