First-Hand Lessons in Operational Excellence from the United States Navy
“Best Run” is an Everyday Reality in the U.S. Navy
As First-Hand Lessons in Leadership, Operational Excellence, Mission, and Honor from the United States Navy, I recently had the tremendous opportunity to go aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing pictures, observations, and lessons learned from this incredible trip.
The Cool Stuff
My experience began with a “mission briefing” by Cmdr. Pauleen Storum at the U.S. Naval Air Station on Coronado Island in San Diego, CA. [Of course, the experience actually began with filling-out forms such as the “Risk Advisement and Release of Liability” waiver and my “Next of Kin” statement so they’d know where to send my lifeless shell of a body in case something went horribly awry …]
There were a dozen of us traveling in the U.S. Navy’s “Distinguished Visitor” program, run by the Public Affairs Office as a way to open-up, inform, and influence the influencers. It reminded me alot of our own Blogger Program managed by Mike Prosceno and a little bit like our Mentor Program managed by Mark Finnern (although with the Mentor program we seek more influence from Mentors … the U.S. Navy certainly didn’t need any advice and counsel from me or my fellow travelers).
We then boarded a C2 “Greyhound” transport plane for Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD). You’ve heard of flying economy class? This was essentially a no-frills flight in a stripped down and aging military airplane with a “controlled crash landing” on board the deck of an aircraft carrier about 150 miles out in the Pacific Ocean.
The C2 flies at full speed onto the deck and its tail-hook snags one of four lines stretched across the USS Lincoln, which slows it from 120 miles-per-hour to zero in seconds. (All aircraft land on the carrier at full speed in case the tailhook fails to grab one of the lines, so they can immediately take off and circle back again for another attempt.)
Here’s a peek at what it’s like to emerge from the C2 onto the deck in what seemed like another world entirely, and to be greeted with “Welcome Aboard!” by the ship’s Executive Officer Timothy Kuehhas on the very loud and disorienting active runway …
We met Admiral Guadagnini who is Commander of the US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 9, the ship’s Captain John Alexander, Command Master Chief Susan Whitman. We met the “shooters” who release the jets for take-off (launch via catapult) off the ship, bowswain’s mates who steer the ship, take care of the anchor, stand watch, and more.
We met the ship’s chaplains, squadron leaders (think “Top Gun” but with more embarrassing nicknames as their radio call signs), the engineers who run the two nuclear power generators on the ship, random sailors as they did their chores and performed their duties, cooks and chefs, Navy lawyers, firefighters, folks doing essentially specialized manual labor on the flight deck, various ranks and roles on the captain’s bridge, in the dining areas, and specialists who build or modify or load munitions (bombs).
We toured the captain’s bridge — his “office” overlooking the flight deck — and the admiral’s similar area with a view of top-side operations. We saw (but were not allowed to photograph due to security and confidentiality) the ship’s defensive operations command… essentially the team and tools that protect the ship by playing defense while the rest of the ship and air command are focused on offensive battle fighting or providing humanitarian aid operations.
We stood on the deck just meters away from powerful jets, surveillance planes, mid-air refueling aircraft, and protective helicopters (“helo’s”) during take-off (launch) and landing (recovery). Here’s one coming in now …
We watched night flight operations in the dusk of evening from “Vulture’s Row” above the action. We toured the ship’s impressive media and public affairs facilities (including a mini TV studio where they produce “The Boat Show” modeled after John Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” printing presses, digital media stations). We saw the ship’s Chapel and met its two Chaplains. Marveled at the crew berths (bunk beds stacked three high with minimal storage space for clothing and gear) for their absence of privacy and personal space. Got a briefing from an air squadron commander in their version of a team room where pilots get their orders, plan strategy and tactics, and then do post-mission de-briefs.
We saw a modern hospital and medical area on the ship, visited the fantail (an overhang at the stern / farthest point at the back of the ship) and foc’sle (the pointy bow / front of the ship where the anchors are stowed). And we had full access to the massive aircraft hangar, maintenance, and storage area below deck.
By the way, if these photos weren’t enough to satisfy your interest, you’re welcome to view the many others on flickr.
Operational Excellence US Navy Style
Over the course of our visit, we saw an incredible attention to detail in every way. The ship was spotless from top to bottom, with shiny brass and not a hint of dirt or dust or anthing out of place. We noticed a serious focus on practicing, practicing, and more practicing (of takeoffs and landings, fire drills, evasion techniques, and more). We experienced extraordinary professionalism (of course, the “yes, sir!” was prevalent, but beyond that attitude, people were extremely smart, articulate, and obviously experts in their professional focus areas).
Well-Defined Roles, with Redundancy and Back-Up
To quickly identify flight deck personnel, especially in a VERY LOUD environment on an active runway where talking is just not a feasible means of communication, everyone wears a specific color depending on their job function:
Purple shirts fuel aircraft (and purple pipes below deck carry fuel, versus water or waste)
White shirts handle safety related jobs
Yellow shirts direct movement of aircraft (like the “shooters”)
Red shirts handle all weapons and ammunition
Green shirts hook aircraft to catapults and handle arresting wires
Brown shirts are plane captains who are responsible for individual aircraft
Blue shirts chock and chain aircraft into position and drive tractors that pull the aircraft
Interesting to me, here, was the fact that there were always pairs of each person and each role. In our high-tech world of software we would call this “redundant systems” whereby in case one fails the other can take over, and even a quality assurance (QA) process that occurs before any product is released. The parallel in the U.S. Navy was: each person’s work was double-checked by someone else before it was “approved,” and a second person was always being trained to take over in case the first person could not perform their duties.
This military version of system redundancy was also apparent on the bridge. The captain of the USS Lincoln was present but had delegated authority for operations to another officer (easily identifiable in his yellow cap). That officer had a very thick manual of standard operating instructions (“standing orders”) that told him what to do in certain situations per instructions from the captain — and he was definitely in control under normal circumstances — but the captain was physically present, observing, and ready to step in at a moment’s notice. In this way, training was occurring with real-world hands-on experience, but the redundant backup system (the captain himself) was at the ready in case of emergency.
Outperform the Competition
If you travel through major international airports like Heathrow, Narita, or O’Hare, you might have seen some of SAP’s “best-run” campaigns (like US Olympian Shaun White did). These ads illustrate SAP’s promise that “The Best-Run Businesses Run SAP.” This statement isn’t just marketing fluff; it’s a key part of the SAP brand and a promise that every aspect of our business strives to keep – whether it’s developing products to streamline efficiencies and provide analytical insight, or facilitating innovative ways to share knowledge across companies and continents.
We believe we can help every business achieve operational excellence, such as through the SAP BusinessObjects portfolio, so any company from a small business to large enterprises can easily access and analyze business intelligence to inform decisions. Alone, these tools enable companies to deliver to plan, identify opportunities to improve, and become best in their industry. Combined with the Operational Excellence and expertise in the SAP communities, companies can do even better by tapping into our wide network.
An aircraft carrier is designed to be self-contained, with every amenity required to house its crew (barbers, post office, its own zip code… even producing its own drinkable fresh water as it’s out at sea for months at a time) as well as the necessary requirements to run military operations for the 5000+ people on board. The SAP Community Network — SCN — on the other hand, is not designed to be stand-alone. By nature, it’s designed to have porous walls and blurred lines between SAP-created content, community-generated content, and interaction with third-party social media sites. We rely heavily on resources outside of SAP to help us nurture and grow the communities.
SAP’s mission is to deliver extraordinary business applications, platforms, related services, augmented by partner solutions, and much more in order to help our customers be “best-run” or operationally excellent, innovative, and market-leading. The strategy here is simple: If we can help our customers be wildly successful in their businesses, SAP will benefit as those customers grow, expand, evolve.
Though our end goals and tactics may differ, for the US Navy, for SAP, and for SAP customers and partners, operational excellence is a strategic competitive differentiator. Streamlined tools, clear responsibilities, extraordinary resources, flexible best-practice processes – they all help us perform quicker and better. And in order to outperform the competition, we need to be agile and be able to respond to changing conditions whether it’s a change in the business marketplace or a change in battle conditions. At SAP, one way we’re able to smoothly adapt – without entirely changing course – is through timeless software and the other themes you’ll hear at SAPPHIRE NOW.
I hope you’ll consider the parallels between extraordinary best-practice operations like those of the U.S. Navy (you might have another example) and your own company. And I hope to see you at SAPPHIRE in Orlando when we will all learn a lot more about operational excellence, being “best run,” and how SAP might be able to play a role in that journey.