How big is the manual for an aircraft carrier?

It’s hard to imagine a more complex operation than an aircraft carrier. An aircraft carrier is a floating city with a population of 6,000 people, with an airport on the roof. It turns over 100% of its population every four years and must operate reliably in any kind of weather.

On aircraft carriers, control is distributed differently, depending on the context. The US Navy’s “operating system” transforms from a centralized control hierarchy to a flexible, migrating decision structure, depending on the circumstances.

When the situation is stable, predictable, and well-understood, traditional hierarchy prevails. But when decisions need to be made quickly, decisions will migrate to the edge, where people can sense and respond to situations in real time.

For example, any individual involved in a landing can abort the landing at any time. Although the decision may be examined, in the same way that sports teams review game films in order to improve, the individual will never be punished for making a wrong decision.

People at the edge, therefore, have a lot of accountability, and they tend to make more accurate decisions and take them more seriously as a result. When people who are accountable for decisions encounter uncertainty, they will rely on the more experienced members of the crew, regardless of rank.

The Navy even has rules about when to break rules. For example, “Never break a rule unless safety will be jeopardized by following the rule.”

Due to the high rate of rotation on an aircraft carrier, everyone on board is doing one thing, learning another and teaching something else, all at the same time. The result is a continually-learning organization that is greater than the sum of its parts.

At one point it was proposed that the US might be able to park a few aircraft carriers for a while in order to reduce costs, and bring them back into service when they were needed.

Learning is happening constantly. There are always people rotating in, so they are always asking questions: “Why do we do it that way? Why don’t we do it this way instead?” There’s this constant churn that, while it does make the whole organization less efficient in the short term, in the long term creates a learning, adaptive organization.

So how big is the manual for an aircraft carrier?

It’s as big as the aircraft carrier itself.

The US determined that there was no way that you can park an aircraft carrier, because the only manual for an aircraft carrier is the carrier itself in operation. There is no manual for it. If you stopped running it you couldn’t start it up again very easily at all. That’s what it means to be a learning organization.

There is no manual.

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