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The Art of the Debrief

Col. Todd Dyer, 47th Flying Training Wing vice commander, believes debriefing is the one of the primary reasons the U.S. Air Force remains the leading combat air force in the world. “The continual learning process is a tool we can all use to better our teams and ourselves,” Dyer said. “I challenge you to implement a debrief culture in your section – the results will surprise you.” (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Anne McCready)

LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas—The U.S. Air Force is the premier combat air force in the world and the true source of our success lies in our desire to be the best at what we do. Debriefing is the key aspect to that success.

As a result of heavy losses experienced during the Korean and Vietnam wars, fighter pilots and Special Operations teams have served as the model for mastering the art of the debrief to spur continual improvements over the last 50 years. Few countries rival our disciplined culture of debriefing to ensure effective learning from every single mission we fly.

This easily scalable, systematic, experiential learning process can be applied in any organization that is interested in constantly improving performance to be the best at one’s particular mission.

The first step, normally established by the Flight Lead, or team lead/supervisor in non-flying organizations, is to establish a scenario that drives certain objectives for the mission. A plan is then developed to facilitate the scenario, briefed to all members of the team, and then executed. Immediately following execution, the team individually reviews their recording of the flight, gathers facts, clears up anything they weren’t sure about and then reconvenes to debrief.  For example, a basic 1v1 aerial combat sortie may last 60 minutes from takeoff to landing, with four “fights,” each lasting only three minutes. The debrief, which normally lasts 60-90 minutes will focus primarily on that 12 minutes of fighting.

Nevertheless, there are a few requirements for an effective debrief. 

First, a debrief should occur directly after the execution phase, since the event is still fresh in the team’s mind. 

Second, a single individual, whomever set the objectives and planned the “mission,” runs the meeting – note, this individual is not necessarily the highest-ranking member on the team. 

Third, reference my last point, there is no rank in the debrief.  An airman first class should be able to tell a technical sergeant, first lieutenant, and colonel they made a mistake. Nothing is personal in a good debrief, it is purely focused on facts and how we increase our individual performance and that of our team. That is how we get better. 

The focus of the debrief is to identify and communicate what happened, why it happened, discuss how we can do it better next time, and finally determine if we met our objectives. For the errors identified, do a root cause analysis. 

Root cause analysis is a deeper examination of the particular error, not just the first layer of the “onion.” After a properly run debrief, each team member leaves with lessons learned for next time and instruction on how to not repeat the same mistakes, whether through one’s own error or those of a fellow teammate.

Let me give you a simple non-flying example, totally fictitious. The boss tasks the Force Support Squadron (FSS) to host an event at Club XL, for all base personnel, to celebrate the wing’s 47th anniversary. With this tasking he hopes to get 500 attendees. The FSS commander selects a captain to lead the effort flight/team lead and the following objectives are set: 

1) Celebrate 47th Anniversary with over 500 Laughlin total force Airmen.

2) Have fun, build relationships and camaraderie across the 47th FTW.

The captain then assigns tasks to make the event happen, communicates said plan and objectives, and executes. 347 people attend and have a great time. The following Monday, a debrief takes place, which the captain lays out the objectives, sets the tone by acknowledging both the positive feedback and personal errors. 

The event was a huge success from the various feedback mechanisms in place and the club made a profit; however, the goal of 500 attendees wasn’t reached. A senior airman acknowledges there weren’t many attendees from the maintenance Directorate.  The team lead quickly recognizes they didn’t market the event well via word-of-mouth. Instead, the committee relied heavily on e-mail and Facebook to promote the celebration. After further analysis, they determined maintenance was working a night schedule and mission requirements directly conflicted with the start time of the event. 

Although diverse marketing was a learning point for the team, the root cause of failing to meet the 500 attendee objective was event timing. 

All players can now walk away from the debrief with a better understanding of how to improve planning for future events. Had the team not debriefed, critical errors identified during their discussion would be lost. 

The continual learning process is a tool we can all use to better our teams and ourselves. I challenge you to implement a debrief culture in your section – the results will surprise you.