|YOKOSUKA, Japan (July 11, 2017) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) moves into Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka to continue repairs and assess damage sustained from its June 17 collision with a merchant vessel. FLEACT Yokosuka provides, maintains, and operates base facilities and services in support of U.S. 7th Fleet’s forward-deployed naval forces, 71 tenant commands and 26,000 military and civilian personnel. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter Burghart/Released)|
Tuesday’s Senate Armed Service Committee hearing was one of the most important engagements politicians in Washington, DC have conducted publicly with the Navy in a very long time. It has been years since we have watched an important hearing between the Senate and leaders of the US Navy where the primary focus of the hearing wasn’t a budget. Tuesday’s hearing was about something much more important, it was about the safety of American sailors. After 17 lives have been lost in two collisions at sea in the Pacific this year, this was the moment where elected officials would evaluate and determine if the US Navy is meeting the standards expected by the American people following a series of several tragedies where lives have been lost.
To the credit of the Senators in the Senate Armed Service Committee, as an American citizen I felt well represented by the probing questions that triggered several honest responses. However, as I listened to the answers provided by the Navy, considered those answers overnight Tuesday and all day Wednesday, I am uncomfortable with some of the answers provided by Admiral John Richardson, CNO. The Navy leaders accurately testified that “organizational culture” is part of the problem, and anyone who knows squat about challenges related to “organizational culture” in a big organization like the US Navy understands that among all the challenges the Navy faces with fleet material condition problems – an organizational cultural problem is always the hardest challenge to solve. When any organization has a serious culture problem, particularly one that has results where people die, the only question that demands an answer by the US Senate is whether the Navy leaders tasked to deal with the culture problem are capable of dealing with it successfully.
That hearing did not convince me this group of Navy leaders is prepared to do that today. That can change, but as of Tuesday it’s blatantly obvious ADM Richardson does not know how to address the problem, and it’s questionable if he even understands the problem yet. Below are two (there were more…) of the issues and comments from the Senate hearing that, quite bluntly, should not be allowed to be said by Navy leaders in front of the Senate and the American people. These statements are not acceptable under any circumstances if the expectation is Navy leaders can successfully address the organizational culture problems in the Navy today.
An Indefensible Statement
I will quote this article over at USNI News. This paragraph is an unbelievable, indefensible statement by ADM Richardson and I was shocked on Wednesday that I couldn’t find a single member of the Navy community countering such complete nonsense publicly. But privately… this was widely circulated as a huge pile of complete bullshit.
Asked if requesting a delay in deployment date would negatively affect a commanding officer, Richardson said no and added that “if I could go down and give that commander a handshake and a medal I would do that. This is exactly the type of honesty and transparency we need to run a Navy that’s safe and effective.”
The CNO would give that CO a medal? That answer is absurd at best, and is indefensible if the Senate hearings are supposed to represent serious discourse on a serious subject regarding a specific action that the FITZ or MCCAIN COs could potentially taken that could have saved lives.
ADM Richardson appears to understand he needs Commanders who will be honest and transparent about the true state of his force, but if Admiral Richardson believes there wouldn’t be a negative affect to the career of that Commander in his Navy today, then that’s a serious problem. I can’t find anyone who believes that. In any large business or government culture, much less military culture of the US Navy, nobody in senior management tells executive level leadership “no” because of risk. What happens instead is the executive level leadership demands risk mitigation, and the senior manager does the job as required, and the organization accepts the risk. There isn’t an option for Commanders to say “I can’t deploy my ship right now” without career consequences, and at minimum it was either naive or ignorant to suggest otherwise.
Here were the follow up questions never asked. Is there a single naval officer who has made Flag in the 21st century who, when a CDR or Captain, requested a delay in deployment to their superior because the request to go to sea carried too high a risk? The answer, of course, will be no.
Is there any example of any COs of any ships in the last ten years that requested a delay in deployment because of a ships material condition? If it happened, was that CO promoted? Has anyone checked to validate the CNO’s testimony?
The only legitimate answer ADM Richardson could give in Senate testimony is that “yes, that’s a symptom of the culture problem in the Navy.” Until ADM Richardson can get that question and answer right, he cannot and will not solve the culture problem in the Navy that led to the death of 17 sailors. If someone was to research the questions listed above, it will reveal there are zero SWO Flag officers today who delayed a deployment because of a ships material condition. They will likely find that among any officers who were brave enough to ask for a deployment delay due to a ships material condition, not a single one of those officers was promoted.
The Navy has metrics that can prove or disprove the statement made by ADM Richardson in testimony to the Senate on this topic, so I hope someone in the Navy turns the CNO’s speculation on this topic into a fact finding review. The intent of getting the metrics isn’t to prove ADM Richardson wrong, of course his answer in the Senate was wrong, but instead it’s important for the Navy to see the context for why no one was ever promoted when the CO did actually ask for a delay – in each case – to better understand both the culture problem and the material condition problem.
|CHANGI NAVAL BASE, REPUBLIC OF SINGAPORE (August 21, 2017) Damage to the portside is visible as the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) steers towards Changi Naval Base, Republic of Singapore, following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC while underway east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Significant damage to the hull resulted in flooding to nearby compartments, including crew berthing, machinery, and communications rooms. Damage control efforts by the crew halted further flooding. The incident will be investigated. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/Released)|
Misrepresentation of a Basic Organizational Leadership Principle
I am one who is skeptical of President Trump’s business acumen, but… if he is the professional business leader he claims to be, this statement by CNO Richardson would represent a huge red flag. Again, from USNI News:
“We have a can-do culture, that’s what we do. Nobody wants to raise their hand and say I can’t do the mission, but it’s absolutely essential that when those are the facts we enable that report,” CNO said.
“We don’t meet more than 50 percent of the combatant commanders’ demands as it is, it’s from a force structure standpoint and a combination of that and readiness. And there have been times where I’ve spoken with my subordinate commanders where there’s just insufficient time to get a force trained and certified to meet the deployment date, and we have to go back to the combatant command and say you’re going to have to wait.”
More than a few editors leveraged the “can do” culture statement in headlines that gave the perception that CNO Richardson was somehow suggesting “can do” culture is a problem. Even the USNI News article I am citing has the headline: CNO Richardson: High Optempo and ‘Can-Do Culture’ Culminated In ‘Pervasive’ Expired Certifications in Forward-Deployed Surface Forces.
I am trying not to interpret the CNO’s comment in the way the headlines are suggesting, but it’s hard to agree with the CNO’s comment in any context that a “can do” culture in the Navy is a problem. When the CNO made his “can do” comment in testimony on Tuesday, it immediately sparked discussion across multiple social media platforms by several of the top military observers who were watching the hearings. The commentary of “can do” being negative didn’t sit well with folks, but whether it is the nature of social media or because the hearing kept moving quickly beyond the CNO’s comment, no one effectively described why this comment didn’t sit well with anyone.
The reason the CNO citing “can do” culture in a problematic context doesn’t sit well with people is because the CNO misrepresented what “can do” culture in an organization represents. When an organization can be described as having a “can do” culture what it means is that the employees of the organization are positively motivated towards objectives in support of the organization, and are willing to work harder towards organizational goals. Within the Federal government’s own civil service materials for senior management promotional exams, a “can do” culture of a department is an example cited as a reflection of positive work being done by supervised managers. In seminars that discuss organizational leadership principles, “can do” culture is a positive reflection of a good working team environment.
I have no doubt that a “can do” culture exists in the US Navy, but where a “can do” culture exists, it has nothing to do with the Navy’s organizational culture problems that the CNO is responsible for fixing related to ship material condition. Leveraging “can do” culture should be part of the CNO’s solution, not identified as a problem. In the very same testimony the CNO gave to the Senate, he actually discusses characteristics of a cultural problem that is well known to be toxic in organizations, and btw – ironically, these characteristics of an organization are also cited in the Federal governments own civil service promotional exam materials as representing potentially toxic managers within teams.
Asked by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) if it was “irresponsible” to allow a ship to deploy with an expired certification, Richardson likened the certifications to a driver’s license.
“What had happened in those areas, ma’am, is that the team out there was conscious that these certifications were expiring. And it’s a bit like your driver’s license expiring – it may not necessarily mean that you don’t know how to drive any more, it’s just that expired,” he said.
“However, we do need to recognize that … they need to go back and recertify. What had happened instead is that they would do an evaluation, and say hey, your certification is expired, we’re not going to get a time to get onboard and do the certification for some time, so we’ll do a discussion or administrative review to extend that. It’s called a risk-mitigation plan. That became pretty pervasive, so it was kind of this boiling frog scenario that over time, over the last two years really, became acute.”
When conducting cyber security audits in the IT industry, a good security auditor will look for persistent risk mitigation activities as part of the evaluating the hygiene of security culture within an organization. If during a cyber security audit the auditor determines the ISO is constantly taking steps for risk mitigation for a specific system or service, and there is no evidence of organizational commitment towards solving the root cause for the risk mitigation activities, it basically means the leadership of an organization is the source of the poor security hygiene for the system or service. When there are widespread examples, it’s called having a “must do” organizational culture, and the organization “must do” things that carry high risk until eventually, the organization adopts high risk activities into the culture as part of normal status. At that point, even high risk mitigation activities become standard operating procedure, and once something is SOP organizational leadership becomes blind to the risk, and the risk is no longer important enough to resolve at a root cause level.
“Can do” cultures don’t require risk mitigation plans, but “must do” cultures do. The distinction is the difference. A “Can do” culture in an organization is a bottom-up culture of productivity, while a “must do” culture within an organization is a top-down culture of productivity. The specific characteristics that distinctly identifies whether an organization has a positive “can do” culture or a negative “must do” culture is the persistent requirement for risk mitigation and the acceptance of risk mitigation as part of standard operating procedure at the senior leadership level.
The CNO’s own testimony before the Senate on Tuesday suggests that the US Navy has a toxic “must do” top-down culture, because he not only cited risk mitigation but a tremendous amount of evidence was presented in testimony that the acceptance of risk mitigation as part of standard operating procedure is prevalent in the Pacific theater.
The CNO testimony also suggests the US Navy has a “can do” bottom up culture, and the CNO seems to believe at minimum that the “can do” culture represents part of the problem. If a positive “can do” culture of the organization is part of the problem, it is a symptom, not a cause. As a symptom it suggests the CNO has another problem, because it can lead to senior level blame gaming. A “can do” culture in the US Navy represents a positive characteristic of the US Navy culture and the CNO needs to take a hard look whether or not that positive culture is being exploited by a toxic command culture of “must do” senior leaders. Who is demanding high risk? Where is high risk institutionalized as standard operating procedure? How is accountability for risk being determined?
If the CNO actually believes that the “can do” culture is the problem instead of a symptom, ADM Richardson may be incapable of solving the organizational cultural problem in the Navy. Correctly identifying the difference between a symptom and problem is a requirement. How can the CNO be weeks into this process, be testifying in front of the Senate, and still potentially be getting problem identification wrong? Where are the smart people on the CNO’s staff?
Remember, what was the first thing Navy senior leadership did when ship material condition problems started several years ago? The Navy classified INSURVs, which virtually insured risk mitigation would become standard operating procedure when public criticism would no longer be a problem.
The CNO’s own testimony suggests the problem is a “must do” culture because he testified that the two specific aspects that represent a “must do” toxic top-down organizational culture problem exist – persistent requirement for risk mitigation and the acceptance of risk mitigation as part of standard operating procedure at the senior leadership level. There are metrics that can identify the culture challenge the Navy faces, and those metrics are not going to support the CNO’s testimony that COs can delay deployments due to a ships material condition without career consequences, because that action would be counter culture. The Senate is asking the right questions. Yet some the answers by the CNO himself aren’t believable.
Who suggested to the CNO that the first visible action the Navy needs to take before analysis is completed to identify the basic stuff like ‘work hours and duty shifts’ should be the Navy should stand up a new staff? What credible analysis has the Navy conducted that identified the first, most important, immediate step to be taken towards solving really tough organizational problems is constituting a new staff organization, rather than a manning review related to number of hours deployed sailors are working per day or week?
In my opinion, given what was said in Tuesdays testimony, the only new staff the US Navy needs is one ready to bring research skills, analysis skills, a significant increase in critical thought to some serious cultural problems in proximity closer to the CNO, because letting the CNO describe symptoms as problems in Senate testimony related to the death of 17 sailors insured Tuesday was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for the US Navy. If creating new staffs and implying blame should be directed towards sailors who are obviously sacrificing themselves towards successful objectives demanded by Navy leadership is being described as the problem… I just don’t see how this group of Navy leaders can be trusted to successfully grow and improve the Navy looking into the future when there are so many red flags related to how this group of Navy leaders is struggling to deal with the challenges that already exist today.