Skip to content

William Slim on operations and administration

To separate operational and administrative responsibility is to break a rule I have rarely seen violated without someone paying a heavy penalty.

Viscount William Slim – Defeat Into Victory

Full quote on the fall of Burma (Myanmar) to the Japanese army in 1942 below.

Who’s on the ground?

Who is doing the work, face-to-face with the customer, user or client?

Who’s making the product and getting to the right people at the right time?

Who’s managing?

Who’s making sure the work gets done? Who translates decisions into action?
This could be the people on the ground, or a layer of management.

Who’s making decisions?

Who decides what happens, and what’s allowed to happen? Who sets the constraints? Who decides what gets done and what gets made? Who decides who gets hired, how much they get paid and what they do? Who decides who stays and who goes?

Let’s stay together

The basic principle is that decisions should be made as close as possible to the front-line, and as quickly as possible.

Decisions that only affect the local situation should be made locally. Many of these are low-stakes and reversable – in which case deciding and trying something is usually far better than having work stall while people try to make up their minds.

Strategic decisions may need a wider pespective, and therefore to be made from further away – but they too should be made as close as possible to the front line. They need to be made on good information, which is only made possible by good, (clear, proactive, high-trust, two-way) communication. And they need to be communicated as clearly, completely and quickly as possible to those they effect. A decision that isn’t communicated (or indeed, one that isn’t on its way to being carried out) isn’t a decision at all.

Responsibility and authority

I’ve been in situations where those responsible for getting things done have been powerless to make the changes necessary to work effectively. I’ve seen meddling leaders getting in the way, and out-of-touch boards refusing suggestions and failing to meet and make decisions. I’ve seen responsibility and authority split at least three ways, leading to just the sort of paralysis that Slim describes below.

I’ve done my share of getting in the way, taking too long, and communicating badly too.

All the more reason to heed Slim’s advice: if someone is responsible for getting something done, make sure that they have the resources that they need and the authority to make the decisions necessary to get the job done.

More from Slim

In Burma our unpreparedness when the blow fell was extreme, and we paid for it. The basic error was not that not only did few people in Burma, and no one outside it, expect that it would be attacked, but that there was no clear or continuous decision as to who would be responsible for defence preparations or for its actual defence if it were attacked.

Up to 1937 Burma had been part of India, and its defence, as all its other activities, had been a matter for the Indian government. Then with political separation from India, Burma was made fully responsible for its own military forces. A change came with the outbreak of war with Germany. In September 1939, Burma’s forces were placed for operational purposes under the British Chiefs of Staff, but remained for finance and administration under their own government. Suddenly, in November 1940, operational control was transferred to the recently formed Far Eastern Command in Singapore, while administrative responsibility was divided between the Burma Government and the War Office in London, which now contributed substantially to the defence budget of Burma. Both Singapore and London had more urgent matters to attend to on their doorsteps than the needs of distant Burma…

Thus in the space of about sixteen vital months there had been five separate superior headquarters in turn responsible for the defence of Burma, and for practically the whole of that time that administration had been separated from operational control….

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...