Last night I had a discussion about culture change with Norm Augustine, Barry Blechman, Bill Chambers, David Graham, John Harvey and Rich Mies. I provided these leaders with a paper discussing how Admiral Rickover altered submarine culture. The ideas I presented will be further explored in a book about Rickover’s leadership that the Naval Institute will publish this August.

Admiral Rickover and a Culture of Safety, Innovation and Continuous Improvement

Tale of the Tape:
Thirteen reactor accidents for Russia. None for Rickover.

Against the Tide will be published by the Naval Institute Press next August. It is an examination of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s leadership and management techniques, both good and bad. American Industry and Organizations could benefit today from his example, but few have copied his techniques because he was so misunderstood, and consequently – often hated.
The book points out that Rickover garnered enemies principally because he was establishing a new culture. A culture he believed essential in order to safely exploit nuclear technology – but the establishment process caused discord because it necessarily attacked several other conventional and revered cultures in the Navy, Industry and Education.

Many years have passed and many of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s peers are deceased. Nevertheless, Rickover left behind a simple tale of the tape – an unclassified metric which accurately compares the results of the culture Rickover established to a normal management structure. This audience understands reactor accidents and their terrible consequences. The Russians have experienced thirteen accidents in their nuclear fleet – thirteen occasions when radiation has escaped the submarine and brave and innocent souls have died. The United States Navy has never had a reactor accident.

Russian/Soviet Nuclear Reactor Accidents
K-8 (1960: November class submarine; loss of coolant)
K-19 (1961; Hotel-class submarine; two loss of coolant accidents)
K-11 (1965; November-class submarine; two refueling criticalities)
K-159 (1965; November-class submarine; radioactive discharge)
Lenin (1965; Lenin-class icebreaker; loss of coolant)
Lenin (1967; Lenin-class icebreaker; loss of coolant)
K-140 (1968; Yankee-class submarine; power excursion)
K-27 (1968: Unique reactor in modified November, insufficient cooling)
K-429 (1970: Charlie I-class submarine; uncontrolled startup)
K-222 (1980; Papa-class submarine; uncontrolled startup)
K-123 (1982; Alfa-class submarine; loss of coolant)
K-431 (1985: Echo II-class submarine; refueling criticality
K-192 (1989; Echo II-class submarine; loss of coolant)

United States Nuclear Reactor Accidents:

The above is history’s evaluation of Rickover versus the “peer competitor” he faced and bested. Should not organizations study what history has validated?

Establishing a culture within a culture.
The warrior ethos and the technology ethos can be made compatible.
Warriors can master technology, but a leader’s charisma is not a learned skill.

My book begins by setting the scene for the problems Rickover faced. The largest one was in resolving the existing warrior ethos with the demands of a new technology. The submarine force in 1948 was the result of a culture which had proven itself successful in battle. During World War II the losses of submariners and medals of honor awarded had been disproportionately larger; the glory had been theirs. They had been dramatically successful with an inferior platform, as a result of personal daring and decentralized technology control. Yet, only three years after the war ended, Rickover declared the diesel culture inappropriate for the future.

Rickover had a demanding technology which had dangers. To address those dangers he needed new industry standards to reliably manufacture his equipment. He also needed the American educational system to improve. He needed more technically knowledgeable sailors to man his nuclear submarines.

But Rickover realized that pure engineers would not make the nuclear fleet successful, because military culture values warriors, not engineers. For respect, he needed submarine warriors. So Rickover made the leadership decision to NOT recruit individuals in his own image, but rather to seek aggressive leaders capable of being trained in engineering. As someone who had previously been unsuccessful as a warrior, Rickover accepted that charisma is not a learned skill, while technology can be.

Rickover was never successful in imposing the nuclear culture on the larger Navy (especially surface ships), and there are reasons why, but he was successful in establishing a new culture within the Navy. At least as important, the culture he established has both continued and shown itself capable of adaptation.

What is critical to a technology-based (such as nuclear weapons) warfare?
Protection of both servicemen and the public from danger:
 Rickover set radiation exposure limits much less than expert opinion opined even though
o lower radiation limits degraded US submarine performance.

 Rickover established a more conservative reactor plant design (pressurized water) as the model
o which also limited submarine performance (and induced industry opposition)

 Rickover eliminated reactor byproducts leaking to the environment even though
o the consequences were increased costs and damage to his credibility.

The book emphasizes that Rickover could clearly think through the issues and unknowns involved in a developing technology much better than anyone. Each new technology brings its own safety issues. Unfortunately, often the drive to quickly adapt and use the fresh capability overrides thoughtful consideration of the larger picture.

The above three items reflect key deliberations Rickover personally made. Each was counter to expert advice. These are particularly interesting decisions, because Rickover was disagreeing with (being more conservative than) his staff and his political allies. Each decision also had negative consequences for the performance of nuclear submarines and thus often angered those who supported him because of the nuclear submarine’s impact on warfighting.

When he decided to adopt more limiting radiation exposure guidelines, one direct consequence was that American submarines could not go as fast as Russian submarines, and, just as in the sky, underwater speed is life. His “unnecessarily” limiting the radiation exposure essentially pitted Rickover against the men who drove his submarines as well as military experts – yet this lone decision would much later prove to be a decisive decision in the cold war.

The decision to initially select and then standardize, the submarine power plants to a pressurized water reactor, a design which has some characteristics which make the reactor inherently more stable during power surges, made operator and supervisor training much more effective. However, the down side of this choice was that most of the defense industry was shut out of the nuclear business. Rickover thus eschewed the normal political approach of spreading work to many subcontractors with factories, workers and voters in every state. Consequently he would have several companies (and their political representatives) undermining him in order to have the opportunity to expand their revenue base.

Finally, nearly two decades after the first nuclear submarine was launched, Rickover decided he had made a mistake in permitting radioactive fluid to be discharged – in any way – to the environment. This was well before the issue was taken up by Greenpeace or any other environmental group. It was also after Rickover and hundreds of other Admirals had devoted time to saying this practice was not a public danger. Rickover had been monitoring the effects for years, and decided he had made an error. He changed his mind and immediately directed the necessary changes, eliminating those in the nuclear force who could not adapt to the new direction.

How can rigid process control simultaneously encourage innovation?

Rigid processes free individuals from continuous problem solving of routine actions. There is thus more talent and time to devote to innovation.

A question commonly asked is how in the world a policy of rigid procedure control (the backbone of the Navy nuclear program) can possibly coexist with innovation. It seems the two somehow must, as submarines are also famous for continuously rising standards, but how?

The secret to this is the proper division of effort. Those who have been in a highly demanding technical situation know that, without established procedures, valuable time is taken up by the need to evaluate and carefully supervise individual (different) approaches to routine tasks. One of Rickover’s achievements was to recognize that establishing and enforcing detailed processes for routine tasks was not an inhibitor on initiative, but rather the contrary.

Detailed procedures simply described a safe technical path up the rocky mountain trail. By following procedures for routine events, it freed up time that would otherwise be spent on evaluation of alternatives and subsequent supervision. Those who would be innovators now had the opportunity.
How install continuous improvement?

Overlapping reporting
Periodic inspection, immediate corrective action and mandatory sharing of lessons learned
Practically everyone will work to the best of their ability and understanding

The submarine force is known for continuous improvement. Consequently, each year the upgrading process pulls the American submarine force further ahead of competitors. Every organization values continuous improvement. How do you get it? How did Rickover install it?

The first thing to remember is the last one listed – practically everyone will work to the best of their ability and understanding. Which means that nearly all failures are the responsibility of management; the instructions were not adequate, the training was not sufficient or someone involved is working at a level above his or her capability (the other failure category is defective equipment). Rickover insisted on every failure being carefully evaluated and appropriate corrective measures be established.

To help identify problems and ensure that most were reviewed through different eyes, Rickover established overlapping areas of responsibility. It was not just the immediate boss that reported to Rickover what he believed the cause. Instead, Rickover often received two or three different independent views. This was not a popular approach with the average nuclear officer, but it worked. It helped identify which supervisors had been promoted above their level of competence or training (but even Rickover’s system can still fail, as I discuss in the book). It also should be noted this approach is not guaranteed to screen out twisted personalities, but it does insure the twisted souls are technically competent!

Once the problem has been identified and fixed, what makes it a teachable moment? What prevents it from happening again? Most organizations, no matter how large, do not have an active and enforced lessons-learned program. By active, I mean that case studies are routinely written (no matter whose feelings are hurt), and published. By enforced, I mean that the case studies are mandatory reading for everyone in the organization. Rickover established this for the nuclear submarine force. It did not exist before. I have not observed this routine practice in other organizations in the military or in business.

Finally Rickover established a periodic system of inspections, with published results of deficiencies found, and a continual raising of the bar. A problem found, identified and published, which was a minor deficiency when first observed one year, might well be a major deficiency if it were rediscovered two years later. Continuous improvement necessitates a continual adjustment in standards.
Unforgiving standards.

Do what is right.

Spouses don’t go home to the wrong house at night.
Once is sufficient grounds for divorce.

Standards can be taught but bad judgment can’t be fixed.

Failure to cull reduces the self-worth of coworkers.

Rickover established a set of unequivocal standards. The overriding principle was, “do what is right.” While those words appear easy I cannot tell you how often I have paced and considered, before letting those simple words guide my path.

Combine that phrase with Rickover’s frequent comment that, no matter how many hours an individual might have worked that day (or even during the last two), no matter how ill he might be, no matter that the houses in the development all looked the same, husbands still seem to find the right front door to return to each and every night. This idiom and axiom make up the essence of Rickover’s cultural standard.

Submariners believe there is absolutely no excuse for making a grievous error. In practice, nuclear systems are designed with three or four levels of safety, including training, process and technical. When a serious error is made, it is understood that danger has been literally lurking in that particular vicinity for months. It was only a matter of time, and now alerted, something needs to be changed!

The team denigrates itself if all members cannot perform to the established standard. At the same time, accepting non-performance weakens the standard. Thus retaining a member who cannot perform harms the team. Furthermore, individuals without the necessary personal capabilities (whether the shortfall is emotional, mental or physical) will eventually find a way to destroy themselves, often damaging the organization in the process. Rickover understood that managing his important asset required making decisions about whom to cull. He never permitted natural attrition to occur while the herd was “wintering-over” while grazing back in the hills.

I lived by these ideals and ideas for decades. Nevertheless, I have never since seen the same standards in any organization or company. It is a mistake for any organization which hopes to be first-class.

Dave Oliver

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