Monday, November 02, 2009

Prof. Rubel on Lean Manning

Back on 20 OCT, Phil Ewing at NavyTimes had and article, Lean manning saps morale, puts sailors at risk, that we covered later that week.

In an email circulated earlier, Professor Robert C. Rubel, Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the US Naval War College, put out his thoughts on the subject that I thought were very well put, and added some good perspective to the topic.

With Professor Rubel's permission, I have turned his email into a guest post. The rest of the post below is his.
The point of my remarks below is not to level criticism at any particular personnel policies or decisions but to raise an issue that I ran across in my research attendant to a chapter I wrote in a forthcoming book on the history of naval aviation. There are some sentences in the Ewing article that caught my attention:
Overall, the Navy has adopted a culture of making do — of permanently covering for people who are “temporarily” gone or were never there at all, sailors said.

That mind-set is taking its toll.

“Every commanding officer will make mission — people will always get the job done,” Hatch said. “You’ll work them to death, but what’s the cost? Fatigue, [low] retention and potentially, damage.”

“In the past, we’ve kind of had this heroic mentality that says, ‘We’re well trained, we’re drilled, we’re professional,’” Davenport said. “‘Yeah, we’re gonna be tired, we’re fatigued, but we know how to manage it.’ But the science, in fact, shows us that’s not true. As people get more and more fatigued, they do have degradation of their performance in a whole variety of ways.”
These statements indicate the effect of organizational culture on safety. In the early 50s both the Air Force and Navy were experiencing ruinous aviation accident rates. The Air Force took a draconian approach to accident investigation, including imposing consequences for pilot error. They also imposed strict rules on crew rest, training, assessment, etc. Their accident rate plummeted to a small percentage of what it had been and has remained more or less at that low level ever since.

Naval aviation resisted a centralized and directive approach to safety for decades following; not as a matter of policy, but as a function of individual decision making on staffs and in units. Although great gains were made in safety, for instance the introduction of angled deck carriers halved the accident rate, the Navy mishap rate remained way above that of the Air Force until about 1988.

In going through old issues of Naval Aviation News and the memoirs of 50s, 60s and 70s era naval aviators, I found indicators that the corporate culture of naval aviation was a significant factor in the higher Navy mishap rate. The culture of self reliance and thinking for oneself -core values of the Navy officer corps - led to resistance to standardization, subjecting aviators to unreasonable risks and other related pathologies that contributed to the accident rate.

I was a card-carrying member of that culture (A-7s) from 1971 to 1985, when I left the fleet for a couple of years. I came back as XO of a Hornet squadron in 1988 and immediately perceived a different atmosphere than I had been used to. There was less pressure to "go fly" than in the past - risk was definitely linked to payoff and need. The Hornet is certainly a safer and more reliable airplane than its predecessors, but I believe a shift in naval aviation culture had a lot to do with the low accident rate we now enjoy.

Organizational culture also affects headquarters decisions. The Navy has always focused on command, not staffs - and we are proud of that. However, it has painted us into a personnel corner. Back in the late 70s when DOPMA was being developed, the services were required to submit figures for the numerical end strength tables in the statute. For large, medium and small officer corps (reflecting various sizes of drawdowns) the law contains the specific number of O-4s,5s and 6s a service can have. The numbers indicate that the Army and Air Force clearly understood that if they drew down the number of units, the number of staffs would remain the same and other functions like attaches would also remain constant. Thus they would have to get more top heavy as they got smaller overall. Not the Navy.

The Navy numbers reveal that its rank pyramid stays substantially the same shape as the service gets smaller - or at least gets more top heavy slower. Thus the Navy found itself in the 1990s having to gap key senior officer billets while forcing many senior officers into early retirement. Since nobody wants to reopen DOPMA, the Navy has had to resort to bandaid end-strength waivers on authorization bills. This indicates to me that in the late 70s, the Navy culture focused on command of units, not staffs. Successful command at sea was the sine qua non of professional success; being good at staff work was nice but no self-respecting naval officer would value it over command. I think this kind of outlook still underpins some of the decisions that have come out of the headquarters in the past few years, only it is ships at the expense of sailors.

I fully understand the dilemmas the CNO and senior admirals face, but I also think that the framework of organizational cultural values they grew up with influence their decisions - invisibly. The Navy DOPMA planners truly believed they were doing the right thing; the insidious thing about corporate culture is that it works below the level of consciousness - at the level of values.

It is too terribly true that personnel costs dominate the Navy's TOA. Reducing ship manning is a logical way to try and solve the problem, PROVIDED THAT IT CAN BE OFFSET by automation or other labor and presence reducing measures. We can put terrazzo on decks to reduce painting and we can install more computers and sensors on ships to reduce human scut work, but we cannot extend useful human conscious time. At some point, captains must say they cannot get underway safely - because their crew is tired. This is very hard because of the stigmas - corporate culture - associated with such a thing. It used to be the same way in aviation - downing an airplane for "piddling" gripes was cause to question a pilot's manhood; I used to go fly without anything remotely resembling adequate sleep. Stupid. Not in the F-18 community and probably nowhere in naval aviation today. Operational Risk Management rules.

Nobody wants to put sailors or ships needlessly at risk, but the culture puts insidious pressure on people from the individual sailor to the ship captain to the flag officers. If we recognize this, then we can deal with it.
Hat tip Chap.

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