On OODA Loops, Fast and Slow

Boyd is often identified with the ability to operate more quickly than an opponent.  For example:

The ability to operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than an adversary enables one to fold adversary back inside himself so that he can neither appreciate nor keep-up with what’s going on. He will become disoriented or confused. Strategic Game, 44.

This is sometimes interpreted to mean that in a conflict, one should simply go berserk — run around like a chicken with its head cut off (I’ve never actually seen this, but you get the idea).  That might be a useful tactic, but there are other times when you might choose to operate at a much slower tempo.

Dean Lenane, CEO of Fischer Dynamics Europe in Wuppertal, Germany, and author of The Turnaround (available on our Articles page) explores this idea in the following article.


The Long Slow OODA Loop

Dean M. Lenane

We generally associate maneuver warfare and the application of the OODA loop as being part and parcel of a high tempo approach to winning in conflict situations. Indeed, part of the Boydian imperative for knowledge and training is preoccupied with creating the ability to do the right thing without having to think about it. We generally want to have ourselves so attuned to the environment that we can respond smarter and quicker than the opposition. This is one of the basic essences of the Colonel’s method.

However, in my experience, OODA loops come in a variety of shapes, sizes and temporal intervals. There are the OODA loops that keep fighter pilots alive. Knowledge that a Mitsubishi Zero couldn’t turn to the right effectively in a high speed dive kept a lot of Corsair pilots out of trouble. They didn’t have to think because the knowledge they had accumulated furnished them with the ability to turn an OODA loop almost instantaneously in a dive with a Zero on their tails. The result often saved them for the next engagement. A Corsair pilot in a dive with Zeke on his six just turned to the right, waited for Zeke to go by, and then swung back in behind him and shot him to pieces.

This is an example of a very quick OODA loop that can happen virtually without a lot of emphasis on synthesis. Indeed, this type of OODA loop can be regarded as the genesis of the concept as Colonel Boyd was, after all, a fighter pilot. The pre-programming of the subject makes fast decision making possible and so the quality and depth of that pre-programming are key success factors. We can see this type of OODA loop not only in warfare, but in the behaviors of tennis, soccer, and baseball players on display throughout the summer. In manufacturing operations, the ability to reach a decision quickly when faced with a problem can mean the difference between recovery or shutting down the customer. This is why training is so important in any of these situations. Proper preparation means fast decision making.

There are also extended OODA loops which take considerably more time to develop and require more reference to unfolding circumstances. A good analogy here is a chess game. As the game develops, each player attempts to gain control of the middle of the board while respectively annoying, threatening and then defeating his opponent through a series of maneuvers, gambits, and tactics which have to take into account the counter moves made by the opponent. Again preparation is critical here. A grand master playing against a novice will make short work of the opponent. But the same master playing against another master, who has a similar background and who has studied the game for years and who knows the most famous matches move for move is another matter entirely.

The 1972 world chess championship between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky shows the power of another of Boyd’s techniques: Combining the OODA loop with the aggressive use of active methods to disorient an opponent. By all accounts, Fischer and Spassky were relatively evenly matched technically, with Fischer’s edge in brilliance being balanced by Spassky’s Soviet chess support machine.

Everyone expected a close match. During the first game Fischer blundered and lost. Fischer then went on to “take measures which allowed him to keep his own orientation intact, while taking active measures to destroy that of the opponent”. He claimed that the audience was too close, and insisted that they be moved back, he demanded that the chess board and pieces be changed to his satisfaction. He demanded that the cameras be turned off and actually resigned and forfeited game 2 when the tournament organizers refused to do so. Anatoly Karpov later posited that Fischer had done this just to disturb Spassky’s mental equilibrium.

Fischer then demanded that game 3 be played in a smaller room with no audience or cameras present. Fischer won that game and Spassky was severely rattled. Fischer proceeded to dominate the next seven games. Fischer went on to utilize tactics that he had never used before. In game 6, he used an odd opening that he had never played before and which he had openly criticized. Fischer continued to surprise Spassky, set traps, and retain the initiative. By the time Spassky recovered his composure, around game 11, Fischer had built such a commanding lead that Spassky was doomed.

Over the years many people have debated whether or not Fischer’s antics were the product of cool calculation or a deranged mind, but the fact remains that by disconcerting Spassky to the degree he did, and continuing to adjust his play in novel and unexpected ways, Fischer defeated Spassky and became the world champion. This example demonstrates the use of a middle distance system of OODA loops combined with tactics designed to keep the opponent off balance for an extended period of time. In this case, for almost two months during July and August of 1972.

We can find various examples of these middle length OODA cycles that work best when one of the antagonists keeps his mind clear while sowing confusion in the enemy. Hannibal at Cannae, and Napoleon at Austerlitz are two examples of shorter temporal versions of the middle distance OODA loop with psychological aspects. Longer versions would be exemplified by Stonewall Jackson’s campaign in the valley against hapless Federal leadership, or the combined armed forces of the United States on Guadalcanal during the Second World War. I once talked to a veteran of that six month campaign who told me a story. “Towards the end, our navy was interdicting any supply delivery to the Japanese army. We knew the Japs were starving and we decided to get into their heads by waiting for the wind to blow towards their lines. Once that happened we just started cooking breakfast. The smell of food to these starving men was simply too much and it made them come out and mount a banzai charge. We had our machine guns set up and we killed every last one of them.”

Guadalcanal is a particularly interesting example. Generally successful OODA utilization is coupled with singular focus, strong leaders, a solid strategic foundation, and a strong network of supportive and capable subordinates. Guadalcanal has almost none of these essentials and yet it is considered to be a definitive American victory. Considering that the Guadalcanal campaign featured often hapless performances by the US navy, poor logistical concepts, and a complete underestimation of the tenacity of the Japanese officers, sailors, and soldiers, how was it that it became such an overwhelming victory for the United States?

Perhaps the most critical single aspect was timing. Over and over again, timing shows up as a key success factor in any maneuver based approach. In the case of Guadalcanal, Admiral Ernest J. King must be credited with establishing the basis for what would become a fabulous success story. King insisted that the campaign begin in the summer of 1942. King did this despite objections from many of his colleagues and at great risk to his own reputation and career. Almost no one, the Japanese included, had thought that the US could mount such an operation before the middle of 1943, and so by attacking almost one year before anyone thought it possible, King was able to create such a strategic and tactical surprise that, despite a series of botched executions, the US was able to create such a powerful advantage that it was able to succeed almost despite itself.
Here we see again the importance of surprising the opponent and doing things before they are supposed to be achievable.

Bold strokes done at speed which confuse the enemy and disrupt his orientation cycle are the triangle of elements that distinguish the fast and medium tempo OODA system and that is what makes it so successful. It is also worth mentioning that the longer a Boyd cycle takes, the more important becomes mental preparation. In the middle distance scenario, training must now be augmented by education. You have to be smart, well trained and highly educated in the aspects that will increase your probability for success to give yourself a true advantage. In 1972, no one had read more books on chess than Bobby Fischer. He had dropped out of high school so that he could completely focus on the single thing he wanted to be the best at, Chess. Fischer had over 1000 books on chess in his personal library by the time he was 16 years old. He was trained to play, and he was educated in virtually every facet of the history and theory of chess.

But what if your orientation to the environment is able to perceive patterns that lead you to believe that something will happen at some point in a future that is somewhat distant? You may be able to predict with high probability an upcoming event which seems dictated by developing environmental factors, but you just don’t know when it will happen. We know, for example, that a major earthquake will hit California within the next 5 to 500 years. We know that the mega volcano under Yellowstone national park is due to blow most of the state of the state of Wyoming to flinders at any time now. How do we respond in a Boydian context? What are we to do about China? What are we going to do about radical Islamic fundamentalism?

We can perhaps make use of what I call the “long, slow, OODA loop”. This shows the use of the Colonel’s methods in a form of conflict where observation and orientation may take years to develop. There are historical precedents for this. For example, the Mongol general Subutai would put what amounted to sleeper cells in place for up to ten years in cities and towns that he had targeted for conquest. So when the time came, everything was known about the target’s defenses, supply sources, economy, and infrastructure. This is a perfect example of the long, slow OODA loop.

The long slow OODA loop jumped up last month in the business world. Johnson Controls announced that it was investigating the possibility of divesting its automotive business. Of course that fact that they announced that they were “investigating the possibility” meant that the decision had already been made and that the deal was probably almost complete. Forty-three billion dollar companies do not just float ideas to the media. This caused a great deal of surprise and consternation in the automotive community. As people began to analyze the new situation, speculate about what would happen next, and try to reorient to the news, I received a phone call from a friend of mine who works at the Automotive News. “You did an op-ed piece a couple of years ago predicting that this would happen” All of a sudden, I had more phone calls as my long forgotten article from 2011 began to be recalled by more and more people. Soon my buddy from Automotive News was back on the phone. How had I managed to predict the demise of an automotive giant so far before the actual event?

I had indeed done this, but more than that, I had first predicted it in 2007 when I was in charge of Strategic Planning at C. Rob. Hammerstein. How had I foreseen this eventuality fully eight year before the event actually took place? The answer was the long, slow, OODA loop.

In 2006 I had been named group chief commercial officer and I was busy orienting our company to the unfolding circumstances in the marketplace when I considered certain new tendencies which began manifesting themselves. OEM pricing pressure had been growing, but what had started out as rather amateurish efforts to reign in the profitability of the supply base, had now developed into a sophisticated system at virtually all of the American and European OEM’s. By 2006 it was apparent that profits were being squeezed and that it was getting more and more difficult to generate the kinds of returns that would keep shareholders interested. It was also clear that the OEM’s were in a cage match themselves. New entrants such as Hyundai and Kia began to have success and the first stirrings of nascent Chinese competitors were beginning to burble.

The Koreans were very effective and having worked with them and having run a joint venture between a German and a Korean company, I was in a position to observe how and why they did what they did. I understood that Hyundai was producing competitive vehicles and winning market share in North America. There were several reason why Hyundai was able to do this, and among them was the fact that the Korean supply base was held on an extremely short leash. While earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) for US suppliers were hovering around 7% the Koreans were holding their supply base around 2%. This translates to around an $800 dollar advantage in cost per vehicle assuming a sales price of around $20,000 with 50% purchased components. If I can sell a vehicle that is already world class to the public using my $800 cost advantage along with concomitant advantages in production efficiency and, most importantly, a sense of mission and commitment to do whatever has to be done in my workforce, I will be able to sell a vehicle that is as good as or better than competitive offerings for less money. This always works.

The reason that this is possible in Korea is complicated and has many factors but one of the chief factors is the tribalism of the Koreans. Koreans hang together. They believe in themselves and each other. They are ethnic block which has suffered horrible privations over the last 1000 years caused by invasions and oppression coming from both east and west. The Koreans are tough and have been forged into a determined and homogeneous people. Those who argue for the power and advantages of diversity would do well to look into a Korean boardroom. You will find no diversity there. You will however, find success.
The Koreans understand that they must hang together because only by executing a group plan as a group can they expect to find success in a geopolitical landscape filled with larger and more powerful competitors. Here we see the long slow OODA loop practiced to perfection on a national basis.

Looking at things like the arrival of the Koreans, the increasing pressure on supplier profits, and another insight from the past, allowed me to perform my analysis/synthesis within the orientation component of the OODA loop in a manner which allowed me to surmise the probable course of events. This last insight came from my own past experience in the automotive sector. When I had gotten into the automotive business in the late 1970’s, the supplier base had been dominated by large east coast defense dominated companies like United Technologies, ITT, Rockwell, TRW, and Allied Signal. By 1990 they had all checked out and sold their interests because they could see that the industry was in for trying times. By 2007 everybody seemed to forget that there was historical precedent for such an exit.

In the meantime I had also continued to study and learn, and I had discovered that I could see patterns of conflict in all areas of human endeavor. Soon afterwards I discovered Colonel John Boyd. Boyd’s work confirmed my own surmises and opened my mind to a lot of new concepts. Among these was the OODA loop.

The result was that I could use synthesis to take all of these diverse elements and come up with a high probability scenario that would lead to the exit of the large publicly traded companies. So by 2007, I was able to predict that this scenario was increasing in probability and that our company should take actions which would allow us to be prepared when the time came to react in an opportunistic manner and to use market pull to bring resources to bear that would allow us to take advantage of this situation.

In 2011, I wrote that op-ed piece for the Automotive News where I predicted that large publicly traded companies would eventually be forced to exit the automotive sector. You can find it online. Several of my former colleagues from the past called me to compliment my prescience. I told them that there was no particular intelligence to this but just the recollection of known circumstances coupled with new information, and a little analysis and synthesis. No magic, just the operation of the orientation element of the OODA process. During the intervening period, our company has done a lot to prepare ourselves for the exit of these publically traded firms and it is the operation of the long, slow OODA loop that has made this possible.

A cautionary note is required here. Remember that the use of the long, slow OODA loop requires the highest amount of metal preparation and education. You must study and, as the Japanese say “deeply understand” the environment in which you find yourself. As Plato said: “[A] true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship” (The Republic, 6.488d). Without a commitment to the hard work involved in thought, continuing education, and reflection, no OODA loop can really be effective, but without such, the long, slow OODA loop has virtually no chance for even marginal success.

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15 thoughts on “On OODA Loops, Fast and Slow

  1. from post yesterday in facebook:

    I spent most of my career fighting to keep title off my business card (not wanting anybody to do something I said because of a title). However I found business dealings in Japan, no title met more than a title.

    Boyd would then tell the story of when he was head of lightweight fighter design at the pentagon … and he would have these loud technical arguments with the staff. His one star disapproved and one day called meeting in auditorium and fired Boyd for behavior unbecoming an officer (loud technical arguments with his people). Supposedly the 4-star called a meeting a week later in the same place with the same people and rehired Boyd and told the 1-star to never do that again.

    ….

    Rigid, top-down, command&control can be optimized for quickly responding with organized force to an advisory. However, the OODA-cycle is much longer when Boyd was coming up with E/M theory and new fighter (and using millions of dollars in “stolen” computer time) and also spending much more time taking other views into account.

    Early 80s, there was article about auto import quotas that was designed to cut competition and give US industry enormous profits that they would use to completely remake themselves. Since they were just pocketing the money and continued business as usual, there was a call for 100% unearned profit tax.

    1990, the industry had the C4 taskforce to look at completely remaking themselves. Since they were planning on heavily using technology, they asked for technology vendors to send representatives to participate. During the sessions, they could accurately describe what the foreign competition was doing and what US auto makers needed to do. One of their highlights was that the US industry was taking 7-8yrs from concept to rolling off the line, with two offset efforts usually running in parallel with something new every 3-4yrs with cosmetic changes in-between. The foreign competition had cut this time in half and were in the process of cutting it in half again (18-24 months) and as a result, the foreign competition could much more quickly adapt to changing conditions, buying habits, technology, etc. As has been seen in the recent bailouts, there weren’t successful any more than they were in the early 80s.

  2. It’s not the main point, but there is something to be said for determination, and the slow, relentless,
    methodical approach, that in essence sneaks up on the opposition.

      • One could make the case, that this method is more or less what the Chinese have
        been doing, over the past couple of decades. Slow, steady progress, but gaining
        more, and more momentum.

  3. Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship: How to Win Without Actually Cheating is relevant here.

    An excellent gambit, when playing against a woman, would be to propose marriage. (Note however, that you would thereby expose yourself to the even more devastating counter-gambit that she might accept.)

    When playing against a soldier, wear uniforms, medals, etc. to which you have no right.

    He also wrote other books, Lifemanship and One-Upmanship.

    See, eg., his universally valid comeback when debating against an expert on a topic about which you happen to know nothing: “Yes, but it’s different in the South” (Apply this the next time you are discussing ISIS in Iraq.)

    Directly relevant to the above essay is “Chessmanship,” the art of convincing others that you are a chess wiz although actually you know nothing about the game.

    His collected works:

    http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Upmanship-Gamesmanship-One-Upmanship-Supermanship/dp/0030640458/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1436831506&sr=8-3&keywords=gamesmanship

    • I would respectfully argue that the bluff of convincing people that you are a chess whiz when you actually know nothing about the game may work fine, until you have to play, and at some point, you will have to play. So “Chessmanship” may be good for a bluff or feint or gambit, but you cannot make a career out of it.

  4. Poster child for C4 was corvette. Auto industry had spun-off and/or outsourced lots of components. Car design and components were running independently and w/o coordination. Corvette has very tight space tolerances and several years between design and build … many of the components will have changed and no longer fit … requiring redesign and further delay.

    Somewhat analogous is observation at 2011 USNI conference about drones undergoing dozens of generations per year compared to decades per F35 generation.

  5. “Somewhat analogous is observation at 2011 USNI conference about drones undergoing dozens of generations per year compared to decades per F35 generation.”
    But the drone’s environment that they observe is very different than that environment unfolding before the F35. For the drone all politics are local, while the F35 is a little further reaching.
    Of course, that is only true until the F35 becomes a drone, at which time the other drones no longer exist. 🙂

  6. That or a weapon that takes 2-3 decades to develop (much worse than US auto industry 7-8yrs) is likely to be obsolete before it deploys. There have been some big industry projects that were enormous failures … and supplanted by something better … but to save face, they reused the same name.

  7. My favorite example of the long OODA loop is Egypt between 1970-1973 when they laid the groundwork for the October 1973 invasion of Sinai. Egypt’s superb use of Soviet SAMs, hardened hangars, and improved interceptor doctrine gave the IAF fits during the early days of the conflict and ultimately resulted in an Egyptian political victory following the conflict.

    • I don’t know if I am a part of the group or not, but I don’t believe either long or slow has anything to do with decisiveness.
      Long or slow (in the context that you speak) is an expression of the structure of an OODA loop and its resilience to internal and external forces, while decisiveness is an expression of its culture’s quickness and ability, to come to a decision.

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