Many power plant operators began their careers in the armed forces. Why is the military such a good training ground? Perhaps the answer lies in the principles instilled in recruits from day one of boot camp and honed by thoughtful leaders throughout their service.

For half a century, the U.S. has powered its most capable warships with the world’s most misunderstood source of energy: nuclear power. Having built more than 200 nuclear power plants, the Navy currently operates some 94 operational reactors (Figure 1), nearly equivalent to the number of operational civilian reactors in the U.S.

1. Many U.S. Navy veterans work in the power industry. This image shows the USS Topeka (SSN 754), USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), and USNS Bridge (T-AOE 10) steaming in formation in the Bay of Bengal. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans

Unlike most commercial reactors, a naval reactor does not start up and operate at full power for months on end (often in 18- or 24-month cycles) until it is time to refuel. Instead, they are operated under widely varying conditions, taken to the far reaches (and depths) of the globe, and often placed into abnormal conditions or cycled for the training of operators. It is not uncommon to shut down and restart a naval reactor two or three times a day, and in between, place the equipment in all sorts of unusual operating configurations for the sake of qualifying those who would take them into battle.

Despite all these abnormalities, the U.S. Navy has avoided a radiological accident. Although there have been significant maritime incidents, such as the losses of USS Scorpion and USS Thresher, the causes were not failure of the reactor plants and none has resulted in a meaningful radiological hazard to the environment. So how is it that the Navy has maintained such an unblemished safety record, given the challenging conditions and sheer number of plants operated? Years of training and certification? A stifling amount of government oversight?

Not necessarily. The Naval Nuclear Power Program regularly enlists students fresh from high school and in under two years certifies them to operate a nuclear power plant. The supervisors? Fresh college graduates with far less experience than those they are supervising. This may sound like a recipe for disaster, but it also relates to the current state of civilian power generation. So why does it work and how can you apply this success to your organization?

The Navy Nuclear Pipeline

When I enlisted, 9/11 had not yet occurred and America was in a time of peace. Fresh out of high school, I had no experience in power generation or equipment. I knew a little about cars—thanks to my dad—but my only real work experience was bussing tables at a restaurant. I failed chemistry and pre-calculus in high school. When I arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, for the first phase of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program “pipeline,” I was as green as could be, but we all were. All 200 kids walking into the doors of that intimidating brick building were clueless, and in less than a year, the Navy was going to let us operate a real reactor.

My first instructor was a Machinist Mate Chief Petty Officer. I assumed because of his rank, roughly equivalent to a shift supervisor, he had been in the Navy “forever.” As it turned out, Chief had less than 10 years in the service, and he had already overseen the Mechanical Division of his first plant, supervising about 40 sailors operating and maintaining USS Enterprise (CVN 65). He immediately began drilling us with the foundation of the Navy’s success in nuclear power: the watchstanding principles. These included formality, level of knowledge, forceful backup, procedural compliance, questioning attitude, ownership, and integrity. These seven principles drove everything that the program did and were the standard by which all operators were judged. It seemed simple, maybe even a little cliché, but over the course of the next 20 years, I would come to understand and appreciate how these simple principles would make it possible for me to safely operate power plants, and eventually lead people to do the same.

As the years have passed, the Navy’s success has caught on. Many organizations have begun applying these principles with great return on investment. You may recognize some of these principles and may already use them, but hopefully, I will share some insights that may be new to you.

‘The Right Thing’

The very first principle driven into recruits when they arrive for basic training is integrity (Figure 2). Used synonymously with honor (one of the Navy’s core values), the definition given when I was in training was: “Doing the right thing when no one is looking.” We were taught that no matter what, whether you were being supervised or whether anyone would ever know the truth, you were expected to do “the right thing,” both inside and outside of work. It was often demonstrated that of all the foundations of our program, a lack of integrity would be dealt with swiftly and harshly. Violating your integrity was the fastest way out the door.

2. The foundation for safe and efficient operations is integrity. Courtesy: Fossil Consulting Services Inc.

Before we dive into implementation, let’s discuss “right.” Sometimes, the line between “right” and “wrong” is clear. The expectation is universal. Sometimes, the definition of “right” varies. After a series of integrity violations, the Navy decided to redefine integrity and how it was implemented. Leaders decided the definition of “right” and “wrong” was different based on an individual’s upbringing and own moral code. They also determined that implementing a zero-defect organization, most importantly, how leadership enforced that ideology, resulted in what is referred to as “normalized deviance.”

Normalized deviance is what is considered “acceptable” at an organization. This can be as simple as not checking the air pressure in a tractor tire before using it, or as dangerous as not performing component safety checks prior to startup. Now, you may be thinking, “Who allows this kind of lack in standards?” For management, it goes beyond enforcement of standards. You must ask: How does the employee justify deviation from the rules? Are the rules not understood? Do they not work? Is there some barrier, such as an unrealistic expectation for accomplishment, that makes the employee feel justified?

The Navy discovered a combination of these factors led to what leaders considered their most serious integrity violations. To re-center, they released a new definition of integrity. It was: “Absolute honesty, trustworthiness, and reliability, in… training, qualification, operations, and maintenance. Demonstrating moral courage to accept responsibility for one’s actions.”

This definition based integrity on what was beneficial for the organization, instead of making it a matter of morality. It created shared responsibility. The individual was responsible for doing what they know they’re expected to do, and management is responsible for making sure the expectations are known and reasonable. To apply this to your organization, you must create a culture of “right” based on what benefits the organization, and not any individual.

Let me provide an example. A conveyor belt at your facility suffered a bearing failure, halting the entire operation. After maintenance workers replaced the failed part, you learn that it was obvious the bearing had not been lubricated. How do you respond? One way would be to fire the employee responsible for not performing the maintenance. Would that solve the problem? Let’s do some digging.

You decide to interview the employee and ask them why they skipped that bearing. You find out that the employee showed up that day and had been given the task, normally a two-day task, and was only given one day to do it. Additionally, you learn the site didn’t have the required grease and there was a two-hour delay having it delivered. Or maybe after reviewing the procedure, you realize that the conveyor belt was updated, adding this bearing. However, the maintenance list and drawing were not updated. Does any of that information change your response, or at least identify a bigger problem? Firing the employee does not solve the root cause of the problem. This problem would likely happen again.

Institutional integrity drives an understanding between management and employees that each is responsible for identifying and correcting failures in the process whether procedural, material, or personnel related. To be effective, management is responsible for making sure organizational expectations are reasonable, well-communicated, and that any issues preventing employees from meeting expectations are taken seriously and resolved. Institutional integrity places the good of the organization and the people it serves over individual benefits (including protecting friends). This approach to integrity is far better than placing the weight of doing the “right” thing on the individual, regardless of whatever bad situation the organization may place them in, and fosters our next principle.

Responsibility Is a Unique Concept

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of Naval Nuclear Power, and really, commercial nuclear power, once said: “Responsibility is a unique concept… you may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you… if responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance, or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else.”

This quote was plastered all over the Navy’s schoolhouse. The second-most-important thing, according to my Chief, was ownership. As I grew in my own career, managing sailors and young officers, I found that ownership is my favorite principle—one that I would fall back to consistently. Much like integrity, the definition of ownership varies from person to person. Some people come to work every day with the mentality, “I am integral to this team and our success.” Others come to work comfortable doing only what their job description says, no more, no less. While neither employee is “wrong,” we all know which we prefer.

Ownership goes beyond productivity and plays into every principle. Instill ownership and all the pieces fall into place. Build a culture where everyone works for the success of the organization, and mistakes can easily be managed. Create an environment where everyone feels vital to the success of your organization and says, “If any of us is wrong, we are all responsible for pointing it out,” and you build ownership. A member of a team with ownership walks through the building and notices areas that need cleaning, undesirable working conditions, and training that’s needed. Every day they think, “How can I make us better?”

None of these principles stands alone. They all support each other, like the foundation and frame of a house. If you haven’t noticed, management plays a vital role in the success of these principles. To dive into the other five principles, and learn how management can build these pillars of success, see “Principles-Based Operations: A Military-Proven Method Part II.” ■

Derek Meier (dmeier@fossilconsulting.com) is a staff training specialist with Fossil Consulting Services.