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In every business, there are three major areas of work. With simplified definitions and in no particular order, they are:
- Marketing – creating the demand for the company’s product or service (examples are advertising and product development)
- Finance – providing the capital (cash or debt) to fund the company
- Operations – providing the core product or service (examples are manufacturing and logistics)
A VP Squadron doesn’t have to do Marketing or Finance – it is a 100% operations center. The goal of every operations center is always to seek efficiency. Reducing costs, eliminating wasted effort, and moving faster are all objectives of operations, however they are bounded by being aligned to the company’s product. For example, a super-high quality custom furniture maker wouldn’t want to adopt the ultra-efficient manufacturing processes of Ikea because those efficiencies are gained only because they produce a lot of the same thing very fast (i.e. they’d lose the customization which is their core offering).
The study of how best a company brings its product or service to life is called Operations Management. There are many fields of study within the umbrella of Operations Management including process improvement, process optimization, risk management, forecasting, and more. You’ve probably heard of “lean” or “six-sigma” and those fall under this category. This field of study is far too big for me to really do it justice in a blog post… But I’ll try to cover some of the big points that VP is missing.
Statistics and Bottlenecks: Statistics is something that every major corporation incorporates into their daily operations. The good ones understand that there is always going to be some statistical variation. The better companies understand how dependent events become affected by that variation. Amazon, Walmart, and Costco do this better than anyone else which is why they are so successful. They’re able to eek out efficiencies here and there better than the competition.
Operations also involves the understanding of your limitations, and good companies focus on optimizing around their constraints (also called bottlenecks). Apple used to have a big problem getting customers their iPhones on day 1 (remember all those long lines at the Apple store?). They finally figured out the statistics around product mix and improved their operations to have enough iPhones for their customers on day 1 of a product launch. But they only went as far as how many UPS/Fedex/USPS could actually deliver in 1 day. It would make no sense for Apple to continue to improve how many iPhones they can produce when their shipping partners can’t handle that volume. They improved upon a constraint until another constraint became the bottleneck.
Let’s take a typical VP squadron in Jacksonville in the Summer. They have 5 planes. They have 140 aircrew. Here are all the statistics and constraints you’d consider in developing a flight schedule:
- Some percentage of attempted takeoffs will be delayed or cancelled due to maintenance (there will be variation of this percentage among aircraft too!)
- Some percentage of aircrew will be med down
- There will be some probability of afternoon thunderstorms which may cancel or delay flights
- Some percentage of aircraft will return in a down status and affect the next mission
- There will be some variation in the length of time it will take to get the plane off-deck
- Crew rest
- Number of combinations of aircrew you can field
- Daily caps on flying and man-ups
- Number of aircrew needed on each plane depending on the type of mission
- For training events, available students and qualified instructors
We have all that data. What we don’t have is the knowledge or tools to effectively utilize it. There are techniques and tools that can help us sort through the complexity and answer a basic question like, “How likely is it for the squadron to get x flight hours or y mission quals today?” This particular problem wouldn’t be terribly difficult to model, and the benefit would be that you could understand what a reasonable expectation of performance is.
Too often, we aim for 100% mission completion, or 100% on-time takeoff, or 100% of some other metric that is easy to measure. These are foolish objectives that are reinforced when a detachment gets lucky and goes 10 for 10. That’s like expecting the roulette table to always come up black because it once went 10 times in a row.
So we end up doing some perverse things to attain these unrealistic goals. We schedule backup aircraft. We schedule backup aircrews. We increase maintenance shifts. Once we run out of aircrew, we schedule the ready crew. We do all these crazy things that consume every last drop of our resources. These are huge morale killers. Not only does it sap everyone’s energy, but sometimes the objectives are so unrealistic that there’s no way to actually be successful. Patting ourselves on the back for the ol’ college try when the goal was completely unrealistic reinforces all sorts of bad behavior and attitudes.
Sometimes it’s necessary to try to achieve higher performance outside the range of a statistically probable outcome. However, the cost of achieving that objective grows exponentially the further it gets from reality. We should be smarter about when we use the resources lever to eek out higher performance. It should be for a good reason and at an appropriate time (an ASW exercise 2 weeks after returning from deployment is not a good time for this).
I think VP is stuck in the mindset of trying to hit unrealistic goals all year round. We should invest some time and money into developing some tools to enable the OPS department to understand what a reasonable range of performance is based on the specific stats and constraints of the day/week/month/quarter. This would relieve the pressure our mindless 100% mantra causes and allow us to set reasonable expectations. It would also enable a real evaluation of squadron performance. Over time, the best squadrons would often perform near the upper boundary of the performance range and the worst squadrons would be near the lower boundary.
There’s a really good lesson to be heard about GM in the 80s. Basically Toyota had GM send its worst factory’s workers and managers over to Japan where they were shown exactly how Toyota was able to make cars of much higher quality and much lower cost than GM. Those workers came back and turned GM’s worst plant into the best plant, by far. But today, GM cars still don’t have the quality of Japanese imports, and GM went bankrupt along the way.
The difference was in culture and how it was applied to their operations. Toyota strongly enforced the idea of continuous improvement (“kaizen” in Japanese). Every person in their organization was committed to improvement – from the CEO down to the lowest person on the factory line. I strongly recommend listening to this podcast https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/561/nummi-2015 – it’s about an hour long and I guarantee you will find yourself drawing parallels between GM and the VP Navy. Toyota’s culture of continuous improvement is something that the VP Navy could adopt because our people are extremely dedicated and hard working. The only thing stopping us is our own leadership.
When I got out, I was certain that there were better ways to do things … and there are. Lots of them. Too many to list in this article. I believe that we should start by better defining our performance expectations using statistics, but we just don’t have the education or exposure in the VP Navy. But that’s my opinion and I’m biased because I like statistics. At the very least, every Operations Officer and Maintenance Officer should have to do some amount of required training in Operations Management. In the business world, similar jobs require years of experience and quite a bit of education in this field before running something as big as a VP Squadron.
Adding management education to our leadership track should be a no-brainer. While we wait, I recommend required reading for all DHs – “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement.” I won’t spoil it but it basically covers a simple idea: there are a limited number of constraints in any organization. Identify them, and then work to help them or remove them (only to find another constraint). https://www.amazon.com/Goal-Process-Ongoing-Improvement/dp/0884271951/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489386642&sr=8-1&keywords=the+goal
Incentives are Important: Why our DUI prevention incentives don’t work but our mishap prevention incentives do
On the surface, incentives seem really simple. You want people to behave a certain way so you establish a reward for that behavior. But incentives can be tricky, especially if poorly implemented. A well-known example of misaligned incentives is real-estate sales commissions. A home seller incentivizes a real-estate broker by giving them 3% of the home sale price. The broker is therefore incentivized to maximize the sale price. If you’re trying to sell your house for $210K, and the broker gets a buyer willing to pay $200K, the broker is already getting $6K in commission, and will only going to get another $300 if they get up to $210K. That extra 10K might be really important to you the seller, but that $300 doesn’t mean jack to the broker. The real incentive for the broker isn’t to maximize sale price, it’s to sell as many homes as quickly as possible.
The Navy has limited positive incentives like cash bonuses for high performance. What the Navy does have is a lot of negative incentives, like punishment. This idea is that people want to avoid punishment, so they don’t do the behavior that gets them that. A note on negative incentives: using too many of them creates a culture of risk-aversion (not in scope for this article, but it’s definitely a problem).
For both positive and negative incentives to work, they must be carefully constructed so that you actually get the behavior you want. I’ll use two examples – one we do right and one we do wrong.
1) Airplane Safety: We all know that we have a very safe platform because when things go wrong, everyone does a deep dive, learns from what happened, and then those lessons are disseminated and incorporated into our training curriculum to make us safer. This requires people to divulge mistakes, safety incidents, etc. So our incentive is to reward squadrons for the number of HAZREPs they produce. Further, each squadron and wing publicly rewards individuals for doing safety related acts of kindness. Great alignment to get the behavior you want.
2) DUI and the friend: We all know that if you’re out with a buddy, and he offers to drive but gets pulled over and arrested for a DUI, not only does the DUI offender get in heaps of trouble, but everyone that “allowed” him to drive drunk gets punished too. The idea is that you want people to take care of each other, so you will punish when they do not. There are two choices If I have to decide what to do in this situation: 1) take care of a sloppy drunk (really hard) or 2) steer clear of them (really easy). The result (avoiding punishment) is the same if I do either one successfully. Because the incentive is the same I’d much rather do the easier of the two options and just steer clear. Further, even if I work really hard to take care of people, there’s no guarantee I’d be successful. This is a perverse disincentive combined with a risky situation where it’s more likely to cause people to do the opposite of the behavior you want. How many people have seen the senior most person just disappear when things were getting fun? How many of you have been the senior person that recused themselves from going out in the first place?
Incentives should also not be universally applied. Consider the Skipper that punishes the JO pilots when they make a mistake. Didn’t like how they handled that emergency? Pull their papers. This negative incentive is directly opposed to the airplane safety incentive listed above. You run the risk of causing people to simply not report safety incidents for fear of punishment. It makes you less safe, not more. This happens often enough that I’m convinced we don’t understand how to effectively use incentives.
Group incentives are also a useful tool – there’s a social component to it that we respond to. Remember when the drill instructor made everyone else do pushups except for the ass that showed up late? Everyone pays a heavy price except for one person, who shoulders all the blame. That person probably never shows up late again. This works great for negative incentives, but is pretty weak with positive incentives. You remember the 365 days without a DUI and everyone gets a day off? The incentive rests on the behavior of 300+ other people… am I really going to respond to this? Not really.
The interesting thing is that preventing DUIs and increasing aviation safety should be in the same category of incentives. Use negative incentives only for the things you really want to punish – safety incident cover ups and actual DUIs should be punished severely and publicly (add the social element). Punish the right people, not the bystanders. Punishments should also be public enough that everyone understands exactly the reason for it. If you’re severely punishing someone for covering up a minor safety incident, it could be misconstrued as a big overreaction. But also incorporate rewards – reward the individual who stops a DUI with a day off (and don’t punish anyone for reporting it).
We tend to rely heavily on intrinsic (or innate) motivations rather than incentives. Here are some common rebuttals to incentive schemes that I’d expect to hear from typical VP. “Stopping DUIs is the mission of every good leader. Work hard because you’re patriotic and doing it for your country. A prestigious but really hard job is your reward for high performance.” Innate motivation is great, and we in the military have it in spades compared to the corporate world. It’s a cultural attribute unique to the military and should be celebrated. But intrinsic rewards can’t be universally applied nor are they universally effective at motivating everyone. Not everyone has Captain America level patriotism. Not everyone cares about prestigious roles. Not everyone is a leader that cares deeply about the people around them. Adding a robust incentive system applied in the right way could build on that innate motivation. It would not only fix a lot of problems but would also maximize the productivity of our best asset: our people.
A couple of key notes about incentives:
1) Incentives need to be aligned to the behavior you want to achieve. Be honest about what you’re really incentivizing (harsh punishments for safety incidents is more likely to cause cover-ups than improve safety). “On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B” is a classic management article that talks about this in several industries, including the military.
2) Group incentives add a social component which is powerful, but the benefit is essentially split between all the participants.
3) Incentives have a time component to it: the longer it takes to get the reward, the less sensitive people are to it (people just don’t internalize rewards that are too far out).
4) Too much reliance on negative incentives creates a culture of risk-aversion.
5) Any meaningful change to VP culture should include changing our incentives for everyone from the Skipper down.
6) There is no reason not to experiment with different incentives and share the results amongst community leaders. I’d insert this into the DH and CO/XO curriculum at VP-30.
A good business strategy must answer the question, “What are we going to be good at?” and equally as important, “What are we going to be bad at?” You can’t be great at everything, and trying to do so makes you worse at everything. Companies that do this the best and have their strengths aligned with something customers will pay for rise to the top. Strong focus allows companies to say no to opportunities that would be distracting and put their resources only towards what will make them successful. In VP land we’ve long been at the game of trying to do everything without a real strategy that addresses our very real constraints.
A well-known example of focus and tradeoffs can be found in Apple. What are they really good at and focused on? High-end design and the quality manufacturing of consumer electronics. What are they bad at? They have high prices and pretty limited variety of products with limited flexibility in what you can use their products to do. When Steve Jobs returned in the late nineties to a nearly bankrupt Apple, he cut their product line by 70% down to 4 core products. That is focus.
Apple trades off cost against quality, which are natural tradeoffs – it’s hard to do both well, and it’s better to focus on one or the other. The much-maligned F-35 program is a good example of how a desire to everything great (i.e. lack of focus) costs a lot of money and ensures that you are never that great at anything.
What are all the things that VP tries to do well? Starting with our mission set, we do ASW, ASUW, ISR, C2, MIW, SAR. For the sake of brevity I’ll leave it at those missions, but you could break them down further by weapon type, over-land vs. maritime, etc. Outside of the missions, we do aircraft maintenance, ordnance handling and loading, admin, Intel, IT support, classified material handling and storage, legal, mission training, MWR, geedunk, medical, scheduling, NATOPs, Safety, and on and on and on… This post aims to provide 3 ways we can be more focused.
1. Organizational Focus:
A VP Squadron has one core mission: put maritime patrol aircraft on station, on-time, and execute the mission. A VP Wing’s core mission is to support the VP Squadrons under it. If I wanted to put more of our constrained resources towards our core mission at the squadron level, I would start by getting rid of legal, admin, IT support, and the geedunk. All of these functions could be centralized at the Wing level. There would be a lot of tangible benefits to doing this: economies of scale, increased standardization, freeing up resources of the squadron… But even better is that the strategic advantage would be to put these support functions where they align with the core mission of their parent organization.
There would be growing pains in that you’d lose some responsiveness and customization, but I’d argue that VP squadron doesn’t need or want to be great at these functions anyway, but the VP wing does. The functions mentioned above are just a starting point. Safety/NATOPs could be the ending point. There’s really no reason why that function needs to be duplicated in every squadron.
2. Mission Focus:
On the mission side, the VP community has allowed our core competency of ASW to be diluted by requiring competency in ever more complex, diverse, and disparate missions. There might be good reasons to diversify our capabilities, but focus would demand us to have an honest discussion about what we’re going to be great at. Start with the actual utility of some capability and compare it to how difficult that capability is to maintain. Then look for overlap with other capabilities to get some scale economies. For instance, ASW and MIW have some overlapping training and execution requirements. If we’re good at ASW, it doesn’t cost much for us to be good at MIW also.
However, if we want to also be good at Maritime Air Support, which is a totally different skillset from ASW, it costs a lot more. Add enough of these disparate missions to the requirements and you’ll eventually run out of resources to attain any sort of excellence.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, it could be a hybrid model. For example, half of our squadrons could be great at ISR and ASUW, half of our squadrons are going to be great at ASW and Mining. You’d get better tactical performance but trade off against only having half the global capacity for either mission.
3. Competency Focus (be ready only when you need it):
But maybe the Navy needs us to be the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. After all, the original name for the P-8 was the Multi-mission Aircraft. Because our missions are too dissimilar and require high levels of specialized training, it’s foolish to think every aircrew could be good at every mission, all the time.
One could logically say it’s a waste to be ready for 100% of our mission set when we only utilize 10%. For example, getting ASW ready only to deploy to El Sal or the Middle East is wasted effort. An even bigger waste of resources is to try to maintain an unutilized capability during high op-tempos (EMATTEX in the Arabian Gulf comes to mind as a giant waste of time and morale-killer). And if there is one certainty, it’s that the VP Navy can’t predict which mission set will be most utilized.
Rather than try to be great at all these disparate missions all the time, which is extremely costly, we could change what we define as our core competency. It’d be much more effective to be great at rapid training, ramp-up, and capability deployment as needed. In simpler terms, we should be great at adapting to real-world situations by making our core competency to be ramping-up aircrews and airplanes for specific missions really fast.
Of course, there are some missions that require too much training to be able to ramp up quickly (like ASW). And we’d need to be competent in the missions required for our deployments. And if we wanted to rapidly train our crews, we’d probably need trainers to train and possible serve as rapid response teams while the rest get up to speed. I think the Wing’s WTU and/or the MPRWS could fill those roles quite nicely.
- Focus allows for excellence in something by trading off against something else
- VP Squadrons can focus on mission performance by trading off their support functions to the Wing
- VP Navy can focus on specific missions by reducing the number of missions (i.e. no more ASUW) or by reducing the number of aircrew required to be competent in each mission (i.e. half ASW, half ASUW)
- VP Navy could be ready for a wide variety of missions only when needed, not all the time. To accomplish this best, redefine our core competency as the ability to rapidly train and deploy capabilities as needed.
We’ve been guilty of not having a coherent strategy for too long. Rather, we’ve just been blindly following our marching orders: be combat ready at an ever-increasing number of diverse mission sets, and transition to a new aircraft. Meanwhile our P-3s get older, our budget is uncertain year over year, our adversaries are improving and other platforms are outperforming us at everything. I’ll add that the P-8 is not going to solve the fundamental problems within our community. The P-8 is only solving surface level issues – without focus, without strategy, we’ll be left scratching our heads as to why P-8 squadrons don’t seem to be performing that well.
This blog was started with a single post e-mailed to one officer in each squadron. It took off and amassed more than 20,000 views while it was active. Frustrated with always hearing, “this is how it’s always been,” this was an experiment to see if a ground-swell of support combined with open communication straight to the top of our leadership could effect change. For that reason, the headlines and some of the articles were intentionally demagogic and intentionally “click-baity.” It was supposed to be 50/50 bitching/solution. In retrospect, it was probably more like 50% bitching, 25% highlighting subversive problems, and 25% solution.
There were also several people that directly contributed to the content, and many that indirectly contributed. Additionally, there were several good debates and discussion in the comments. Thanks everyone for their time, passion, and contributions.
The blog has been inactive for a couple of years, but the most recent comments indicate that the content is still somewhat relevant – that still, 6 years later, nothing much has changed. It was born out of a desire to be impactful, and there’s going to be one final push to achieve that impact. Over the course of a week, there will be 6 new articles published that are about what I learned outside the Navy and how the VP community could benefit from those lessons. They are:
- Strategy: Why we need to be bad in order to be great
- Incentives are Important: Why our DUI prevention incentives don’t work but our mishap prevention incentives do
- Operations Management: The answer to “doing more with less”
- Talent Management: Allowing people to do what they enjoy and are good at leads to better outcomes for everyone
- A Strategy for Change: What are VP Navy’s unique strengths and how to leverage them
- Conclusion – The military is not a business: Why treating it like one can lead to failure
- Final Thoughts
Each recommendation can be implemented entirely within VP Navy – we don’t have to change the entire Navy to change ourselves. Hope you enjoy the reads.
It’s been well over a year since I’ve posted. I’ve been kicking about some ideas in my head about what I should do with this blog, since I still get hits every day. This is most likely thanks to the navy employing anti-Google URLs for all their websites, so when people search for VP-30 they get my blog.
Over the last 2 years, I have heard many of our community leaders extolling the excitement of the coming years. How change is coming, and that change looks, and is, good, and was built upon the results of what we did on station. So I wanted to look at the changes that have happened in the last two years, and analyze whether those speeches meant anything. One change that happened is that there are evidently polls that we can embed in these blogs. If you will, please vote in the above poll.
1. The readiness system: It changed, but people still hate it. The readiness system changes align very neatly with some of the changes I proposed in an earlier post. Since I’ve been constantly accused of not having a lack of hubris, I’ll play into that perception and take credit for it.
The biggest problem still remains with what we have to do to claim quals (hereby referred to as tasks). The “checks in the block” for each task simply isn’t robust enough to say concretely that a crew or an individual is or is not capable of meeting the demands of the skills. We’re stuck in this mindset of having to measure every tiny detail of what a crew does and put a metric, limit, or score associated with it. Must attack in 5 minutes – 20 points! Must analyze CPA within 3 minutes! Must call a sitrep every time the SS2 is confused!
That way of analyzing performance is all about collecting a lot of precise data. That could work – however our data is inherently imprecise! Even worse, our means to collect that data is based on the message traffic system, or an excel spreadsheet that gets passed around and saved in a folder labeled S:\Trackers2009 – hardly an efficient process.
So while the readiness system made some strides forward, the biggest hurdle yet remains. And I don’t think anybody is working on this or even considering changing it because it’s so entrenched in the way we do business. If we’re to stick with this data-driven evaluation system, the system should get its inputs directly from the sensors and the computer on board. Furthermore, our sensors must be more precise and the data gained to be verifiable. Otherwise, create a more holistic approach to evaluation – there’s validation in unbiased concensus.
2. The budget – we’ve experienced so much turmoil with the budget. Squadrons might be coming home early! Squadrons are having their deployments cancelled! No more flying! All of these rumors didn’t come true in light of looming budget cuts. Our leaders’ leaders have gone on about how damaging the sequester is going to be. How costly it will be to try to regain the skills we’ll lose from the budget cuts.
My question is, “Is nobody even considering just making us more efficient?” If we’re so concerned with losing our skills due to reduced funding, why not reduce expenses in other ways? I think the two biggest costs we have are manpower and costs associated with flight hours. So here are some cost saving tips that wouldn’t reduce our skills:
Admin: in today’s world of connectivity – why do they have to deploy? They just eat up per diem and other costs that simply aren’t necessary. The biggest reason to keep things the same is that it’s “sea duty.” So the entire detailing process would have to be reworked to make it into a shore duty. But then how could they possible compete for that #1 EP against a deployer? This highlights how our advancement system sets up these invisible barriers towards organizational progress.
Measuring operational performance based on executing what we’re budgeted for ensures that we are NEVER going to be more efficient in how we spend our money for operational flight hours. The OPSO is given a certain amount of flight hours to cover each quarter. That amount is based on what we’re budgeted for. That budget is loosely based on how many hours it takes to keep everyone proficient. Our leaders fight to keep those hours from getting slashed.
Meanwhile, our PPCs have found an easier way to be more efficient – simply lie about when you took off and landed. This cheating of flight hours is rampant – with 20 minutes on either end extremely commonplace. On a 5 hour DFW, my guess is that the average PPC flies 4 hours and 20 minutes. That is a 13% reduction in flight hours. In an organization that values integrity above almost anything else, it’s shocking how acceptable this form of cheating is. My belief is that many PPCs inherently understand how arbitrary and stupid the way we MUST fly our hours is. Thinking that bending the rules is ok as long as nobody gets hurt, they do it. And they do it all the time.
Draw your own conclusions here – I don’t think that bending the rules by lying about takeoff and land times is wrong. I think it’s a natural result of dealing with arbitrary and outdated rules. With the high percentage of republicans and libertarians in our ranks, it’s surprising how many don’t extol the virtues of the free market when it comes to P-3s flight hours.
Since it’s fashionable to be budget conscious, why not perform an experiment with one or two squadrons wherein they fly what they need? We have that flexibility. Not every squadron has to do the same thing! Further, rumor has it that some squadrons may get the axe – that’s a perfect platform to try something different.
3. 100MB inboxes!!!! Holy shit our email space doubled! I was wondering why I hadn’t gotten an alert that I was over my limit in a while. This must have been a Herculean effort and a monumental cost – unbelievable that they achieved this with all the strain on the budget. 50 extra Megabytes is 0.05 Gigabytes. Multiplied by the 350,000 or so active duty personnel and you get 17,500 extra gigabytes of storage space, which is 17.5 Terabytes. You can buy 1 TB hard drives on amazon for $84.65 each, which means that extra storage costs roughly $1500. Multiply that by 2 to make it a server, then multiply by another 2 for the government rate and you get $6,000 + extra operating costs for that storage. Thanks NMCI!
4. The Super-JO program, or Squadron WTI program came…. And quickly went away. For those unfamiliar, the Super-JO program is where a Weapons and Tactics instructor (WTI) goes back to a squadron after their shore tour in lieu of a disassociated sea tour. WTIs come from the Wing (ARP Instructors), VP-30 (Weapons School… mostly), CTFs, or NSAWC/NMAWC (very specialized billets). The idea is that you take quality instructors, make them even better with another 2-3 years in platform, and reinvest that experience and talent back into the squadrons.
So the Super JO program was around for 9 months or so. To my knowledge, there was zero discussion with the Super JOs selected for the program about whether or not they were making gains in squadron performance. So why the cancellation of the program? It seems like a smart idea – have very experienced instructors that have the desire to give back to their community reinvest their experience and knowledge.
Was it competing priorities for bodies? One Super JO per squadron is 12 bodies. Are there not 12 people that can be poached from somewhere? Was it for career progression? “We have to send people to boat because they don’t understand what’s good for them!” Last I checked, there were only 24 CO/XO billets, and around 500 JO billets. Clearly, not everyone is going to make Skipper. Was it because they couldn’t convince anyone to go back to a squadron?
I don’t know why it was cancelled. But I know why it was started. It was started because the MPRWS continually noted the exact same deficiencies year after year after year. No amount of newsletters or tactical discussions or changes to the ARP program helped. What could you possibly do but inject MPRWS expertise directly into the squadrons? Bypass the layers upon layers gained from the “Instruct the Instructor” model (think about your squadron’s CNS/ATM program).
This program’s cancellation is completely and utterly deflating. If what we do onstation matters so much, why do our leaders’ actions not prioritize it? What can someone possible reason other than “My performance just doesn’t matter that much.”
The passing of Steve Jobs has brought about a popular reverence of the man. People say he was the modern day Edison, revolutionizing our lives through technology. He was indeed brilliantly creative, and combined his business savvy with a rare understanding of what makes people enjoy using technology. But did anyone think of him in this light before he died? Probably not, outside the tech industry.
Anyways, through all the hype about his life that has arisen since his death, his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford stands out. In it he talks about his life, and about facing death. It is a rare event in which a businessman speaks of philosophy, and the speech is powerful in a posthumous light. Here’s the link:
Its a good speech, but what I took away from it started around 9:10, where he talks about facing death. Here are the quotes that I thought best reflected my thoughts about life in the Navy:
- “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
- “Don’t be trapped by dogma which is living with results of other people’s thinking.”
- “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”
- “…and most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…”
Nearly every career advice we get offers ways and avenues to replicate what the previous generation of Naval officers did. When we know something doesn’t work, we forgo innovation and attempt to mend what was there, perpetuating a broken system. Dissenters of the way we do business are ostracized for being lazy.
This mantra isn’t for everyone. The majority (I think) of people are more than content to show up to a job with excellent job security where they’re told what to do. That life is not for me. I cannot commit my life contributing to an organization unwilling or unable to change for the better. So the question is, “Will I take the chance on myself?” Thanks Steve Jobs. I’m getting out of the Navy.
Well its that time of the year again. The time when OPSO’s get all pissypants about this thing called the OPTAR budget. You are in one of two situations – you either fly as little as possible to accomplish the objective, or you fly as much as you can to accomplish getting hours. This is all to satisfy a magical number of flight hours for the fiscal year.
Doesn’t anyone see how idiotic this is? We can’t finish the year 1 hour short? What the fuck’s going to happen? More importantly, who gives a fuck? This is symptomatic of a culture of consumption. I’m not talking about the American consumer culture, but merely trying to point out that in the face of HONA, we fly the planes to get hours, and don’t strive to make what limited flight hours we have left count.
I thought we were supposed to extend the lives of the planes because the P-8 won’t be getting here in a timely fashion? “But the OPTAR Budget!!! We have to fly a set number of hours!!!!” Yelling it doesn’t make it right.
For some added levity, I’ve attached a picture of this choaderrific patch.
Straight from Wikipedia: Risk is the potential that a chosen action or activity (including the choice of inaction) will lead to a loss (an undesirable outcome). The notion implies that a choice having an influence on the outcome exists (or existed). Potential losses themselves may also be called “risks”.
Now before you get all pissy about me using Wikipedia as a reference, know that I merely wanted to define what I was talking about, and the Wikipedia definition was quite suitable.
Further definitions – Let’s examine a scenario in which I give you one of two choices:
- I give you $50.
- I flip a coin. Heads – I give you $100. Tails – you get nothing.
Statistically speaking, both choices are equal when viewed over an infinite number of trials. A risk neutral person would be agreeable to either scenario. A risk averse person would choose the 1st option, even if it was for less than $50. A risk inclined person would choose the 2nd option, even if the 1st was for more than $50. This is just a simple explanation of terms I plan on using. This simply exemplifies the character types defined from a scenario with a known probability and quantity of outcome.
Most people are risk inclined, up until what is risked is of such great value to the person that they become risk averse. The lottery is a perfect example of this. It offers terrible odds, and even the payout isn’t comparable. One version of the Lottery offers a chance of winning the jackpot at 1 in 175 million with each ticket costing $1. The actual payout for the jackpot averages less than 175 million. Therefore, anyone playing the Lottery, whether they understand the statistics or not, is risk inclined. Consider what would happen if the lottery tickets cost $1000 and the jackpot had the same odds but paid out 175 billion. Most everyone that previously purchased $1 lottery tickets would stop buying them because $1000 is of great value to them. Somewhere between $1 and $1000 per ticket people changed from risk inclined to risk averse. If we have a risk averse culture (which I believe to be true), we can infer that the majority of decisions we make or the outcomes that may come are of great value to us.
Whenever we make decisions, we intrinsically go through an evaluation process:
- What is the decision to be made?
- What things affect the outcome?
- What is the probability that those things will happen?
- What are the potential outcomes?
There are many things that shape the decisions made in the VP Navy. Most are able to be quantified in some fashion, like the probability that the airplane will experience a catastrophic wing failure. But some of the biggest forces that shape our decision making are very difficult to quantify, like “What will the Skipper think if I do “X” and then “Y” happens?” Unfortunately, the many uncertainties we face often either paralyze us into inaction or make us act only to avoid negative outcomes, rather than acting to cause positive outcomes.
Let’s consider a detachment to San Diego: The Commodore has expressed interest in hearing about how his squadron supported a Carrier exercise. The Skipper understands full well that no matter how well the crews perform onstation, anything that reaches the Commodore will be perceived as nothing more than grandstanding embellishments, because no one ever reports doing poorly. Therefore, the Skipper concludes, perhaps unknowingly, that the only way to look good, is to not look bad. Remember that he’s competing against only 3 others for continual advancement.
So the Skipper has to decide how to not look bad. What things affect that outcome? The easiest performance metrics to quantify are mission completion rates, hours flown, and whether the onstation times were met. Its not surprising then, given that they are easy to measure, that we judge our performance almost solely based on them. This, by the way, contributes to an ever decreasing lack of emphasis on tactical performance. Another thing that affects whether or not the Skipper doesn’t look bad is liberty incidents, and must be avoided at all cost. No matter how good the onstation performance is, a liberty incident negates any positive outcome.
We know that the odds of taking off on time and completing a mission is somewhere between 50 and 95%. That’s just an experienced guess, but I think everyone’s guess would be somewhere between those two numbers. But given that there are only 5-10 flights, its not unfeasible for the Skipper (or det OIC) to eye a number closer to 100%. What are the odds that there will be a liberty incident? Well, experience teaches us that its certainly higher on detachment than at home, but probably on the order of 5% or so.
A risk averse person would, believing the outcome to be very important, take measures to improve the outcome, regardless of the probability of the outcome being negative. This behavior leads to backup preflights, ops readies, and midnight curfews. This of course lowers morale, and generally makes people pissed off (If you’ve done a backup preflight at 2:00 a.m. you know what I’m talking about). Is this necessarily a bad thing? Some would argue that its but one small sacrifice to defend freedom. I would argue that measures like those are the actions of leaders that are paralyzed with fear about looking bad, and are unnecessary. There are more examples of risk averse behavior (like this anonymous blog). This behavior serves to undermine our real performance, lower morale, and in general make us feel like a bunch of douches.
So what exactly has driven our community into this cowardly abyss? For your convenience, I’ve created a list (feel free to comment on more and I’ll edit them in and credit your fake name):
- Promotion system
- Evaluation system
- Information availability
- Media exposure
- Too few openings at high levels
- Little opportunity for success outside the “golden path”
To be concluded…
Have you ever wondered how we end up with such mediocre leaders and aviators as Department Heads and Commanding Officers? I bet you have. Most of us have. We think back to various Department Heads and XO/COs we’ve worked for and can pick out a few great ones, a few awful ones, and a whole lot who could best be described as “adequate.” There are a lot of factors that lead to this giant sea of mediocrity, but the most significant is the importance of “sustained superior performance” in our FITREP and career progression system.
First of all, it’s important to note that the ratio of highly-capable, capable, and incapable (if you’ll bear with me as we use those terms for three tiers of officers) is consistent with the “bell curve” we all remember from our grade school days. Many large groups fall out that way – a few high performers on the top, a few weak ones on the bottom, and the rest getting by in the middle. In theory, that concept is applied to a P-3 officer career path. In the first tour, an officer is measured against a large pool of peers. The expectation is that the weakest will be weeded out with poor FITREPS and “career-ender” shore tours. The best will go to VP-30 – the proven path first shore tour (another topic that I discussed in a previous post). The middle group will be spread out amongst other training commands and shore billets. I’m not suggesting that this is the best way to do things, or that this is how all Commanding Officers think with regards to FITREP rankings, but the perception certainly exists that this is how things function. The idea, then, is that the best people will be in the best position for success when the time comes for DH screening. Only the best people become Department Heads, and only the best of those become Commanding Officers, or so the system suggests. Too bad it doesn’t work.
The biggest issue is the ranking system. Think about how many times you’ve heard about “sustained superior performance.” I’ve lost count of the number of Command or DH screen board recap briefs I’ve seen. It’s always the same shit. The percentages may move a little bit, but the concepts are the same. A high EP out of the first tour gives you really good odds for DH. A VP-30 tour makes it a veritable lock. A Carrier tour after that gives you the best odds at command. Throw in some jokes about the “bureau” and the hilarious stories from the “tank” (like the time where the guy had a regression in his record and a few seconds after the record went up on the screens there were 20 laser pointer dots on the area of issue, or like that time when the one guy forgot to vote yes for a really strong record where the recorder said “this guy was a 30 guy and boat guy so let’s all “hit 100” so we can go to lunch”, and everyone waited for the last guy to “hit 100” until finally someone yelled “who didn’t vote?” and then you saw the final vote quickly go up and everyone laughed and laughed and WOULD YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP AND GET ON WITH IT! …..)
Sorry about that. I get carried away with those “bureau jokes” that exactly two people in the audience can relate to, but that are made at each and every one of those briefs. Again, I apologize.
So, getting back to the rankings, we are talking about how so many mediocre people can make it so far in a community that places so much emphasis on “sustained superior performance.” Let’s start with the Junior Officers. Let’s say you are up for your final competitive FITREP as a Lieutenant. You will be ranked against a pool of all the other LTs in the squadron. You would think that the best LT in the squadron will be ranked #1. But what if the best LT is not up for his final competitive FITREP? Straight seniority does not necessarily mean someone contributes more, or is more valuable. So timing is clearly a key component, and one that the people being ranked do not control. If you happened to check in to the command with a weak group of people, you can leave with a high FITREP number by just being decent in your job. There may be five other LTs who are much better than you, but if they still have another FITREP before checkout, you’ll be ranked above them (as long as you are at least in that “capable” middle group we talked about – if you are in the incapable bottom group, this may not apply). The command doesn’t want to screw you by ranking someone who is much more junior above you. You may not be terrible, but you’re also not great. But from now on, on paper, you look great. Was your performance really “superior?” Of course not.
What if you are being ranked against some other LTs on their final FITREP cycle, but they want to go to a non-standard shore tour? Again, you might be a decent, but not great, performer being measured against much better performers, but you can come out on top if the others plan on leaving the Navy, want to do a unique shore tour in D.C., want an NROTC job, etc. Some Skippers may say that future jobs aren’t factored in on rankings, but I’ve been in the Department Head meetings and on the email discussions where this comes up. The rationale is to avoid “wasting” a good FITREP number on someone who won’t be competing for DH or Command. Because of this, at the Department Head board, there will always be a lot of #1s and #2s who really should have been #3s, #4s, and #5s (or even lower). On paper they performed well, but in reality they were beneficiaries of good timing or good luck.
This idea applies at the DH level just as much as it does amongst the JOs. Again, I saw this numerous times on a DH tour. Two LCDRs are ranked against one another, one who completed a CVN tour and another who performed very well at a VPU disassociated sea tour, and the ranking is all but set in stone even before either has had a chance to demonstrate their “superior performance.” The rumor that the folks at Millington try not to pair up two “strong” records (and, thus, have them compete for a single #1 ranking) has been out there so long it is all but gospel now. Well, where does the sustained superior performance come in then? As long as you’ve been in the right jobs (which you may have been in because the better people didn’t want to go) and have high FITREP rankings (which you may have because the better people were choosing to leave the Navy or go off the proper career path, or because there were no better people in the small group that was leaving the command in your time frame) you won’t have to really be “superior” – the deck will be stacked in your favor.
So, the result of all of this is that a lot of average people are made to look above average. And once you’re christened with that label, if you stick to the career plan, it’s a tough one to shake. I’m wondering about the downside to ranking people strictly on their performance in their job for the period of evaluation. What if past and future jobs are not considered? What if rankings are across all peers, and not just the few who are checking out at the same time? Wouldn’t we get a truer sense of “sustained superior performance?” Why should it matter that the best guy is getting out of the Navy? How is that “screwing” the ones who are staying in? If they wanted to be ranked ahead of the guy getting out, then they should have done a better job than him. If we keep doing things this way, we will continue to have what we have now, which is a lot of mediocre people in high places.
Is the promotion system the only thing keeping us from excellence in the higher ranks? Not at all. It’s but one part of a couple of interacting forces. I think the promotion system has cultivated risk-averse behavior in every thing we do – from daily FOD walkdowns to liberty policies to mission performance. The only way to prove that you are a sustained superior performer is to get a #1 ranking. Ask yourself how do many get that ranking?
I’m working on a risk aversion article that is pretty extensive. Hopefully it sums why our pussies are so big. In the meantime, here’s some more credible reading on mediocrity in business. I found many parallels to what we do.
I was re-reading the productivity post and something hit me as a wasteful spending of labor – FOD walkdown. Specifically, why do the officers feel obligated or are required to attend?
Exactly what does the navy value in its officers? How do those values compare to successful civilian business managers? I did a cursory search for “best manager traits” and several common descriptors emerged. Creative, intuitive, knowledgeable, credible, versatile, committed, leadership, team player, efficient… You get the idea.
I’m kinda pissed that those qualities aren’t outwardly desired by the Navy, as evidenced by our performance evaluation system (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/files/fp_uploaded_documents/Falk-Rogers%20PAE%2003-11%20vF.pdf – its a good read). In regards to productivity, however, nothing pisses me off more than FOD walkdown.
Why are officer’s encouraged (or in some cases, required) to attend FOD walkdown? Why would you willingly task your managers (the ones that are supposed to have all those qualities listed above) with 30 minutes of mind numbing walking and picking up debris? Here are a couple of common arguments:
- When the officer’s are doing FOD walkdown, it inspires the junior enlisted because they see us doing what they do.
- If junior enlisted see that you can take the time out of your day to pick up FOD, they’ll know that its important.
I think those are the most commonly accepted arguments. But I would counter that our presence there is largely transparent. When the skipper’s out there picking up FOD, no one is thinking “oh man the skipper’s out here, it must be important to pick up FOD.” I believe that people say, “oh look the skipper’s here so that I can’t complain about FOD walkdown because someone will just say, ‘hey the skipper does it too.‘”
So anyways, I think the reason we really have to be at FOD walkdown is that if we’re demanding a large group of people do something menial, it’s much easier on our consciences if we do it also. Junior enlisted also clean the shitters but we don’t see officer’s stepping in to help scrub. Call me a prick but those are the ropes for the junior enlisted. That’s their unfortunate station in life based upon the decisions they made and the opportunities they’ve been afforded.
Yes – everyone can spare 30 minutes during their day for FOD walkdown. But that 30 minutes can be better spent elsewhere. We’re supposed to be leaders right? We should spend that 30 minutes engaging our sailors. Making them laugh. Inspiring them the right way – not picking up rocks alongside them. They know it sucks. You know it sucks. FOD walkdown sucks.
So recently this blog’s been getting a lot of hits. I don’t quite know what sparked the renewed interest, but its getting around. I’m hoping that this will popularize some necessary changes and that those changes will come to fruition through sheer volume of people “on the same page.”
Before we reach VP Nirvana, however, I’d really appreciate any feedback – preferable both constructive and humorous, but any conversation generated would be good. I think.