Give Great Checkouts

Every checkout is a teaching opportunity.

signature__1_Sailors in quals have no respect these days. They come to interviews unprepared, knowing just enough to answer the most basic questions, and then expecting to be taught the rest. Instead of learning everything beforehand, they expect to learn through the interview process, doing the bare minimum of studying necessary to get into the interview. Kids these days! Harrumph.

In the mythical Navy of yore, sailors in quals came to checkouts fully knowledgeable of all trivia associated with the watchstation in question. Interviewers would simply ask a few questions which the sailor would answer perfectly. The satisfied interviewer would then sign the sailor’s qual card, and a fully competent operator would be born.

Or at least that’s the myth. It’s really never been that way—three thousand years ago some Athenian trireme sailors were bitching that the new rowers didn’t study enough before attempting to qualify Oar Operator. The qualification process is and always has been an interactive learning experience—the qualifier comes to the interview with a baseline of knowledge, which facilitates the conversation from which the real learning is achieved. When you’re giving the checkout, what you expect as the baseline knowledge is certainly up to you, but you shouldn’t expect not to do any teaching.

Instead of considering it an inconvenience, you should be chomping at the bit for the opportunity to teach. Imparting real knowledge is one of the most gratifying facets of military service, and is one of the few dimensions of your job where there is still room for discretion and creativity. Don’t waste it to hurry back to some bullshit administrative task.

Every checkout is a learning opportunity. The dirty secret about the qualification process is that it benefits the interviewer as much as the interviewee. When you are in quals, you memorize countless schematics, figures, rules and procedures… and then brain dump them as soon as you get the signature. When you’re giving the checkout, though, you end up asking the same questions hundreds of times—each time, reinforcing the facts and figures you would quickly forget otherwise. All of that arbitrary knowledge requires effort to maintain, but there’s no more efficient retention mechanism than the checkout process. This is how the corporate knowledge of the crew is really built.

What if, instead of just reinforcing the same information, you actually learned something new?  If you pay close attention to your checkouts, you’ll occasionally hear some bit of information with which you are unfamiliar. When you do, take note of it and pull the string—either the sailor is misinformed about something and it’s your job to fix it, or you’re about to become a better officer. Don’t hesitate to break out the references in the middle of the checkout; having the sailor prove something to you in writing is the surest way to make the knowledge stick for both of you.

You know more than you think you know. The most common issue that new DIVOs have with giving checkouts is feeling unqualified to give them. You’re new in this job; this guy probably knows more about his watchstation than you do. His chief and LPO certainly do, and they’ve signed his card—what can you possibly contribute?

You contribute a different perspective. You know different stuff from the chief and the LPO, and should ask different questions. Maybe you are the new Sonar Officer—does the operator understand what maneuvers (if any) the OOD will order upon gaining a new contact? Does he know which of his screens are on display and of interest to the OOD or TAO, and why? Maybe your previous job was in engineering– does the guy know how his systems will be affected by a loss of the port AC buses? Does he know how they will respond to a disruption in cooling water?

The point is that you know plenty. Even if you just stepped aboard yesterday, it’s after years of schools and training—surely something from that experience will be applicable to the checkout and of value to the sailor.

And if you don’t know anything at all? Time to learn. Check over the prerequisite signatures in the qual card, and good questions will pop out at you– pay attention to the answers, and look them up later.  If there’s a written exam associated with the qualification being sought, you’d better check it over for completeness (it’s probably a goldmine for great questions). When all else fails, there’s always the perfect starting point for any qualification interview: “In your own words, describe the roles and responsibilities associated with this watch station.”

Give good lookups. Demanding the recital of trivia is not an especially useful learning tool. Tasked with finding an obscure and probably useless fact, most industrious sailors will take the shortest route possible to the information—asking around, or consulting the locally-developed “gouge” which infests the training folders of every ship. This short-circuits the process, as the primary benefit of lookups is to develop familiarity with the governing references.

To ensure that your lookups provide the maximum possible learning opportunity, force the interviewee to go straight to the source. Instead of saying “tell me the immediate actions for a hot run torpedo,” say “tell me the immediate actions for a hot run torpedo, and the reference, volume, chapter and paragraph where you found it.” Alternately, if the lookup is particularly hard to find, you may opt to simply tell them where to find it—it saves them time and achieves the same end. Either way, they will get their information from a tech manual instead of the smoke pit, and will be more likely to go for the tech manual in the future.

1 thought on “Give Great Checkouts

  1. Another great resource for building that corporate knowledge is a wiki. If you haven’t already, get an Intelink account on whatever network you use (,, or and find the Intellipedia page for your qualification…or create your own. Save references, pictures, good powerpoints…anything that you never want to forget. Then encourage your sailors to study that before coming to you. Soon you’ll have them coming with more knowledge, so you spend more of a checkout discussing the topic, which leads to real teaching.

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