One of the innovative contributions of Carl von Clausewitz to the theory of the military organization is the introduction of the term Friction, a phenomenon which is without doubt much observed in the execution of corporate and marketing plans.
“Friction”, he writes, “is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper. The conduct of war resembles the workings of an intricate machine with tremendous friction, so that combinations which are easily planned on paper can be executed only with great effort. Action in war is like movement in a resistant element.”
In one form or another friction is always present. Friction manifests itself in unexpected events and in factors that are difficult to control but that can delay the progress and realization of every military or business plan. Besides normal wear and tear, friction is made-up of factors like sudden rains changing the condition of the roads over which to advance, spare parts not arriving in time, misunderstood orders, messages not arriving in time (or not at all), a sudden outbreak of influenza, etc. Friction is inevitable and appears in every organization. While formulating a plan – strategic or tactical – a manager must always be prepared for friction and should always take this phenomenon into account.
Especially when changes in the organization are implemented all kind of problems pop up – friction- this is inevitable. Experienced commanders and senior managers often have a good sense of friction; they instinctively spot the time and place where delays (i.e. friction) might occur and how they could be avoided. Therefore a requirement of every Corporate Plan or Effective Presentation is always to include a margin of error, a reserve for inevitable and unpredictable friction.
The attempted allied conquest of the bridge at Arnhem in the Netherlands by airborne troops in 1944 was a bold plan, with many weaknesses, not only strategically but also by applying a too tight margin of error. There was hardly any room for “friction”. The time given for the advancing British divisions to reach their objectives was by far too little. Just three days!
The planning staff did not take into account the low capacity of the narrow Dutch roads, mostly built on dykes lying in the middle of swampy meadows. The roads were soon overcrowded with the long British mechanized columns and even the weakened German troops could easily block the British columns in their march from the South to the North, from Eindhoven to the bridges at Nijmegen and Arnhem. One shot up tank would easily interrupt the advance of a column as the dykes were too narrow to go around the destroyed vehicle. That was one reason why the march to Arnhem lasted eleven days instead of three!
Meanwhile, the German troops, scattered over the whole of Holland, could soon be concentrated at the right place under the command of a few experienced officers.
And at the Arnhem Bridge, the only lightly armed brave ‘Airbornes’ could not hold out eleven days against the fiercely attacking, heavily armed Germans.
Another example of unexpected friction was that from the first day of the landings no communication was possible, neither with headquarters nor between the troops, due to the supply of the wrong transmitting crystals and thus direction and coordination of the airborne army was lost. For instance the second wave of paratroopers landed on territory that was (again) in German hands.
The use of the wrong transmitting crystals created a serious communication problem. It was a critical success factor that led the operation into disaster.
Jobbers – living from friction
Building oil-exploration rigs at sea is a very complex and precise undertaking. All kinds of parts have to be transported by ship and helicopter to the construction site. All parts needed have been planned beforehand and have to be delivered complete and exactly in time to be fitted on the rig. A delay in the agreed delivery time of the rig is heavily punished and hence will cost a lot of money.
But all kinds of mishaps can delay the delivery time. For instance in every oil rig nearly a hundred hydraulic pumps are mounted. But it often happens that pumps arrive broken, have been damaged during transport or have fallen into the sea. Notwithstanding the spare pumps that experienced construction managers always plan as a margin of error, new ones may still be needed. Ordering new pumps takes much time because the production capacity of manufacturers will have been taken up by other orders and it takes time to switch from one batch to another. In such cases the oil rig construction company seeks help from specialized ‘jobbers’, small specialized firms equipped with specialized machines like computer driven lathes, precision drills, laser cutting machines and so on.
They work by the piece and can build made-to-order all kinds of parts. They can make the few pumps needed quickly or recondition faulty ones. To fulfil such an emergency order they often work day and night. Of course building the few pumps needed is quite expensive, but not completing the oil rig in time is much more expensive. Some ‘Jobbers’ are specialized to fulfil the demands of the oil exploration industry and choose a location near their clients, like oil exploration centres in Northern Scotland and around the Gulf of Mexico. In this case ‘friction’ is the source of income for these firms.