The Right Team for the Right Mission

Submarine Wisdom: Just because you don’t see a problem doesn’t mean it isn’t there… being prepared for the unexpected is more than a slogan on a poster in the mess decks


Submariners spend their whole careers preparing for the normal and abnormal. In a world where seconds can mean the difference of life and death, that training becomes critical for survival and more importantly for success. There are various levels of skills and knowledge that need to be mastered both on a personal and a group level.

Teams in the workpace rely on many of the same types of training and development activities. Many books have been written about what makes a team great including one of my favorites: “When Teams Work
Best” In this book, you  find that there are five things that effect teams – “The Five Dynamics of Teamwork and Collaboration” According to the authors, those five elements include the Team Member, Team Relationships, Team Problem Solving, Team Leasdership and Oeganizational Development.

Truthfully, I have seen these dynamics at work in many different organizations and can attest to the truth of the mapping.

Of course at the heart is the team member themself. What do most people expect of a team member? At the heart, first we expect that each team member will have the needed skills and knowledge to do the job. Submarines for instance spend a lot of time in many cases in training before they ever set foot on their first boat. The crew is small so every person must be as good at their craft as possible. Once you go to sea, there are no repair stations to pull into so being able to operate and maintain our equipment is a critical factor to success.

The question I have is this: Why do most businesses fail to recognize the importance of fully untilyzing their people? Individual training is more than sitting a new person down with a set of work instructions and having them shadow someone else. The two greatest problems with that tactic is that most work instructions I have seen in non-lean work environments are poorly written and often inaccurate. They were written by “Old Pete” who was kind of creanky but had everybody convinced he knew what he was doing. Pete was not big on safety and quality so the instructions probably focus on getting enough parts done in enough time to keep the supervisor from checking up on him to often.

And what about shadowing? Don’t we wnat our new people to mirror what the experienced folk are doing? Maybe yes, maybe no. If you have already established an atmosphere of standardization and its close relative, continuous improvement, you may just get away with this form of learning. But again, many years of experience in non-lean factories has shown that either condition will not exist in a vacuum and what is called standardization is often the furthest thing from the truth.

My belief is that most workplaces cannot achieve true standardization so they are not really capable of practicing continuous improvement. As I tell most of my classes, if you are not standardized, you are only improving temporary conditions and that will not get you permanant improvements.

So what is the answer? How do we prepare the workforce? The answer is that you must first achieve a beginning level of standardization which includes 6S (5S plus Safety) and come to a minimum level of work standardization that can be repeated across all the workers actually doing the work. Then you need to have a very strong training process built into your DNA, You don’t need external trainers in most cases, although you should have some advice from someone who’s competency is Workforce Education Development. Like any skills, this competency has a number of processes and skills that can ensure you get the best training possible in an adult learning environment.

The Team Member must have the ability to get things done in the right time, with the right level of cost and quality or the team will fail. Look at your own team members. How are you preparing them for their roles? Are they experiencing frustration because they have been trained in the same way their trainers have been trained? Are they doing a lot more On the Job training than they should be?

One of my favorinte stories about OJT had to do with a critical failure at just the wrong moment. Every submarine has masts, antenaes and persicopes which must be raised and lowered at the appropraite time. A failure in any of these could result in tragedy at worse and decreased operation efficiency at best. On one of my boats, certain technicians were responsible for periodically injecting grease in a key component used to snorkel. The grease fitting was very hard to find and in an awkward place to actually accomplish the task. One of the guys figured out a way to rig up a non-standard fitting. He was happy because he no longer had to crawl back in a dark hole.

The problem was, the fitting did not actually let any grease go to the place it was supposed to . The second problem was that he trained the other two guys about his “fix”. So over time, the valve ran dry on grease and corrosion set in. So much so in fact that when the boat needed to snorkel, the valve failed to open properly. Then when it did finally open, it refused to shut allowing seawater to enter the induction mast uncontrolled. Let me assure you that one thing every submariner dreads is uncontrolled seawater in the people tank.

A good system would have never allowed this to happen. Fortunately the damage control training the crew had practiced paid off. But the ensuing recovery was both painful and embarrasing.

Are you missing the grease fitting?

The only way you can find out is get out onto the shop floor and observe. Consider what I have written today and go and see what knowledge and skill level you are depending on to make your goals. If you see differences between shifts or even workers doing the same job, you need to treally start looking at your processes and your people.

Tomorrow, we will look at one of the other critical measures of success Team Members expect from each other: Problem Solving


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