In “Principles-Based Operations: A Military-Proven Method Part I,” I alluded to the institutionalization of the military service. Specifically, I wrote about the U.S. Navy’s nuclear power program and some of the principles that make it successful. These high-level values are instilled in recruits through the training process and during day-to-day interactions. In Part I, I explained how integrity and ownership are vital to safe and efficient power plant operations. In this article, I will touch on level of knowledge, forceful backup, questioning attitude, procedural compliance, and formality, and why instilling these principles could go a long way toward improving your plant operations.
Level of Knowledge: It’s Not Who You Know, It’s What You Know
I would venture to guess that most people view basic military training in the light of the late-1980s movie “Full Metal Jacket.” While it may no longer be quite as intense, it is true the goal of boot camp is to strip recruits of their individualism and make them part of a team.
Everything is intended to benefit and protect the team. Individuals are expected to follow the orders of team leaders without question. This is how the military works. However, when you enter the U.S. Navy’s nuclear training pipeline, you quickly learn that is not how the nuclear Navy works.
The father of naval nuclear power, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, despised the rigidness of military structure; he was infamous for it. To him, blind compliance with the decision of another, based solely on longevity, was dangerous. I quickly learned that in Rickover’s world, it was not how much service you had or what rank you achieved that mattered, it was how qualified you were and how much you knew. When transferring to a new ship or boat, it did not matter how senior your rank was, if you weren’t “qualified” as an operator for the plant, you were still looked down upon until you had proven yourself through the qualification process.
Rickover was obsessed with “level of knowledge,” basing his program on operators being held to the highest possible standard. Level of knowledge is people maintenance. Like machines, people need preventive and sometimes corrective maintenance to operate as expected.
Any good training program should provide all the basic skills an operator needs before they ever touch equipment. It should also provide useful remediation of failure to meet these standards—not in disciplinary terms, but from the view of overall success. When a lack of knowledge is displayed in an area, the result should be a meaningful plan to correct the root cause of the issue. Most importantly, combining a culture of ownership with level of knowledge will encourage your employees to get smarter beyond the training you provide. Creating a culture of learning in your organization brings the best of each person’s knowledge and skills together for the benefit of the team.
In my experience, a low level of knowledge always accompanies low morale. Nobody wants to be bad at their job, and few people are willing to risk looking “dumb” in front of their peers. This result demonstrates a lack of motivation, and worse, can lead to normalized deviation in the integrity of your qualification program. You must provide the knowledge you desire in your people, with no assumption of what they do or don’t already know. Your culture must encourage the sharing of knowledge and weaknesses. If you make training and getting smarter on the job a part of daily life, from management down, your organization will benefit greatly from it.
Forceful Backup: No Colonel Sanders, You’re Wrong!
As I stated previously, none of these principles stands alone, and we have demonstrated that management plays a vital role in the success of these principles. The tone of an organization is set by its leadership. That tone is the biggest challenge with this next principle: forceful backup.
The application of this principle is two-fold. Firstly, if any individual knows or suspects something is wrong, then that person is responsible for saying something and empowered to force the matter. Secondly, supervisors are responsible for accepting that feedback with an open mind and ensuring everyone agrees that the potential problem has been addressed adequately for the betterment of the team prior to moving forward.
To really benefit from this principle, your entire organization must leave their ego at the door. This is a day-to-day operating principle. Application begins by soliciting feedback from the people who work for you, and then, no matter what the feedback is, ensuring concerns are resolved prior to moving forward. If a person demonstrates a knowledge deficiency, then you deal with that deficiency later. Never underscore the concern at that moment. Chances are, if one person is asking, someone else had the same question but was afraid to ask.
Forceful backup is very challenging to instill. A junior person may be afraid to speak up and be proven wrong. Furthermore, senior personnel can become too comfortable in their own knowledge and may be offended if someone questions them. This does not work. As Rickover said, “Free discussion requires an atmosphere unembarrassed by any suggestion of authority or even respect.”
This does not excuse insubordination; it allows open dialogue based on technical correctness. Tying your institutional integrity, ownership, and level of knowledge together with the principle of forceful backup, keeping the focus of the culture (“It’s not about who is right, it’s about what is right!”) will allow you to benefit from open and honest dialogue. I promise you will be surprised what you learn when your position is routinely questioned and you are forced to defend it with facts. Forceful backup tends to shine a light on whether you know as much as you believe, and whether your people know as much as you believe, to everyone’s benefit.
Questioning Attitude: Something Just Doesn’t Feel Right
This touches on the infamous “hunch” from the movies. The Navy calls this “questioning attitude,” which goes far beyond simply asking: “When I perform this step, what is going to happen next?” That thought still needs to go through an operator’s head every time they press a button, operate a valve, or adjust a setting, but there’s more to it than that. Questioning attitude ties together level of knowledge and forceful backup, so that instead of just anticipating the plant response to an action, questioning attitude hits on that “spidey sense” when something is about to happen and just doesn’t feel right, even when that something is not specifically in the operator’s area of concern.
Application of questioning attitude is easy for the operator, but fostering questioning attitude is hard for the manager. It requires a lot of patience. Supervisors may be forced to address hundreds of questions that don’t ultimately speak to actual problems, but by patiently doing so, smarter operators are developed, their sense of ownership is increased, and, when one finally identifies a serious problem, a costly mistake can be avoided.
Procedural Compliance and Formality: These Rules Are in Place for Your Safety
I am going to group the last two principles together, because to me they serve the same purpose. Procedural compliance and formality are insurance against human error. If we are being honest, the most dangerous people in a plant are those that do not know what they do not know. In other words, they are blind to their own weaknesses.
I have had a love-hate relationship with the principles of procedural compliance and formality my entire career as an operator. I felt that it was stifling. It made doing what I knew had to be done difficult. It made me slow down. That’s exactly what these principles are designed to do.
As I have been working around other organizations, I have been surprised with how commonly I find workarounds. Systems that are bypassed and procedures that are not referenced or do not even exist. Sometimes I find that a single piece of equipment will have multiple names at the same plant, which makes formality extremely difficult and can cause confusion in the event of an emergency.
Formality and procedural compliance keep everyone on the same page. The use of common terms when communicating, clear and concise orders, and following procedures as written prevent a gap in an operator’s level of knowledge from causing big problems.
However, they are not foolproof. If an operator has the level of knowledge, or even the questioning attitude to wonder if the order given or the procedure itself are correct, they are empowered to provide forceful backup and question it. Management, in turn, is responsible for evaluating the concern and providing a reason why it is or is not correct, and guidance on how to continue (ownership).
Sometimes plants change, upgrades are installed, or procedures are written that simply do not work. If procedural compliance is a core value and the operators have ownership, they will bring this to management’s attention. However, if an operator creates a work-around, but doesn’t feed that up the chain of command so that the procedure is corrected, or worse, if the reason why a procedure does not work is a failure of a component, then nothing is fixed.
Eventually, that operator will teach the shortcut to another operator, who may create their own shortcut, and may or may not really understand why the shortcut was taken in the first place or what “right” looks like. In the best-case scenario, you are losing money. In the worst case, something bad happens, causing loss of life or equipment damage.
The hope is, if the plant is being operated formally and in compliance with written procedures, then any holes in those procedures or problems with equipment will be questioned, and forcefully fed to management to provide a solution. In the end, issues are fixed, procedures are improved, and everyone wins.
Optimism and Stupidity Are Nearly Synonymous
This is one of my least favorite quotes from the Admiral, as I am a die-hard optimist. However, Rickover had a point. In a perfect world, these principles could be applied easily and never fail, but the world is not perfect, and the only constant is human error. As leaders, we must look at our organization as objectively as possible. Ask yourself, “What is my goal for this organization?” Then, get out and see if you are meeting that goal.
Worded differently, Admiral Rickover might have said, “Hope is not a strategy.” Do you hope that your operators are following accurate, up-to-date procedures or do you know that they have the training and tools they need to do so? Do you hope the plant is properly maintained or do you know, based upon empirical data, that proper maintenance is being performed? Rickover’s quote makes more sense when we consider that if we hope everything is okay, we are preparing for failure.
If a manager cannot confidently answer these difficult questions, the individual needs to take ownership and examine their organization’s shortcomings. What can you do better as a leader to make sure your expectations are being met? Be humble. Expect forceful backup from your team and take their words to heart. Expect and provide respectful, open dialogue. Collect your findings, identify your shortcomings, and determine how to correct them.
Once you have decided on a path, implement it with a sense of patience, that is, give it a chance to take hold before you modify the plan. After implementation, reevaluate. Did it work? Why or why not? What’s the next step? This is especially challenging. We expect immediate results, but truly changing a culture takes time.
You must constantly evaluate whether you are meeting the mark as an organization. The Watchstanding Principles truly work, but only if they are being used. However, everything in nature will find the path of least resistance, and we are no different. As management, you must consistently compare your organization to the desired standard.
Personnel turnover and complacency with your success are the two most common causes of a failure of these principles to stay effective. In this aspect, the challenges faced by the Navy are not much different than those faced by every organization—new people come in, senior people can become complacent, and experienced workers retire. In the end, whether you are harnessing the power of the atom to launch air strikes or operate stealthily in the deep sea; or providing power, chilled water, or steam to a business or major city, the goal is the same: To be the best organization you can be. These principles have served the Navy well, and with the right application, can be just as successfully applied at your organization.