Training for Competitive Advantage: Lessons from the Silent Service

by Ryan Hilger, Lieutenant Commander US Navy

If people are your top priority, train them like it. In Part One of a two part series, a former submarine department head offers lessons from the U.S. Navy’s submarine force on how to turn training into a competitive advantage.

I am convinced that even if a submarine was mid war, Engineering Department training wouldn’t be cancelled. Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the Nuclear Navy, would probably rise from the grave to excoriate any Commanding Officer or Engineer Officer who slacked on training. Many newcomers to the U.S. Navy’s submarine force are awestruck at the amount of training that the crew does. But after several years onboard, many will be converts who see training for what it truly is: an enabler for outstanding performance that drives a high performing organization.

With the break-neck pace of business today, most managers and employees seem to be screaming “we don’t have time for training!” Some see training as the province of Human Resources department, or something that we do only for a new hire. Most employees think of training as boring, monotonous PowerPoint slides, that take time away from the work that they need to be doing. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many employees are demanding more training and development opportunities.

The Nuclear Navy has gained a reputation for exceptional performance since its founding in the 1950s. Admiral Rickover set high standards and allowed no one to compromise them. If they did, they suddenly found themselves out of the Naval Nuclear Power Program. Training became the cornerstone on which Rickover assured Congress and the Navy’s civilian leaders that nuclear-powered warships didn’t need civilian oversight of the reactors.

Onboard a submarine, the Engineer Officer — or the ENG — owns the training program for the Engineering Department. They will be held accountable for its performance by the Commanding Officer, the chain of command, and evaluators from Naval Reactors, including the Director, a four-star admiral. They must set direction, enforce the standards, and hold their subordinates accountable for their performance. Administering a training program for over one hundred people is no easy task, especially with an overwhelming number of other responsibilities, but the best Engineers make it look effortless. Succeeding at that level requires a different mindset than most leaders have. That mindset and the basics of how the Engineer drives the training program can help any manager unleash the power of their organization and drive an enduring competitive advantage. So how do they do it?

The Team You Have, Not the Team You Want

In the submarine force, just like all organizations, there are crews who succeed endlessly and those that seem to lurch from crisis to crisis, seemingly unable to execute even the most basic functions without supervision. Many managers (not so) silently believe that if they had a different team, they could succeed brilliantly. But that attitude is a red herring. It takes a while for most submarine department heads to realize a fundamental truth: we’re all cut from the same cloth. Every Sailor and Officer comes from the same training pipelines, has gone to the same schools, and has the same mix of skills onboard. The same goes for business too. We tell ourselves that we hire only the best people, but the reality is that companies are all the same on average. So why do some succeed where others fail?

Military leaders are used to people coming in and out of an organization — they themselves are no exception. Churn is a fact of life that must be planned for. The mission never stops, and the submarine has to always be ready to conduct combat operations at sea with the crew it has, not the crew it wants. The department heads, as the submarine’s middle management, are critical to the boat’s readiness. The Engineer is responsible for more than one hundred Sailors and Officers in five divisions, the nuclear reactor, and all hull, mechanical, and electrical equipment that isn’t part of the submarine’s combat systems. The Navigator, Combat Systems Officer, and Supply Officer have similar responsibilities for the operations, weapons, and supply departments, respectively. These four must work in harmony to ensure their departments efficiently and effectively operate their systems, conduct maintenance, and train for those activities to carry out the mission. Their lives depend on it.

Training Supports Your Operations

As the Engineer and their counterparts sit down to develop the long range, usually annual, training plan for their department, they often face hard choices. The Navy mandates training on certain topics annually, with other recurring or ad hoc topics as they see fit. Fitting all that training into a schedule that balances all the competing factors — maintenance, operations, etc. — can be a daunting task.

But good department heads and their supporting Officers and Chief Petty Officers often come to the realization that the crew is most successful when the training program directly supports the submarine’s operations, whether on deployment, in maintenance, or in helping Sailors get promoted. All training programs sometimes allow a few trees to be left behind in favor of the overall health of the forest. Sure, the external evaluators and the chain of command may criticize the failure to meet certain requirements, but they have respect for a leader who is willing to articulate why they opted to not meet some requirements, in favor of training topics that may not be mandatory. These leaders are making conscious choices to ensure that their crew is trained to execute the missions entrusted to them at all times, and that is the highest priority.

The business environment is no different. Companies of all types face enormous pressures to optimize performance, profit, and schedules. No corporate leader is without accountability, and those holding the company’s leaders to account may never be completely satisfied with performance — no one is ever happy. Leaders in all sectors must be willing to put the thought into how they prepare their workforce for superb execution, and be courageous when forced to explain why.

Train To Do It Right or Plan To Do It Over

Developing high reliability and high performance organizations takes time. High reliability is about culture and fostering a psychologically safe environment where learning can take place. The submarine force has earned this reputation — for decades submariners have been ruthless in their pursuit to understand why something went wrong when it inevitably does. Practically no submariner comes through their service unscathed, and many still shudder at the mention of a “critique,” which is how the submarine force starts the learning process after a failure.

The bar is very, very low: a missed step in a procedure, operating the wrong component, an unreported issue, or other seemingly harmless, insignificant events. The submarine force sets the threshold low to ensure that we catch the ‘weak signals’ before they grow into larger, potentially serious problems. Critiques serve a single purpose; to find the root causes of the issue. The Nuclear Navy has distilled nearly everything we do around a basic model that seems to capture the major elements well. The Nuclear Work Model is a basic triad of training, process, and supervision. At the bottom of every critique or the driving force behind a crew’s success is an optimized balance of those three elements. Do you have new hires coming into the workforce? Balance toward rigorous, tested processes with good supervision. Do you have a knowledgeable workforce that is doing something new soon? Train your workforce and your supervisors as much as you can with the process you hope to use. Have you thoroughly trained your people and used rigorous processes, but something still goes wrong? Look at who was responsible for the successful outcome — the supervisor — and what they were doing.

The Nuclear Work Model underpins the Nuclear Navy’s approach to effective operations. In this context, few department heads will accept a subordinate telling them that they don’t have time to train their division or watchteam for an upcoming task. With characteristic submariner sarcasm, a department head will generally ask the Division Officer or Chief for their plan to do it over again if they cannot make time to train to do it right the first time. In the rare cases where the event cannot be postponed, the department head will usually increase the supervision — personally — to help ensure success.

Over time, adopting this simple approach toward how you prepare your people for the daily operations of business helps develop high performance organizations. It helps your subordinate leaders and workforce develop critical thinking skills to analyze all aspects of upcoming business operations and plan effectively to execute them well. Sailors, notorious for griping loudly, will let you know when you’ve made it: “Why are we doing this? We haven’t trained yet.” Though maybe more colorfully.

The second part of the series will explore how effective training of your workforce requires a more strategic outlook, a broader view of what constitutes training and workforce development, and the necessity of making development a habit in your organization. Stay tuned!

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a former Submarine Engineer Officer who carries these lessons wherever he goes. His views are his own and do not represent the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy. You can find him on LinkedIn.

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