How To Ensure Your Team Lives and Breathes Operational Excellence

Nov 21, 2016
13 Min Read
How To Ensure Your Team Lives and Breaths Operational Excellence

How To Ensure Your Team Lives and Breaths Operational Excellence

A major flaw in our system of government, and even in industry, is the latitude allowed to do less than is necessary. – Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, father of the nuclear U.S. Navy

Most of us realize it takes a special kind of person to be a submariner, confined for months at a time deep beneath the ocean with about 140 other people. The up-close-and personal nature of living and working in such tight quarters is not the only challenge: every person’s life depends on the other crew members.

If work isn’t done right every single time, it could lead to dangers that someone in a cubicle might never face. That’s why the submarine environment provides such a good example of how to get things right, says Matthew Digeronimo, co-author of “Extreme Operational Excellence: Applying the U.S. Nuclear Submarine Culture to Your Organization.

Digeronimo and co-author Bob Koonce are both former submariners who now use their talents to help private industries succeed.

In their book, they quote Hyman G. Rickover in a 1981 speech at Columbia University. In that address, Rickover provided some insight into the “seeds” of the nuclear U.S. Navy’s “journey toward operational excellence,” they write.

Some insights from Rickover:

  • “Human experience shows that people, not organizations or management systems, get things done. For this reason, subordinates must be given authority and responsibility early in their careers.”
  • “Too often officials are willing to accept and adapt to situations they know to be wrong.”
  • “Unless the individual truly responsible can be identified when something goes wrong, no one has really been responsible.”
  • “When details are ignored, the project fails. No infusion of policy or lofty ideals can then correct the situation.”

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Digeronimo says Rickover’s words need to be heeded by more companies, especially as businesses race to make changes they hope will make them more competitive.

“I do think some unsuccessful businesses are changing just to change, and they really make things worse than before,” he says.  “The plan may look good on PowerPoint or in the boardroom, but it doesn’t translate well.”

The authors say there are several ways that companies can adopt a submarine culture on dry land that will lead to operational excellence. Among their suggestions:

Continuous learning

The nuclear submarine community is comprised of those who volunteer for the duty. They have to meet tough academic standards, survive boot camp and then go through months and months of intense training. Even after graduating from Nuclear Power School, academic training continues and everyone on board a submarine is actively working on a qualification to prepare for the next level of responsibility.

While civilian operations are not likely to need as robust of a training and education program, it does point to the need for knowledge to be the underpinning of operational excellence, the authors say. Training programs should prevent “knowledge decay” and “push the bounds of each member’s learning abilities,” they write.

“People get more out of an hour of training than you might imagine, because what you’re really doing is stressing the importance of learning,” Digeronimo says. “It’s what gives people the confidence to ask questions.”

Ask questions

Submariners’ lives depend on the culture that allows anyone to ask a question – even of the most senior officer. In return, that senior officer must heed the questions and state clearly why he is taking the action – or acknowledge that he is wrong or another course of action should be taken.

“More often than not, the junior person may be wrong, but it’s how senior people respond that makes all the difference,” Digeronimo says. “Then these leaders need to make sure they say ‘thanks for asking and not just being a lemming.’”

The authors point out that when people grow comfortable in their jobs, they may hide weaknesses – either consciously or unconsciously – about their skills or knowledge. When that occurs, “bad things happen,” they write.

This emphasis on creating a “questioning culture” often falls short in many companies, Digeronimo says.

“This must start at the top. It has to start with the CEO who talks about the organization’s values and how important it is to ask questions,” he says.

For example, Digeronimo says that any leader can foster such a culture by asking questions – even if he or she knows the answer.

“You ask ‘why’ over and over. Keep pushing,” he says. “This will show that there aren’t going to be any shortcuts – people are going to be questioned at every step by everyone else.”

Procedural compliance

While it sounds good to state that everyone on the team will give 110%, that’s not actually an attainable goal. When a company sets up a mission statement that sounds good – but isn’t practical or even realistic – then it creates an “uncomfortable hypocrisy” that leads to grumbling behind closed doors, the authors say.

Establishing and enforcing realistic procedural compliance not only leads to consistency among workers, but also leads to less stress because a workforce knows that procedures will be the same in every location. For example, Starbucks operates the same in Seattle or Tampa, and workers could be shifted among those stores without missing a beat.

Still, that doesn’t mean getting procedures in writing – a critical step – will be easy. “It’s common to receive resistance from the person that knows she will have to write it,” they say.

But it should be emphasized to the team that procedures aren’t being written to root out everyone who has done something wrong, but rather aims at creating excellence within the organization. Further, it encourages a consistent approach to problems, evolutions and operations, they say.

Watchteam backup

When every member of a team is engaged in a culture that is unafraid to ask questions, that can then translate into employees being more alert to identifying ways that the organization can improve. That “watchteam backup” can save lives on a submarine – and lead to better solutions and cut costly mistakes in a business, Digeronimo says.

“There is a trap in training junior personnel to believe that showing respect to senior personnel means deferring sheepishly to their orders,” they say. “All personnel owe the rest of the crew their best efforts, and this includes engaging their minds in all of their duties…and preparing to speak up when necessary.”

Digernonimo stresses that blind allegiance is lazy, disrespectful and dangerous because this “malicious compliance” attitude means that people are shutting off their brains, which can be dangerous in any environment. Such an attitude, he explains, often occurs when leaders are overbearing and quickly squash anyone who questions them.

Watchteam backup – often referred to as employee engagement in the business world – can be difficult to manage if leaders are more focused on their own egos and encourage subordinate suck-ups to support them. The authors point out that it takes time and patience to create watchteam backup and it’s critical that senior leaders make it clear to front-line supervisors that team engagement is to be met with gratitude and never retribution, “even if the backup is misguided or incorrect.”


Many people believe that having integrity means being honest. But it’s more about the “do the right thing when no one is watching” mindset that feeds organizational excellence. The other components – learning, procedural compliance, a questioning attitude and watchteam backup – all flow from the integrity that team members must have in order to put them into action.

The nuclear Navy program takes integrity seriously:  at least half of enlisted soldiers fail in their training for the nuclear submarine program and the biggest reason is integrity violations, inside and outside the classroom, the authors say.

While no one is perfect, organizations must decide how much burden and risk they may be taking on when looking past someone’s integrity slip-ups, they say. Further, leaders must show interest in the jobs that people do, so that it’s clear they care about the work – and so should the employee.

“You get what you inspect, not what you expect,” says Digeronimo, quoting Rickover.

Digeronimo explains that employees – who can feel overwhelmed with their workload – will quickly learn “what things will be looked at” and that’s the focus on their attention. By staying attentive to the work, there are more chances to have “what if?” discussions, Digeronimo says.

While it may sound cliché to workers when they are urged to do the right thing, it’s still a message that must be taught every day, then demonstrated through leader actions. Only when teams see that integrity is put into action can they see that it’s more than a catchy phrase, he says.

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