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Posted 12/6/2017

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By Lisa Metheney


This story is part one of a three part series on highlighting learning from the private sector in order to better serve the nation in the public sector.

I was recently at a friend’s house talking with her elementary school-aged children about school. I asked important questions like what were they learning about, what their favorite subject was, whether they liked their teacher, and what was for lunch the next day. As we were chatting, her 2nd grade son announced “I can’t wait until I am old like you and I don’t have to take tests or learn anything else!” I explained to the young man that I, in fact, am not old (an important fact he should understand right away) and that, more importantly, people should never stop learning. He furrowed his brow at me skeptically and asked why not. It took a minute or two for me to figure out how to boil down volumes of psychology and sociology, plus my four years of undergraduate study, two years of graduate studies, and 24 years of work experience into this statement: “If we stop learning, we stop being able to improve our life and the lives of others.” I’m not going to say I convinced the young man that learning is always good, but I think I at least convinced him that even we old folks learn new things.

Our discussion made me think about the many ways all of us at the Corps of Engineers are continuously applying new things we learn to the projects and programs we execute. We attend classroom training, webinars, and symposia to learn everything from new GIS software applications to engineering with nature techniques to the streamlining of processes to make our projects more cost-efficient. The benefit of this training is obvious in the ways we have improved our business processes. One area we haven’t discussed much is the informal learning that we get from interactions with the private sector and how we are applying it to continuously improve on the service we provide to the nation as public servants.

In April, the executive leadership of the Corps’ entire South Atlantic Division visited the Chick-fil-A Corporate Headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Our focus was to learn about how Chick-fil-A approaches their business model and what they are doing as a corporate entity that we could incorporate in our own business model. The engagement included a tour and a very robust discussion of how Chick-fil-A leadership focuses on seeing and shaping the future, engaging and developing talent, continuously reinventing, and valuing results and relationships.

While many people wouldn’t think the Corps of Engineers has anything in common with a fast food chicken restaurant, through our discussions we found we used some of the same approaches and had some of the same challenges. One of the takeaways for me was how to ensure the thoughts, skills and approaches of millennial generation members of the workforce are used to help achieve the mission of the organization.

For many of us who have been working in an organization for a long time, we can sometimes blur the methods of delivering the mission with the mission itself. This can lead to a culture that resists change and ultimately can impact delivery of the mission. The example Senior Vice President of Operations Cliff Robinson gave us in this area really stuck with me. Chick-fil-A’s mission is to be the best quick service restaurant. A method to do that is through serving the items on their menu, such as coleslaw. Sometimes, when deciding whether to discontinue a menu item like coleslaw, there is great consternation about it, especially if it’s an item that has a small, but loyal, following. But, by focusing on what is the mission and what is a method, it allows the company to make decisions that will continue to deliver the mission most effectively. Coleslaw as a product is only a method to achieving their mission. While there may be backlash to its cancellation, they have to make the decision on whether cancelling the item improves their overall mission. As Mr. Robinson explained, the newer generation of employees in the company help define the mission and make him realize things like this, because they aren’t tied to the methods yet. I must say, I never pictured coleslaw as a method, but that is exactly what it is; a method for Chick-fil-A to meet their mission.

So what did coleslaw as a method teach me? It taught me to make sure that as we look to execute our mission, we are engaging all generations of our workforce as we develop our solutions. Technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace. Budgets continue to get tighter. We must embrace change when necessary to make executing the mission more effective. While the fundamentals of the slide rule and graph paper are important to our mission, they are both methods. Our mission remains the same; to deliver engineering solutions for the nation’s toughest challenges.