This past Memorial Day got me reflecting on the warriors I’ve known–some fallen, many still alive and well–not just soldiers fighting on foreign soil, but also those protecting our home turf.

I teach a one-day innovation course twice a year at the California Command College, an advanced continuing education series for future police chiefs. My position evolved out of one of the funnest engagements I’ve ever had: the nearly three years I worked with the Los Angeles Police Department, under former Chief William Bratton. I prize the cufflinks he gave me that carry the gold shield.

Through the engagement, an effort focused on continuous innovation, I got an inside look at the many different facets of police work, from jail operations to undercover detecting to the hazardous duty of the bomb squad. I went on ride alongs both on the ground and in the air. It was fun, enlightening, and memorable.

One of my most memorable experiences was learning to handle a firearm at the Los Angeles Police Academy. I never fired a real gun, only those used in the training, which was by simulation: real guns modified to work electronically with what amounts to video gaming. Firearm simulation is a lot like flight simulation.

Boy oh boy, did the instructors ever have fun messing with me, messing with my mind.

When I say video gaming, what I mean is this: Once you’ve learned proper firearm technique, you’re put in a dark room in front of a large video screen. The instructors drop you into ambiguous situations of conflict, confrontational situations in which it’s easy to either lose your life or take another’s.

The video scenario uses real people, real footage, and is shot from your perspective, so you’re “in” the situation.

Example: You’ve pulled over a weaving car. The driver, an extremely large and unruly male, gets out quickly and comes straight at you, waving one arm and pulling something out of their waistband with the other. Policy calls for you to draw your weapon and issue a “Halt!” order. They keep coming at you, ignoring your order. It’s easily a kill or be killed situation.

What do you do? If you’re like me, you do both–kill and be killed–multiple times while the instructors roll on the floor, aching from belly laughs.

They have so many uncertain situations and so many training variations it’s impossible to detect patterns. You have no choice but to train your mind and hone your reflexes to achieve a single goal: shrink your decision time.

Although LAPD calls it something else, what they were in effect teaching me are called OODA loops.

Observe | Orient | Decide | Act.

Devised by late Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist Colonel John Boyd, OODA loops describe how a fighter pilot must direct attention in order to defeat his adversary in a dogfight: cycle through the four stages quicker than he does.

While presented as a linear sequence, OODA loops are anything but. For example, if, in the case of firearm training, a cop gets enough real-world experience on the street, he can move from “Orient” to “Act,” bypassing decide, or deciding so quickly it can’t be considered a conscious judgment.

Still, everything hinges on the “Observe” and “Orient” steps. Here’s how Boyd depicted an OODA loop.


When it comes to innovation strategy in business, OODA loops are an effective launch tactic: Combined with the lean mindset of banishing waste and applied in efforts to develop and launch innovative new ideas, lean OODA loops can wreak a devastating and disruptive effect on markets and competitors.

Observe is focused on “deep dive” discovery, customer empathy, and investigation in order to fully grasp the current situation and properly frame the problem. Orient is perhaps the most important phase, and is focused on insights gleaned from observation, then generating and building up ideas that respond to those insights. Decide is focused on formulating a central hypothesis upon which to craft a rapid, real-world experiment with a minimally viable prototype of a promising solution. Act is where the test is run, results are compared to the expected outcome, and followed by a reiteration, tactical direction change, or abandonment of the idea.

OODA loops are nearly identical in content to the Plan | Do | Check | Act (PDCA) Shewhart Cycle taught by the late W. Edwards Deming and used throughout the entire Toyota organization, from process improvement efforts to product design and development cycles to supply chain optimization.

The most well-known and most-studied application–which I became intimately familiar with over the 8 years I spent as a full-time advisor to Toyota–is the “lean” Toyota Production System, the ultimate goal of which is to the shrink the time from customer order to vehicle delivery. Nearly 1 million PDCA/OODA experiments are run annually. Called Build | Measure | Learn, lean OODA loops are the centerpiece of the “Lean Startup” movement.

OODA loops describe the rapid learning cycle of observation, ideation, prototyping and testing that precedes all successful innovation.

The irony of my work with LAPD was that we were essentially teaching each other the same loop, just applied in different contexts. And that’s the takeaway insight: use OODA loops anytime, anywhere…every time, everywhere…don’t the warrior’s mind is universally applicable in just about every situation imaginable–with customers, with competitors, you name it.

It will be 11 years tomorrow that Fast Company’s Keith Hammond penned a wonderfully accurate column called “The Strategy of the Fighter Pilot,” writing:

“Want to test out new ideas, get feedback from your customers, adjust your product accordingly, and launch a new version before your competition even senses the opportunity? Then learn how to make the OODA loop the centerpiece of your process.”

Hammond was spot on. Business is a dogfight. There’s no shortage of good ideas, and the half-life of an idea is shrinking rapidly. If you can’t get your idea into the hands of potential customers quickly, someone else will.