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Five Paragraph Order

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Making plans is an important part of quality management and ideas for how this can be done accurately and completely are always welcome. Here is a standard from the American Marine Corps who use this structure (sometimes just called '5 para') for instructions to a unit. While quality management is not quite the same as Marine operations, we can draw inspiration and ideas from this area where, like in the Marines, there is little room for error.

1. Situation

The first step is to provide context, describing factors that are important in overall understanding and which may influence subsequent decisions. For the Marines, this includes details of enemy forces, friendly forces, attachments and civil/terrain considerations. In quality assessments it may include details on factories, machines, people, suppliers, competitors, and so on.

2. Mission

This answers the key mission questions about who, what, where, when and why. The mission statement must be clear and ambiguous, so everyone knows what is to be achieved. It may also be important to know what is not a part of the mission.

It is important in quality work to have a clear mission. Quality covers everything and it is easy to get distracted. A clear mission statement for any piece of work helps create focus. It is also important when communicating what is being done and getting effective support.

3. Execution

In planning, the detail of execution is critical, although there is always a danger of over-planning, especially when events may not occur as intended. To help this, the Marines (and in fact many other forces) use the ‘commander’s intent’. This makes clear the objectives of the exercise such that individual soldiers, even if alone and facing an unplanned situation, can always think and act towards achieving the intent. In quality work, making the intent clear helps not only planning but also lets us re-plan when things do not turn out as we might have wished.

The ‘concept of the operation’ gives more detail in terms of manoeuvres and fire support, and is followed by further detail in ‘tasks’ and ‘coordinating instructions’. Likewise in quality projects, a work breakdown helps create detail of exactly what is to be done. The idea of coordination can be very helpful here as quality work can be invasive and good or bad coordination can make or break a project.

4. Administration/Logistics

For the Marines, this is about medical support, food, ammunition and other supplies, which are all critical to enact a successful operation. A question in quality work is ‘what support do we need’, and can include presentation materials, meeting rooms, test equipment and so on. As with the Marines, the devil is in the details and getting this right can be very important.

5. Command/Signal

For the Marines, this includes signalling and ensuring the security of commanding officers. In quality work, it reminds us first about the importance of communications and also of the common lesson that projects work or fail based on the real management support that is given. Plans should hence include how to ensure these.


No more next time. That's it, folks.


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Chartered Quality Institute


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