The Concepts of John Boyd are much more than just the OODA Loop

Ever since John Boyd’s OODA Loop was introduced to the web community at Velocity, we’ve had an oversimplified and incomplete view of his ideas. One that has been reinforced by reusing a version of the same basic diagram that he never drew.

Each time that the OODA Loop has been mentioned in discussions, blog posts, books, and presentations we continue to reinforce a misunderstanding of what Boyd was after. I’m guilty of this as well. It wasn’t until this past weekend that I found out there was more to his ideas than just a basic logical process.

John used to say if his work is going to become dogma, if its going to stop you from thinking, then right now run out and burn it.

– Chet Richards

First, Boyd never drew anything that resembled what we think of for the OODA Loop. His view was more complex. It requires orienting yourself to a situation and having the adaptability to adjust to any changes in it. Reality isn’t a static thing. It’s fluid, it’s sly, and his loop accommodates for that.

The parts we’ve been missing from his work:

  • having a common culture or training

  • analyzing and synthesizing information to prevent us from using “the same mental recipes over and over again”

  • high level of trust between leaders and subordinates

  • implicit rather than explicit authority to give subordinates the freedom to achieve the outcomes asked of them

Without a common outlook superiors cannot give subordinates freedom-of-action and maintain coherency of ongoing action.

A common outlook possessed by “a body of officers” represents a unifying theme that can be used to simultaneously encourage subordinate initiative yet realize superior intent.

– Colonel John R. Boyd, USAF

One key part missing is the basic loop includes an amount of inertia or friction that has to be overcome to take any action. To address this, Boyd describes increasing the tempo by moving from Cheng (expected/passive) to Ch’i (unexpected/active) more quickly than the basic loop allows.

He calls this “Asymmetric Fast Transients”. In what I believe is the only diagram that he drew for the OODA Loop there is a way to immediately jump from Observe to Act. He called this Implicit Guidance and Control (IG&C). By keeping orientation closer to reality and having a common culture, organizations can quickly respond to situations they recognize as they come up.

The actions taken in the IG&C are the repertoire of organizations. These are the actions that make up the muscle memory of a team, because they are repeatable and predictable.

But there is a danger in becoming stale in both your cultural view and your repertoire. While it is important to have everyone on the same page, it is equally important to promote people with unusual or unconventional thinking (like Boyd himself). This helps push back against everyone thinking the same way and increasing the confirmation bias in a team over time.

And at no point should our repertoire become nothing more than a runbook that we flip through to react to events. Instead we continue to use it when we can while at the same time thinking and considering new methods to add to it or old ones that need to be removed.

This leads us to the analysis and synthesis process that should be taking place. Which allows us to work through events that cannot sidestep the process by using the IG&C. Instead we go through the basic OODA Loop (there are others like Plan-Do-Check-Act) that we’ve known letting us engineer new possibilities into our repertoire while at the same time improving our orientation to what is happening.

Boyd said there are three ways to insult him. The first is to call him an analyst, because you’re telling him that he is a halfwit and that he has half a brain. The second is to call him an expert, because you’re then saying he has it all figured out and can’t learn anything new. The third is to call him an analytical expert. Now that’s saying that not only is he a halfwit, but he thinks he has it all figured out.

don’t try to assume that something is wrong because it doesn’t fit into your orientation”

– Colonel John R. Boyd, USAF

His admiration of the Toyota Production Systems (TPS) can be seen directly in his lectures. By flipping the process from a top down approach to a bottoms-up Toyota was able to create a chain of customers and providers within its own assembly line. The customer tells the provider what they want and when resulting in what we now call Just-In-Time (JIT) manufacturing. This reduced time of production, the amount of inventory needing to be on hand and allowed for different cars to be made on the same assembly line.

Interesting to consider new tools like Mesos as a way to use TPS concepts for web operations. One assembly line or in this case infrastructure being able to retool the resources available to make different services available quicker than before.

During the twenty years that he was actively thinking, tinkering and sharing his ideas about these concepts he was always adjusting his own orientation to what he learned. In one lecture he mentions that instead of saying no, he wants to be listening instead. To have himself in receiving mode to learn from the other person instead of letting his “own orientation drown out the other view.”

The question you have to ask yourself, is what is the purpose of the question in the first place?

– Colonel John R. Boyd, USAF

Don’t be afraid to ask the dumb questions and if you don’t understand the answer then ask again. If you don’t you can’t really orient yourself to this new view.

Boyd drew from many different resources and his experience to come to his conclusions. From the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Kurt Gödel’s two Incompleteness Theorems, to Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo from Toyota. The point being he never stopped learning and he seemed willing to keep asking the dumb questions to adjust his orientation when the facts supported it.

If your knowledge of Boyd was only the OODA Loop you can find all of his writings available online (links below). It’s also worth reading Chet Richards and Chuck Spinney who both worked with Boyd. If you’re involved with the infrastructure or architecture decisions for any web service the Toyota Production System is perfectly applicable.

John R. Boyd’s A Discourse on Winning and Losing


Conceptual Spiral

Abstract of the Discourse and Conceptual Spiral

Destruction and Creation

Patters of Conflict

The Strategic Game of ? and ?

Organic Design for Command and Control

The Essence of Winning and Losing


Aerial Attack Study

New Conception for Air-to-Air Combat

Fast Transients

All sourced from Defense and the National Interest with exception for “New Conception for Air-to-Air Combat” which was sourced from Chet Richards. You can also find updated and edited versions of Boyd’s work on Richards’ site. Both he and Spinney list several writings on Boyd’s work including some of their own.

For an introduction into the Toyota Production System and why going slower can make better products (read the last article for that one).

Ohno, Taiichi (March 1998), Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production

Taiichi Ohno (2007), Workplace Management

Shigeo Shingo (1989), A study of the Toyota Production System

Allen Ward, Jeffrey K. Liker, John J. Cristiano and Durward K. Sobek II, “The Second Toyota Paradox: How Delaying Decisions Can Make Better Cars FasterMIT Sloan Management Review, April 15, 1995