Train Effectively

YES, it IS in your power. I can practically hear the collective scream from all the JOs reading this, “It’s the CO who makes the training policy!” And you would be correct in that the CO is ultimately responsible, just like he’s responsible for every single other thing. All of the planning, execution and evaluation of training happens at the middle-management level, though—chiefs and JOs—and it’s our collective give-a-shit that makes the difference between razor-sharp crew and a monkey-football extravaganza. The CO sets the tone, but the middle management does the training.

It’s all about efficiency. It is true that there never seem to be enough hours in the day, and training is the first thing to get triaged away when the almighty Schedule gets tight. This is why we can’t afford to waste any time at all on ineffective training. There’s no use in complaining that there isn’t enough time to adequately train; instead, find ways to economize the time you get. Make use of down-time during long drills; write down and discuss the mistakes and lessons, talk about them with your guys face to face, disseminate them via email. Quiz your guys, and challenge them to quiz you.

Training effectively isn’t just about proficiency. It is a matter of morale. Sailors generally hate organized training, but it’s not because they are lazy, it’s because they hate having their time wasted. Burned-out and overtaxed JOs drag their people through worthless presentations just to check off a box in some training plan—here, let me click through these slides so we can call it done and get back to the rack. You owe it to your guys to never do that—it’s fundamentally disrespectful and corrosive to their pride in service. A little extra effort on your end makes the difference between time wasted and time invested.

Training contributes to morale in another very important way. It’s hard to self-identify as a warfighter when all you do all day is maintenance, paperwork and cleaning. This can be heart-wrenching when the kindly old veteran shakes your hand and thanks you for your service. The Navy has always been a strategic asset whose best use rarely involves the release of weapons, but you can’t expect everyone to understand or take pride in that. Genuine, rigorous tactical training reinforces the sense that we may actually be more than just custodians of big machines.

Divisional Training. Hopefully you’ve got a good chief who runs an effective program; it will be possible that you end up running it yourself or intervening so much that you might as well be. Who normally manages the division’s training program can vary by department and ship, and the standards may differ between warfare communities. Delegation is a post for another day; for now we’ll assume that you’re running the program yourself.

Always keep in mind that the purpose of a training program is not to satisfy administrative requirements, but to make sailors better at their jobs. As Division Officers we screw this up constantly—we are morbidly admin-oriented creatures, so a properly documented training session feels to us like a small victory over the inevitable inspection of our training records. This misses the point entirely. Perfectly-documented but ineffective training isn’t just worthless, it is actually worse than nothing because of the time, energy and credibility it destroys.

This is not to say that you can blow off administrative training requirements– that never ends well. Use the requirements as a guide when designing the long-range plan, and make sure you meet them. Sometimes you’ll be forced to cover a topic which isn’t all that useful or applicable– I know it’s hard to believe, but sometimes the central planners have an imperfect recognition of realities on the deckplate. In those cases, figure out how much liberty you can take in adapting the required topic to immediate and practical necessities. Usually, you’ll have a great deal– use this latitude aggressively to make sure the guys get something out of the training.

110603-N-QL471-056Don’t get married to the same old format—divisional training should almost never involve a Powerpoint presentation. Sailors waste enough time zoning out through GMTs as it is. Instead, divisional training should almost always involve hands on tools and equipment. Make sure the instructor is an expert—there’s a bad model you see sometimes, where a relatively junior sailor is charged with delivering training to the division in hopes that he will learn a lot in the process. The problem is that the rest of the division will shut their brains off and learn nothing. It’s an inappropriate use of delegation.

Presentations. I’ve written before about presentations here and here. One point I’ll add specific to training presentations is that you need to have clearly-defined learning objectives. If possible, follow up with a written exam sometime later (this is often required for certain types of training). At risk of having the integrity police fast-rope through my window, I think it’s perfectly legitimate (except where explicitly forbidden) to indicate to the audience what the exam questions will be. It dramatically increases the odds that they will actually take notes and study the material, since it clearly becomes worth their time. Expecting that they study everything will usually result in them studying nothing.

At the end of every training presentation, ask your audience these questions: Did we learn something here? What was it? Was this presentation worth the man-hours it consumed? Knowing you’ll be faced with the answers to these questions will help keep you in the correct state of mind when you’re preparing your training.

Drills. One quick point on planning drills that I couldn’t fit anywhere else: maximizing realism and maximizing training value are not always the same thing. COs loooove to get the whole ship coordinated in simulations, because it roots out problems in communications and processes that you just wouldn’t find otherwise. Sometimes, though, you get more training value out of just keeping things simple.I illustrate my point with an example:

It was our first strike exercise after over a year in the shipyard– this is on an older 688 without VLS, so we shoot our TLAMs out of torpedo tubes like God intended.  Even though a STRIKEX is primarily a Comms/ Fire-Control exercise, we wanted to get some weapons handling training out of it as well. Unfortunately, we tried to make the exercise realistic in that tubes were already “loaded” when we began the strike– Torpedo Division’s role would be to wait until the first “missiles” were off, then move some weapons around to simulate backhauling the spent canisters and reloading the tubes.

080808-N-7668G-015Unfortunately, Murphy showed up, as he tends to do on ships that have been completely gutted and put back together, and it ended up taking us hours to get comms up and running correctly. The whole ship spent this time standing around at battlestations—including the Torpedo Division, who had everything and everyone they needed to conduct some excellent weapons handling training, everything, that is, but the words “missile away.” By the time we got a simulated missile off we had run out of time and had to secure from the exercise. For the Torpedomen, it was an exercise in standing around with tools in their hands.

We obviously got better, but we would also include a provision in future drill plans to let the Torpedo Room operate independently if necessary so they could get the most training value out of the drill.

If you’re the ranking officer, then BE the ranking officer

Simulators. At times you may be sent off the ship with a small team to train on a simulator at a nearby schoolhouse. Treat this as a rare opportunity; these facilities are in high demand, so don’t waste them by half-assing the training scenario. If you’re the ranking officer, then BE the ranking officer—lead your team in using the inevitable down-time constructively, either by reviewing procedures or gun-drilling comms and litanies. Follow up the scenario with a solid debrief; write down your lessons learned for next time. The team will pick up on your effort and energy, and it will be reflected in their learning.

Fight the Good Fight. I fully acknowledge that all this hoo-yah enthusiasm about training is really easy to write from my comfy chair in the middle of shore duty. It is damned hard to care so much when you’re exhausted and your people are exhausted, especially when you have a hundred other hot taskers threatening to eat you. Everyone has their bouts of frustrated apathy. Everyone gets tired and fed up. When a division officer stops caring, though, another ten or twenty sailors also stop caring. You have to keep at it— keep fighting the good fight.


One thought on “Train Effectively

  1. As former ATG, I would also throw in that, as middle management, we owe it to our folks to do the due diligence in reading the requirements of upcoming training and certification events. Too often, I would hear “we didn’t know about that requirement” when it was clearly written in the pubs (sometimes in multiple places). I know it’s mundane, but passing an inspection first time up with flying colors does wonders for morale as well as help decompress an overly tight schedule.

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