Don’t Cry over Your Spilt Milk(shake)

This blog post talks the OODA Loop. For a more in-depth look at what the OODA Loop really is, you will have to read this article by The Art of Manliness. You can read it here. I would suggest reading it with a container of pistachios near at hand. It makes for a nice pairing insomuch as you remember to ration out your pistachios to last the whole length of the article.

The OODA Loop, when simplified, is composed of four phases: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. John Boyd created this idea as a tactic for military operations. It has been developed for use in business and life situations. In a realm of chaos and competition, the individual/group who is the quickest to move through this loop, who observes his changing chaotic circumstances the quickest, orients himself to this change the quickest, decides what to do about it the quickest, and acts on this decision the quickest… wins.

Let’s see this in action.

Here you are, manager of a fast-food restaurant, making a milkshake for a customer at the front counter register. You are wearing a white, clean apron, a black bow-tie, and one of those paper hats that sits as a pointy oval on your head. “Lollipop” by the Chordettes seems to be the only song in your mental jukebox and you keep putting in more dimes. You dance a few quick steps up to the milkshake machine and put the cup up to the stirring mechanism as the final step to complete the task.

As you set the milkshake down on the server tray and turn to grab the fries, you move a little too fast. The milkshake is in an unstable state. Tottering around, it is threatening to fall on the floor. You were about to walk away but you see the precarious situation and lunge towards it. As it tips ever so slightly and begins its descent, your slow-motion self can’t quite make it in time. You dive into its splattered puddle.

“NOOOOOOOOO!!!!” comes the agonized cry from deep within your soul. You delicately attempt to scoop up the spilled milkshake as it dribbles through your fingers. You smear the spilt milkshake down your face, tear your apron in half, and let out another uncomfortably loud screech. For a solid two minutes, you weep by yourself on the floor before yelling: “Weep with me! For I am bereaved of the most beautiful work of art which my hands hath ever wrought!” Your employees are very obedient do as they are told. For three weeks your parade of employees mourns aloud in the city center, beating their chests and screaming wildly.

When your three weeks of mourning are up, you ask Johnny to grab a mop to mop up the spilt milkshake and you ask Suzy to make a new milkshake while you apologize for the delay to the customer (who has been waiting patiently at front counter this whole time). The customer receives the milkshake, is understanding about the delay, and leaves satisfied.

End Scene.

Look at all that wasted time. You observed that the milkshake had fallen on the ground almost right away. Great job. But it took three weeks to get through the seven stages of the grieving process and orient to the fact that the milkshake was spilt and that it was gone forever. Once you overcame that hurdle, the rest fell into place and you decided what to do and acted fairly quickly. I think we can fix this situation.

There you are again, finishing the milkshake. You turn to set it on the tray and, as you walk towards the fries, it begins to fall. You lunge for it. No luck. You take 2-3 minutes on your knees to mourn your lost masterpiece (you are, after all, human). Howls of torment rise from your lips. Then you get up and brush yourself off. You shout to Johnny, “Grab a mop to mop this mess up!” Then, “Suzy, make me a new milkshake!” Then, to the customer, you say, “I’m sorry but I have just dropped your milkshake, it will only take us a minute longer to get you a new one.” The customer thanks you for your concern and waits patiently for his new milkshake.

Done. Problem solved. You observed the spilt milkshake in a few seconds, oriented yourself in half a minute, decided what to do in a few more seconds, and acted almost instantly to the situation. Total time moving through the OODA Loop: 5 minutes.

But what if you don’t have that kind of time? What if the customer is tapping his finger on the counter impatiently while you take those precious 2-3 minutes to orient yourself to what had gone wrong?

Stage set. Milkshake is finished and in-hand. It totters on the edge of the tray. You lunge for it. Mid-air, you think, there is no way I can make this. The milkshake is going to land in a splattering mess. In this moment, you are not human. You are a cold, calculating fast-food restaurant manager.

Still in mid-air, you turn to see Johnny twiddling his thumbs. Why is he twiddling his thumbs? Why does anyone twiddle their thumbs? Even the most boring task he could find to do should be more engaging than twiddling one’s thumbs. Perhaps it is like a finger exercise that helps build the finger muscles. If this is the case, it doesn’t really show. His finger muscles look weak. Refocus. He isn’t doing anything productive. He can be the one to grab a mop once I land in this splattered mess.

Still in mid-air, you see Suzy and think that she could be the one to make the new milkshake. This would free you up to speak to the customer with your professional grade charm to smooth things over. You will speak to the customer first even though the milkshake you are about to slide through will still be dripping down your apron. With the customer notified, you will then walk away to change your apron. By the time you get back, your two minions would have simultaneously cleaned up the mess and served the customer. Then you could move on to serving the next customer in line without skipping a beat. You would live on to make many masterpiece milkshakes to rival your first.

SPLAT! You land on top of the fallen milkshake and slide across it like a baseball player across home plate. “Ready a mop, JOHNNYYYY!!!!” you yell from the floor.

Boom. OODA Loop completed in the 0.2 seconds it takes for you to hit the floor. I think this is as good as it could practically get. Any faster and we might end up with a situation where you make no attempt to lunge for the milkshake. Maybe you simply see it as it is about to fall and ask Johnny for a mop before it has hit the ground. This is a bit irresponsible because you might have actually done something to save it. Or, better yet, you might walk into the restaurant in the morning with a mischievous grin and yell for Johnny to grab a mop and then proceed to throw every milkshake you make on the floor. This is not a very good habit to make. I may or may not be speaking from experience.

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