I just read Firewall 5s are history: Quotas for top ratings announced in Air Force Times. It describes an effort to eliminate the so-called “firewall 5” policy with a new “forced distribution” approach:
The Air Force’s old enlisted promotion system was heavily criticized by airmen for out-of-control grade inflation that came with its five-point numerical rating system. There were no limits on how many airmen could get the maximum: five out of five points [aka “firewall 5”]. As a result nearly everyone got a 5 rating.
As more and more raters gave their airmen 5s on their EPR [ Enlisted Performance Report], the firewall 5 became a common occurrence received by some 90 percent of airmen. And this meant the old EPR was effectively useless at trying to differentiate between levels of performance…
Under the new system, [Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of military force management policy] said in a June 12 interview at the Pentagon, the numerical ratings are gone — and firewall 5s will be impossible…
The quotas — or as the Air Force calls them, “forced distribution” — will be one of the final elements to be put in place in the service’s massive overhaul of its enlisted promotion process, which has been in the works for three years…
Only the top 5 percent, at most, of senior airmen, staff sergeants and technical sergeants who are up for promotion to the next rank will be deemed “promote now” and get the full 250 EPR points…
The quotas for the next tier of airmen — who will be deemed “must promote” and will get 220 out of 250 EPR points — will differ based on their rank. Kelly said that up to 15 percent of senior airmen who are eligible for promotion to staff sergeant can receive a “must promote” rating, and up to 10 percent of staff sergeants and tech sergeants up for promotion to technical and master sergeant can get that rating, and the accompanying 220 points.
The next three ratings — “promote,” “not ready now” and “do not promote” — will each earn airmen 200, 150 and 50 points, respectively. But there will be no limit on how many airmen can get those ratings. (emphasis added)
I am not an expert on the enlisted performance rating system. In some ways, I think the EPR is superior to the corresponding system for officers, because enlisted personnel take tests whose scores influence their promotion potential.
However, upon reading this story, it reminded me of my 2012 post How to Kill Teams Through “Stack Ranking”, which cited a Vanity Fair article about Microsoft’s old promotion system:
[Author Kurt] Eichenwald’s conversations reveal that a management system known as “stack ranking” — a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor — effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate.
“Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed — every one — cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes.
This sounds uncomfortably like the new Air Force enlisted “forced distribution” system.
I was also reminded of another of my 2012 posts, Bejtlich’s Thoughts on “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving”, which stressed the finding that
[V]eterans were shocked to look back at how “archaic and arbitrary” talent management was in the armed forces. Unlike industrial-era firms, and unlike the military, successful companies in the knowledge economy understand that nearly all value is embedded in their human capital. (emphasis added)
I am sure the Air Force is doing what it thinks is right by changing the EPR system. However, it’s equivalent to making changes in a centrally planned economy, without abandoning central planning.
It’s time the Air Force, and the rest of the military, discard their centrally-planned, promote-the-paper (instead of the person), involuntary assignment process.
In its place I recommend one that openly and competitively advertises and offers positions; gives pay, hiring, and firing authority to the local manager; and adopts similar aspects of sound private sector personnel management.
Today’s knowledge economy demands that military personnel be treated as unique individuals, not industrial age interchangeable parts. Our military talent is one of the few competitive advantages we possess over peer rivals. We must not squander it with dysfunctional promotion systems.