Yes, it’s Your Fault

A tired JO complaint is “we’re just here so they have someone to blame.” We hear every day that JOs are a pointless decoration, chiefs really run the Navy, blah blah blah… then when the watch team falls behind PIM and doesn’t complete all evolutions in the night orders, it’s the OOD that gets crushed. When the division fails a PMS audit it is none other than the DIVO who stands before the Captain to absorb the hate. Hey, I get it. I used to make this same complaint. Having grown up a little, when I hear this now, I think “now you’re getting it!”

Yes. We are here to be responsible. Not to be held responsible, but to assume responsibility.

seppuku_1Did you make a bad call based on a bad recommendation? Then you made a bad call. Did you fail an inspection because your training guy lost the records? Then you failed an inspection. Whatever has gone wrong, your attitude toward responsibility will be scrutinized and remembered. Everyone above and below you will be paying attention, making inferences about your character. The worst, weakest, most damning words you can ever say are “it’s not my fault.”

Eliminate that phrase from your vocabulary. If you don’t know how to say “not my fault,” you will develop a trained eye, and start to anticipate that festering problems will eventually become your own. You learn to see to it that things are fixed, prioritized from a higher perspective. Someone who is comfortable saying “not my fault,” on the other hand, is the kind of person who says “not my problem” and saunters back to his tiny world to play Xbox while the ship falls apart. Don’t be that guy.

Remember also that blame is a companion to relevance. An officer who says “it’s not my fault” is effectively saying “I do not matter.” If something goes wrong in your division, and your boss chooses to yell directly at your chief while absolving you of responsibility, then you should feel insulted. You have just been declared irrelevant. Sidelined.

Does this mean you should turn every negative report into a gratuitous display of self-loathing? No. Nobody wants to see that garbage. Stand tall, unemotional. Report facts and propose a course of action. Take your hits like a professional.

The less concern you show for covering your own ass, the more they will listen to what you have to say. Whatever the nature of your failure, the fallout will not be as bad as it seems. Usually, it will amount to dirty looks and hot air, neither of which can hurt you. A reputation for cowardly self-interest is much worse, and lasts longer.

tumblr_mf0zx8FmzF1rx0p5go5_250What if the truth is that it really is not your fault? Are you sure? We humans are susceptible to something called the self-serving bias—we tend to perceive reality in ways that protect our self-esteem. Confronted with failure, we can become amazingly shitty judges of truth. All of us suffer from this bias; its human nature. We can compensate for it by forcing a habit of taking the blame.

Of course there will be situations where there was nothing you could do. When it’s that clear-cut, the facts will make it apparent. Don’t worry about the verdict. Let the facts speak for your innocence, and let your eagerness to accept responsibility speak for your character.

I can practically hear the screams. Isn’t this the reasoning behind micromanagement, ‘intrusive leadership’ and all manner of crippling risk aversion? No. Don’t confound an ancient leadership principle with contemporary noise. No one attached to reality honestly believes you can prevent 20-year-olds from making terrible mistakes. The point is that when you step back and give people room to fail, as any decent leader will, you are still responsible for the result—that’s why this job requires resilience. If you let the fear of consequences cripple you, you become one of them.

What you do when things go wrong shows what you’re made of, and is one of the clearest indicators of your true suitability for this line of work. Responsibility is at the very heart of our culture; it is as fundamental as saltwater and steel. As officers, it is precisely what we do.


JO Rules on Facebook!

facebook-meh-button-500Gonna try something new here… in the interest of making it easier for folks to chime in, tell sea stories, call me a delusional asshole or whatever… and yes, to have more exposure within the JO community, I’m gonna try the Facebook thing and see if it works out.

So, we’ve got our own fan page here… you can use it to comment on posts, provide your own advice, present your unique insight on abortion, creationism in public schools, or Glenn Beck, post pictures of your kids, or whatever other antisocial behavior compels you. As I understand it, if you “like” the page, future posts will show up in your news feed. JO Rules content is guaranteed to be less horrible than at least 50% of your Facebook news feed, necessarily improving your Facebook experience. You can always “unfollow” us if its too much.

So here’s the deal- if you think JO Rules makes a useful contribution to the dialogue, please help me out by “liking” the page and/or sharing with your friends.

Standing by for feedback or suggestions.


To be Loved or Feared

Santi_di_TitoI’ll never forget the Marine who taught me about Leadership. More specifically, I’ll never forget the Captain, USMC who taught Leadership: Theory and Applications, a professional development course I took as a midshipman. Like any course on human behavior, it was filled with charts of unquantifiable concepts, meaningless Venn diagrams, and the occasional brilliant insight. I wish that we took leadership education more seriously, but that’s kinda difficult when it’s competing with EE and Applied Thermodynamics for your attention.

Okay, so I don’t remember anything about the instructor. I do remember his sea stories, though, and one in particular. When we reached the chapter on Authority, the Captain relayed an experience from his early days as a 2LT. He had just reported to his new platoon, and observed what he believed was a general lack of discipline within the unit. He needed to quickly communicate to his men that there was a new sheriff in town, and that the days of poor discipline were over.

He called for the Platoon Sergeant to report to his office immediately. When the Platoon Sergeant arrived, the 2LT issued a set of inconvenient orders calculated specifically to entice a protest. When the Platoon Sergeant objected, the 2LT sternly reminded him to stand at attention when addressing an officer, and that as soon as he had relayed the orders to the Squad Leaders, he was to put a new shine on his boots. Confident that he was finally in the presence of a True Leader, the Platoon Sergeant about-faced and executed, and they lived happily ever after. The midshipmen nodded in mesmerized admiration.

Man, what I would pay to watch some new DIVO try that.

Maybe the story isn’t completely bullshit—the services have starkly different cultures by necessity. I have my doubts, though, as should you any time someone recalls how tough they were as boot JO. I can’t imagine this would play out well, even in the Marines. Even if it did, the Navy does not work this way—it isn’t because our JOs are meek and stupid and Chiefs are really in charge or anything like that. It’s because warships are just too damn complicated for that kind of organization, and our interpersonal dynamics are accordingly complex. There’s just too much to learn.

Machiavelli Redux

Whether it is better to lead through personal rapport or intimidation is a very old question. The original “Philosopher of Power” Niccolo Machiavelli famously observed that it is better for a leader to be feared than to be loved by his people, because fear is easier to sustain. This is also the guy who held that any good leader must be an adept liar and must always be prepared to break promises, so there’s that. Sadly, none of us are 16th century despots.

Nobody wants to be hated by their people. It is simple human nature to desire the approval of those around us. Moreover, the degree to which we depend on one another makes it professionally hazardous to be despised. I think we’ve all seen an unpopular officer stumble through their tour, tripping on obstacles that a supportive division or watch team could have easily pointed out or corrected. That is a miserable way to live, and is not normal—if this is you, there is something wrong with the way you’re acting and you need to confront it.

(I am reminded of a certain Division Officer who once remarked to me that if the division hates his guts, it must mean he’s doing his job. Yeah, he failed miserably.)

That said, it isn’t necessary or advisable to pursue popularity. Nobody really respects a human golden retriever, or even wants one around. I’m all for being friendly and affable with the sailors, and even pissing all over the boundaries of protocol on occasion—I think that’s part of being a JO. I’ve seen no real benefit, though, for those sad JOs who try to be “one of the guys.” It might be nice for the ego, but it doesn’t make the division run more smoothly and it does introduce a lot of unnecessary complications.

goldenIn other words, it is nice to be liked, but it should never be the motivation behind your actions. If you’re courteous, considerate, and empathetic in the execution of your duties, you’ll be liked. If you obviously want to be liked, you’ll be a golden retriever, and will be dismissed from the table accordingly.

You must be capable of making an unpopular decision. You absolutely cannot please everyone, and at some point they will accuse you of being spineless and weak-willed for executing the intent of your superiors. You must own the decision, and shouldn’t apologize for something you intend to do or something you would do again. Apologize when you have made a mistake.

“True leaders must be willing to stake out territory and identify and declare enemies. They must be fair and they may be compassionate, but they cannot be addicted to being loved by everybody. The man who needs to be loved is an extortionist’s dream. That man will do anything to avoid face-to-face unpleasantness; he will sell his soul down the river for praise. He can be had.” -VADM James Stockdale

To be loved or feared. Ultimately, I think it is a silly question for a Junior Officer to ponder. Just be a decent human being. My father always told me that if I think I’m conflicted between being a good officer and being a good man, I should just be a good man and the rest would take care of itself. Sailors are human beings, not a conduit for love or fear, adoration or intimidation; not a means to an end. If you concentrate on doing the job while constraining your behavior to that of a decent, empathetic human being, your local popularity will be irrelevant.


iCg_81601DryEraseMarkersThe oral board is one of the most time-honored traditions in the U.S. Navy. It is a comprehensive evaluation of not just your technical chops, but also your maturity, perspective, instincts, and ability to think under pressure. Oral boards never really go away; you will experience them at every career milestone that requires a senior to sign off on your competence. As you become more familiar with the board process you’ll develop a specialized set of skills tailored specifically to this kind of test. Having been on both sides of the judges table more times than I care to remember, these are a few things I’ve learned:

Prepare. If you’re at the point in your qualifications where you’re planning for boards, then the knowledge is already there—the challenge is now about actually demonstrating this knowledge like a competent professional. The cognitive processes you engage to memorize information are entirely different from those you use to articulate it, and if you don’t practice articulating it then you’re courting humiliation. There’s nothing more frustrating than failing a board because you can’t explain what you know.

Use your resources. You’ll almost certainly have a whiteboard and some dry-erase markers at your disposal; if not, a pen and notepad will do. The whiteboard is your friend; it is a tool for conveying information, and you must confidently employ it to your advantage. While talking through a problem, write down everything you can—assumptions, initial conditions, system lineups, unknowns, applicable rules or procedures, applicable sketches or functional diagrams—whatever you can do to put ink on the board. An empty whiteboard suggests an empty brain.

Prepare. In using the whiteboard, you should strive to continue speaking while you’re writing or drawing. Long gaps of silence bore your judges, compelling them to pick apart your presentation or think up tricky questions. There’s nothing natural about writing and talking at the same time; it involves a kind of mental dexterity that can only be developed through habit. This is something you can practice on your own, mumbling to yourself as you study. Your shipmates will think you’re crazy, but that will probably help you to fit in.

An empty whiteboard suggests an empty brain

Think “whole ship.” Arbitrary figures, numbers and lists are not what an oral board is about. The board wants to see you integrate all that knowledge into some kind of practical application. If you’re writing a list or sketching out a diagram, it will be for the greater purpose of explaining some complex, whole-ship evolution or casualty. You won’t ever get to that point without the underlying technical knowledge, but don’t be satisfied with knowing that you can regurgitate a bunch of memorized trivia.

This is a pretty basic point, but I see people screw it up all the time. When you’re memorizing system diagrams, think about them in terms of what they actually do. If you draw a perfect Ventilation or Trim and Drain schematic, and then can’t explain how the fluids flow through them in various lineups, then all you’ve done is regurgitate a bunch of lines and circles. Practical application is what gives your drawings relevance. A small error like a missing check valve or an incorrect junction that would prevent your system from “working” will effectively invalidate the whole drawing.

Prepare. Call on your fellow officers to sit practice boards for you—they have a vested interest in your qualification, and will probably be glad to help out. A common term for this is “murder board,” since unlike your real boards, the judges in a practice board will often make it as hard as possible. Try to staff your practice boards with the most mature officers you can find—Department Heads if possible—as they will be more inclined to ask relevant questions that engage all of the necessary cognitive functions. Less mature officers will be more likely to turn it into an entertaining “stump the chump” session, which can actually do more harm than good. Try to keep the practice board as formal as possible, and don’t “break character” until it’s over.

Don’t freeze. You will get at least one question from which your internal response is not to access knowledge, but to panic. If your immediate thought is I have no idea what they’re talking about, then you are most likely misinterpreting the question because your brain is tied in knots over nervousness. Anticipate this, and you’ll be ready to execute the casualty procedure for an intellectual misfire. The first step, again, is to get ink on the board—almost any relevant information can serve as a step-off point to start writing. Oftentimes this is all that’s required to jumpstart your brain into working again.

Staff your practice boards with the most mature officers you can find

One thing you should keep in mind when you’re desperately spewing knowledge is that the board will happily let you dig your own grave. If you say the wrong thing while talking through a scenario, they will probably urge you down that path to see how far you’ll go before you see your mistake. If you recognize that you’ve said the wrong thing, don’t imagine that your judges might not have noticed—correct yourself immediately.

If they ask questions like “are you sure?” or “is that all?” then you need to reevaluate. They’re most likely not interested in intentionally tripping you up—they know they can do that, and it doesn’t get them a qualified watchstander. Just don’t waffle. If you still think you’re right, then stand by your answer. In casualty scenarios, be sure to mention the point at which you would break out the procedure and confirm your immediate actions.

gladiator-thumbsdownTry not to worry about how you’re doing. All that gets you is a nasty cycle of doubt and anxiety. You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table. If you start to flounder, remember that your judges desperately want to pass you. They need you qualified, and they don’t want to repeat this ordeal any more than you do.

Prepare. Among other things, an oral board is an exhibition of professionalism, so you should make a visible effort to look the part. Shined boots. Clean uniform. Regulation haircut. No gum or dip. A fresh set of dry-erase markers. These points may sound juvenile, but appearance counts, if only to help put your own mind at ease. Don’t try to win them over by being funny or clever– there’s a time and place for that, and this isn’t it.

Going the extra mile to look professional is a personal sign of respect to your board. It is not a form of groveling, as some Ensigns still bitter about their midshipman experience may contend. It is an acknowledgement that human psychology is incredibly complex, and that you may use it to your advantage or spurn it at your peril. You can never go wrong with professionalism.

Prepare. In case I failed to mention it, the most important part of your oral board is the effort you put in before it begins. All of the presentation tricks in the world will amount to nothing if you’re unprepared, or worse, if you prepared stupidly. Practice boards. Complex casualties. Scenarios and big-picture applications—these are the moneymakers. Staring at lists of parameters and technical schematics is not going to cut it.

You may feel like you’re overdoing it, especially if your contemporaries are getting by with less effort. Go ahead and overdo it. Nobody ever said, “man, I really wish I hadn’t tried so hard.” This is far from a simple Pass/Fail, even if that’s what ultimately goes in the book. You’re on display, building confidence in your seniors; building your reputation. You don’t want to be the JO that gets by with a pity pass.

Bad Advice

I normally update on Monday, but I decided that it’s worth it to wait 24 hours for this special post. Happy April 1st, everyone. Here’s some timely advice for our eager new leaders:

mr-TEstablish Your Authority. Reporting to your new division is like reporting to prison, and if you don’t immediately make it clear that you’re in charge, your sailors will take advantage of you for the remainder of your tour. Making abrupt changes can be an effective way to communicate authority, so don’t delay if you see an opportunity to switch things up. Most importantly, if your sailors protest, you must immediately remind them that you outrank them. It helps if you point to your collar device.

Take Your Time in Quals. The personnel qualification system is self-paced. This means that you should never feel rushed to get through it. When you feel that you’ve put in a reasonable work day, take off; your qualifications will ultimately take care of themselves. Also, when you’re studying, ensure you can recall every detail of the associated system or procedure before you pursue a checkout– you can’t possibly expect to stand a good EOOW if you forget the ratio of Curtis to Rateau stages in a propulsion turbine.

Don’t Let the Wardroom Make a Fool of You. The other officers may expect new Ensigns to perform denigrating, menial tasks for their convenience or entertainment. Telling jokes at the table, or planning a wardroom outing are examples. Much like establishing your authority to your division, you must establish to your Wardroom that you do not play games like that. Refuse to participate, and they’ll come to understand that you are just as tough and smart as they are, and they will respect you as an equal.

Do Not Seek or Accept Help. You probably come from a world where enough hard work and study could overcome any problem. There is no reason this world would be any different. Accepting assistance or advice is tantamount to admitting that you are inadequate for the job.

Make Lots of New Policies. A Division Officer should be a fountain of new ideas for their sailors to execute. Keeping them coming is much more important than following the old ones through—if the idea is good, it’ll stick. When you have an idea, don’t get bogged down in the practicalities, or allow the naysayers to curb your creativity. Make it an order, and let your subordinates worry about the details.

Create New Paperwork. You have spent years mastering the arts of Word and Excel, and it would be a crying shame to let all that skill go to waste. There is almost no problem for which a new checklist, binder, or tracker is not the appropriate solution. It costs nothing to create, and will likely remain forever after you leave. What better way to leave your mark?

Lead Through E-Mail. E-mail allows you to demonstrate your intellect and vocabulary in a safe setting where the potential for negative feedback is all but eliminated. As an extra tip, including all of your collateral duties in your email signature will remind everyone how hard you work, and they’ll respect you more for this.

Don’t Waste Time in the Spaces. Commensurate with the previous items, there’s really no reason for you to be in the spaces with the sailors and equipment. As an Officer, your job is to manage and create paperwork. If you’re conversing with your sailors or poking around their work areas when you could be tapping away at a keyboard, then you clearly misunderstand your duties.

Release Your Emotions. The advice they give in couples counseling is no less appropriate on a warship; if something is bothering you, don’t bottle it up inside. Yelling and screaming are very efficient ways to communicate sincerity.

Always Be the Smartest Guy in the Room. If you want to receive proper credit for your innate intelligence, it’s important that the right answer in any situation ultimately comes from you. If someone else offers a suitable answer, it is prudent to regurgitate a slightly altered version of their answer so that you are credited with the solution.

Always Get Permission. Avoiding the potential to be yelled at is always more important than getting the job done. If the CO is off the boat and you need his permission for something but can’t get him on the phone, don’t hesitate to ask through voice-mail.

Only Task Your Best Guys. If you want the important jobs to be done well, give them all to the same person. The other sailors will be jealous of their elevated responsibility, and will step up their game accordingly.

Only Work on Your Favorite Projects. Your boss is not in a position to really understand what is important, so you must resist their efforts to steer your intellectual firepower. Also, remember to frequently assess your programs for any major weak areas. Your best bet is to ignore these.

Withhold Information. You will be the only source of a great deal of information that is relevant to your sailors’ lives. You must carefully guard your privileged access. If you can maintain a veil of mystery around important information, they will come to view you as a mighty and powerful wizard.

Establish Pecking Order in the Wardroom. Once you have a few months on board, you will be responsible for providing guidance and structure to the next batch of Ensigns to report. In all likelihood, they will be lazy and stupid. Remind them of this frequently, and never pass on an opportunity to bring your vast operational experience into the conversation.

Crush Your Competition. Remember that nothing, nothing is more indicative of your worth as a human being than your FITREP. If you suspect that one of your rivals may be making a mistake, you must allow or even help them to fail spectacularly, as this will make you look better in comparison, improving your rankings.

Why Stay In?

exodusIn the previous week, the various unofficial social networks of the Navy have been abuzz about a “white paper” predicting the worst officer retention in decades. The paper was researched and written by a single officer as a personal endeavor, and then submitted directly to the 3-star in charge of Naval Personnel. Its message resonated with a few of the staffers, it got emailed around, and went viral from there. As a pretender to the hoard of armchair admirals polluting the interwebs, I would be remiss if I did not provide my own commentary.

Here is the paper. It is quite long (the author does not write like a Spartan), but his Bottom Line Up Front sums it up nicely. The paper points to a confluence factors which threaten to drive record numbers of talented officers to civilian employment, crippling our ability to be selective in who we retain and promote. Most of the contributing factors are points of widespread dissatisfaction within the ranks. The seminal event which led to this paper’s creation was a four-star Admiral’s public remark, “We don’t have a retention problem.”

This is an important point for anyone seeking to effect change in this manner: The reason this paper is significant is not the same reason it went viral. It is significant because it says “Hey, look here, we have a no-shit problem and here is my evidence to back it up.” It went viral because its evidence consists largely of things that everybody in the Navy hates, and we all like to see someone saying loudly what we’re thinking. Unfortunately, the preponderance of common complaints also makes it easy to dismiss the paper as just more tears in rain, so to speak.

So here’s another important point: This is not another bitching JO. This dude is a Grade-A Superstud O-5 who is going places by anybody’s account. The paper was not designed to be blasted all over the internet, but to get the attention of a specific 3-star Admiral. Like any good report of a problem, it included a proposed course of action, again for a specific 3-star, not the world at large.

Commentary. At this blog, I sometimes paint with a rather idealistic brush. I put a picture of the Kool-Aid Man in the sidebar as a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment that yes, I get that, and no, I am not entirely delusional. The things that unnecessarily suck about the Navy— the bureaucratic stupidity, the political stupidity, the administrative stupidity, the divergence between what is reported and what is—nobody hates that shit more than me. Nobody. Thing is, I spent many of my best years being extremely angry about stupidity I could not control, and got tired of being half-crazy with frustration. At some point I decided that I’m better off being indifferent to what I can’t fix.

Don’t get me wrong, I still get upset about the stupid stuff, but I strive not to. I fight the urge to indulge it with complaining or despair; sometimes I win and sometimes it gets the best of me. Ultimately, the Navy is much bigger and much older than my little problems, and it will be around for much longer. For the duration of my watch, I’ll fix what I can, and try to just shrug my shoulders at the rest. Not everyone feels the same way, and that has real consequences for the health of the fleet.

The real effect of a retention problem (acknowledged by the four-stars or not) is that the quality of our Department Heads and future COs will suffer markedly. So by having chosen to stay on past my initial obligation, am I one of those sad suckers who just couldn’t manage to brave the real world? You be the judge. Despite planning to make it a career, I have personally taken every opportunity I could to pursue marketable capabilities and to save/invest my ass off—I recommend each of you do the same. You can be a better and more honest servant to the American people if you’re in the position to confidently say “sayonara” when your term is up.

If you came here looking for a rational argument for staying in, you’re in the wrong place. I don’t try to talk people out of leaving; you don’t owe the Navy one second beyond your official commitments. I can’t even fully articulate what appeals to me about the Navy. I guess there is still an 8-year-old boy inside of me who thinks that ships and airplanes are awesome. I’m not convinced that a corrupted 31-year-old perspective is really any more valid than that. I make no pretense to being normal, so I can’t blame anyone for not sharing my worldview.

Let’s be blunt; our Navy is pretty messed up right now. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I liken it to being given a broken division, while the dipshit JO gets the division that’s firing on all cylinders and has an awesome chief. I go where I’m needed. We need a generation of headstrong, resilient officers to fix this mess—fighters, survivors. The admirals and politicians who made the mess are irrelevant.

If you want to leave, then I don’t blame you. I congratulate you for a commitment well fulfilled and wish you a safe and comfortable life. If, on the other hand, you’re mildly insane and like to fight, then let’s do this.

Ask Why Five Times

6sigConsider the following scenario from the submarine USS HYPOTHETICAL. Following a meticulous valve line-up and a thorough pre-evolution brief, a team of hardened professionals commenced that most thrilling of housekeeping evolutions, the blowing of sanitary tanks overboard. Within seconds of actuating a valve that would admit pressurized air to the tanks, these operators were shocked by blood-curdling screams of terror from the middle level passageway. As jets of liquefied human filth erupted from every deck drain in the forward compartment, it became apparent that their valve line-up may not have been so meticulous after all.

Once the blow was secured and working parties were assembled to clean up the mess, some unlucky division officer (the DCA, in this case) was tasked with finding out what the hell happened, and developing a course of action to ensure that it never happened again. Just another day in the life; no submarine tour is complete without at least one instance of poop-volcano.  Fortunately, the answer was easily extracted from the evolution supervisor: the new guy, MMFN Operator, had fouled up the valve line-up. The solution: disqualify MMFN Operator from valve operations pending an exhaustive training upgrade.

DCA was thrilled to have found the answer, so that he could quickly get back to important work like turning little red dots into little green dots in CTQS. Much to his disappointment, the Engineer (his boss) did not accept the easy answer. Being a good nuke, Eng recognized that there were far too many questions still unanswered. Why had the Operator opened the wrong valves? Had he been trained correctly? If so, did he deviate from his training? Why? “Go back and try again,” Eng demanded. “Ask why five times.”

Eng was instinctively exercising the patterns of something called Root Cause Analysis, an industrial management technique the Navy has borrowed from the ultra-efficient assembly lines of Japan’s automotive industry. The point of Root Cause Analysis is to treat diseases rather than symptoms. Properly applied, it prevents little problems from turning into big problems.

A quick thumb-rule to condense a convoluted analytical process into something actually usable is the Toyota Motor Corporation’s original “5 Whys” method. Toyota recognized that while it’s possible to ask an infinite series of “whys” in analyzing a problem, root causes generally emerge around five levels deep. As an interesting aside, the “5 Whys” method was a core element of the Toyota Production System, which eventually evolved into Lean Manufacturing techniques. Lean was later combined with a process improvement discipline known as Six Sigma to become Lean Six Sigma, which is taught in every engineering management curriculum in the world. Neat.

So what happened in our example? DCA used the “5 whys” method:

Problem: We blew shit all over middle level.


Because the Operator opened the wrong valves.


Because he couldn’t read the valve labels. (Now we’re getting somewhere!)


Because they are temporary cardboard labels, and the writing has become illegible.


Because they’ve been temporary cardboard labels for as long as anyone can remember, and have been absorbing oil and water for years.


Because nobody inspects this space, and there is no process in place to get permanent labels on these valves.

It’s obvious that we could keep going like this forever, but by the fifth “why” we have unearthed enough fundamental problems to keep us busy for a while. We obviously need to look at our Zone Inspection program, and make sure we have an effective process to fix little deficiencies like valve labels. We also need to find out why the Operator was turning valves he couldn’t read. In this case, it turned out that the labels had been illegible for weeks, and the more experienced guys had been operating from memory—unacceptable. When a new guy came along, he tried to do what his role models had done, but didn’t have the experience to back it up, resulting in several new members in the Order of the Speckled Trout.

The point of Root Cause Analysis is to treat diseases rather than symptoms

It’s not necessary to identify a single root cause—in this case there were several points of failure, all of which had the potential to grow into worse problems if allowed to fester. By identifying and addressing them early, we can prevent them from turning into injuries or damaged equipment, or worse, a bad grade on a ship’s inspection. If we had accepted the easy answer—disqualify the new guy—we would just end up fighting these same issues again.

When It Goes Wrong

Anyone who has worked within 100 yards of a nuclear reactor has felt the asspain of Root Cause Analysis gone amok. Any good nuclear command will have a culture that is pathologically incapable of accepting “shit happens and I’ll try harder.” We have systems to prevent things from going wrong, so when things do go wrong it must indicate flaws in our system. From the standpoint of the greater organization, this is a great way to reinforce an adaptive learning culture with high engineering standards.

From the standpoint of the guy on the deckplate, it can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes shit actually does just happen with no clear explanation. Sometimes an exhaustive new policy is not necessary to correct the problem, as appropriate mechanisms already exist—in other words, sometimes the solution really is to try harder.

The important thing is to fight the temptation to embrace a wrong answer in lieu of no answer. This is harder than it sounds at the end of a five-hour critique on Saturday afternoon. It could easily mean standing up to your bosses, because they may be desperate to close out the critique with a positive report to their bosses that yes, we have identified the problem and are implementing a solution. Embrace the truth always, even if the truth is that you will never know what happened.


Fix It

1735WIR_VideoGame_Felix_PoseI recently came across an interesting case study in an old Academy ethics textbook (yes I just read this kind of stuff for fun, I’m that lame), and thought it would make a good reflection topic for a post. In the case, a newly reported JO had just been appointed as the Training Officer for her unit. In this role she was responsible for managing an assortment of training records from several divisions (most of which were led by division officers senior to her), and ensuring that the command could report the satisfactory completion of training to its superiors. In first few weeks in the job, she was pleased to learn that all divisions had excellent training practices, and her records were perfect.

Her tune changed when she actually started showing up to monitor the training—this wasn’t required of her, but she felt it necessary. Unsurprisingly, she discovered that many portions of the prescribed training were not being conducted as written, if at all. Her personal observation directly contradicted the stacks of perfect training critique sheets on her desk; in other words, training was being “gundecked.” Her ethical dilemma was in what precisely to do about this, especially considering the risk of being ostracized by the other division officers if she chose to make a stink about it.

What she did, which I think was a wise and measured response, was step up her monitoring of the training even more, and reject the training reports for the evolutions she knew had not occurred. She informed the other division officers in no uncertain terms that she would not accept false records. They got over it, word quickly spread, and the command’s definition of “normal” training adjusted to something more like what is actually required in writing.

The case isn’t that interesting on the surface; gundecked training is about as common as rain. What is interesting is what the Training Officer DIDN’T do, and especially that the case study made no mention of this: she didn’t go up the chain with the problem. She didn’t drag the command into an onerous, dramatic investigation of integrity scandal, which would have effectively shut the whole ship down. She didn’t get people fired, de-rated, or sent to mast. She just fixed it. She handled the problem at her level.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is an example of that mysterious moral territory we hear about in hushed tones behind stateroom doors, but which on-the-record ethics training of any sort is loath to acknowledge: This is a gray area. Gray areas indicate flaws in the system.

I can’t tell you what the Right Thing to do in this situation is, because I honestly don’t know the answer. Maybe the Right Thing would be to immediately take it to the CO, which would obligate him to launch an investigation which would get a bunch of people fired. Personally, I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to abruptly change the local definition of “normal” like she did, you should give everyone fair warning first.

The people who write the requirements don’t necessarily talk to each other. When sailors gundeck things, it’s generally not because they’re lazy or corrupt but because they can’t legitimately achieve all the written requirements in a reasonable amount of time. They learn through experience that Not Inspected equals Not Important. They’re in a constant state of tension; they’re pulled in every direction and will use every trick they know to make ends meet. Sometimes they get a little too far out of the box, and you have to reel them back in. You don’t necessarily have to destroy them.

One other comment. TRAINO chose to be the “senior man with a secret,” figuratively speaking—something we’re always warned about as midshipmen. That was a moral burden she willfully assumed. I suspect that her bosses knew full well that training wasn’t happening as written; I don’t think it was a secret. TRAINO’s decision to handle it at her level, though, provided her superiors with a luxury known as “plausible deniability.”

See-No-Evil-Know-No-EvilThe words “plausible deniability” should taste like curdled milk in your mouth. They represent the aspirations of weasels and cowards, self-interested pseudo-leaders who will allow a subordinate to take the fall for something the leader chose not to address. It is one thing to assume the burden of a secret in order to fix a local problem locally—I can’t recommend it in good conscience, but I do applaud TRAINO’s fortitude and imagine that I would have done the same. It is an entirely different thing to impose such a burden on your people, even if it is only implied.