Inspections Communicate Priorities

020724-N-9802B-001A tired management proverb you’ve doubtlessly heard a hundred times is “you get what you inspect, not what you expect.” Like most adages foisted on JOs without context, it is trite, irritating and painfully true. Rather than dismissing it as simple common sense, it is worth examining why our seniors feel the need to keep repeating it.

First of all, recognize that “inspection” is not necessarily a pejorative or insulting thing. In many cases it can be a positive thing; a simple recognition of the work your people do, affirming that you care about the spaces, programs and people you’re responsible for. If my Small Arms Petty Officer does a fantastic job in maintaining the Small Arms Log but I never examine it, he’s eventually going to feel like he’s wasting his time. Likewise, if the Torpedo Division habitually maintains the Valve Station in immaculate condition but they’re the only ones who ever enter that space, prudence will demand that they shift their efforts elsewhere.

In his 1981 essay “On Leading Snipes,” then-Lieutenant James Stavridis pointedly summarized this phenomenon:

“A man will do surprising amounts of work based on the perception that he is “someone special” doing a tremendously difficult job—but he will not do it or continue to do it unless he knows someone is aware of the job and appreciates it.”

The flip side of this argument is that sailors should not require someone looking over their shoulder to do their jobs. Inspecting everything, so the argument goes, will communicate a lack of trust and train the guys not to attend to the things that aren’t routinely inspected. There certainly is a balance to be struck, but I think this argument is most often just an excuse. The fact is that your guys may believe they’re doing the job correctly or adequately and be wrong. If so, the longer it goes on being wrong, the worse it will be on everybody when it (inevitably) becomes a problem.

Inspections are a cornerstone of your job. When you do them, make sure they are effective:

1. Know what the hell you’re looking at. This is the hardest part for new DIVOs, but fixing it quickly is one of the best possible uses of your time. While understanding the function of every piece of equipment on the ship will take years, it is absolutely achievable to know the names and purposes of all equipment within your zones of responsibility. If you want to start with a massive credibility deficit, go ahead and call the Ships Service Hydraulics Accumulators “those valve-y hissy things over there”.

Once you can at least identify all of your gear, it will be necessary to develop a working knowledge of the requirements that apply to your spaces—regulations for damage control gear, HAZMAT management, classified material security, ammunition stowage, or radiation safety could all be of concern depending on what spaces you’ve got. Investing some time to familiarize yourself with these regulations will pay huge dividends down the road, particularly when you are working on CDO/SDO quals.

For administriva, there is always a reference somewhere that governs your program. You’ve got to find that reference and check your program against it to ensure all requirements are being met. Key admin programs are audited during major inspections, and consequently there are often self-audit checklists available (ask around) to use in preparation. While they should never be considered a replacement of the governing reference, such checklists can be a fantastic tool for quickly assessing the status of your programs.

Obsessing over the trivial sends a confused message

2. Keep the first things first. If you find yourself nitpicking, you’re probably wasting your time—the written requirements are what matter. There is certainly room for having higher standards than the minimum requirements, but prudence demands that you carefully budget your division’s efforts as well as your own. Focus on important things, starting with those items required in ink and working your way down from there. Obsessing over the trivial sends a confused message to the division and is a morale killer. Especially when you’re new, it can appear that you’re grappling to find fault in order to disguise your own ignorance.

3. Ensure that the requirement is understood. You can’t blame someone for failing to meet a standard which hasn’t been effectively communicated. Make the requirements impossible to miss—print them out, put them in a page protector in the front of the binder, post them on the bulkheads, email them, repeat them at quarters—whatever you’ve got to do to get the message across. All of this will be meaningless, however, if you don’t validate the work by inspecting it.

4. Be ready for the cries of “micromanagement!” When you inspect something which your guys are not used to having inspected, you will be accused of being a micromanager, whether its explicitly or implicitly. Ensuring that standards are being met is not micromanagement, it is simply management, and it is your job even if the last DIVO didn’t do it. While the guys will initially resent your kicking over rocks that have long been unturned, they will get used to it, and to positive effect. Ironically, if you don’t pay attention to something that was previously seen as important, they’ll resent that too.

If something remains wrong for long enough, it will become invisible

A related point is that if something remains wrong for long enough it will become invisible, whether it is a poorly-maintained record or a pile of junk in the corner. The longer it has been wrong, the more resistance you’ll get when you correct it— another reason you’ve got to fix this stuff the first time you notice it. If you notice that it is wrong but choose to ignore it, you will have just affirmed a new, lower standard.

5. Establish an inspection frequency. Order and predictability make everyone’s lives easier. As much as I hate to say it, the best way to handle this is to create a personal tracker (while the creation of paperwork should generally be considered immoral out of principle, no harm will be done if it isn’t imposed on others). For this to work, you have to stick to it. This requires great discipline at the end of the work day, but it pays off tremendously.

6. Allow room for discretion.  The regulations often remove all discretion as to how to go about doing a job, but sometimes there’s room for creativity—these situations should be regarded as opportunities to foster a little job satisfaction. Ownership is a derivative of pride and is a very powerful quality in a sailor, and you destroy it when you tell people how to do their jobs. Yes, there is a balance to be struck here, but you’ve got to find it. Offering suggestions is one thing, but unnecessarily removing all discretion is micromanagement and is terrible leadership.

7. Catch them doing something right. Inspections should never be an “I got you.” They are a way of saying “this is important” and “this is what right looks like”. If something looks good and is being done right, say so. Sure, it is true that adults should not need constant affirmation and pats on the back to keep doing their jobs, but it sure feels nice. As a sailor it can feel like all you’re ever told is how things are not good enough, because sometimes that’s all you’re ever told.

As much as we try to suppress it, human nature is a real thing in this business.  The best officers are the ones with a firm grasp of it.

4 thoughts on “Inspections Communicate Priorities

  1. Pingback: Your First Division | JO Rules

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