Welcome to part three of my series on Steven Spear’s 2009 book The High Velocity Edge. Part two introduced the four capabilities through Alcoa’s commitment to changing their safety culture. Today, I’ll cover how a single man embodied the four capabilities decades before they were practiced at Alcoa.
This man is Admiral Hyman Rickover of the US navy’s nuclear propulsion program; also known as “NR”, short for nuclear reactors. Rickover launched the program and built a culture that sustains to this day. The story begins in 1949 at the dawn of the nuclear age
The US navy wanted nuclear powered submarines. The nuclear capability meant that allowed subs to remain submerged virtually indefinitely and cover much larger areas. The challenge was nuclear reactors were an entirely new technology. No one understood how to take nuclear energy out of bombs and put it safely into submarines.
The engineers had to figure everything out from scratch. That’s just what they did. The program launched the first nuclear powered sub just five years later
NR also accomplished this with an exemplary safety record when compared to the USSR. NR has had zero reactor related causalities and zero radiation escapes. For comparison, he USSR had more than 10 before their collapse in 1991
The program’s success traces back to Rickover establishing a high velocity culture. The culture begins with the first capability: capturing the best collective knowledge and making problems visible. This was especially important for NR, since everything was unknown territory.
Rickover led his team in the discipline of engineering: the approaches necessary of managing the design, operation, and improvement of complex systems for great benefit when they run well, and for great consequence when they fail.
Categorizing the system into “understood” and “not understood” was central part to the discipline of engineering. Here’s a story about a nuclear shielding experiment that demonstrates the concept
Sensors were laid over the test material. Engineers were asked to predict señor readings ahead of time. Engineers were expected to give specific numbers, not just if it would pass the mandatory threshold
If the shielding underperformed expectations then that required additional investigation and experiments. On the other hand, if the shielding outperformed expectations, then that revealed something that was not understood. In this case, this unexpected outcome could be fatal. So experiments would repeat until engineers could predict the outcome ahead of time. Only then did they truly understand the problem
These experiments and results made it into detailed reports about assumptions, expectations, and outcomes. Rickover also required reports include analysis of alternate explanations and dissenting assessments. This demonstrated the line between certainty and uncertainty. Or in other words, areas that tested the boundaries between “understood” and “not understood”.
Writing such detailed reports was not a bureaucratic exercise
Rickover put it: “Nothing so sharpens the thought process as writing down one’s arguments. Weaknesses overlooked in oral discussions rapidly become painfully obvious on the written page.
This knowledge equipped engineers to swarm problems and convert knowledge from “not understood” into “understood”
NR relied heavily on physical models to expose problems in the man-machine system. These models allowed fast and cheap tests while. They also exposed participants to reactors at the earliest possible point. Today, we call this a “shift left”
Every shipboard reactor had a matching training reactor on land. Each land based reactor had matching full scale wooden and cardboard mockups. These models and mockups ensured that sailors and engineers had prior exposure to the system before manning the submarine
This was key because Rickover could not be on the submarine with the crew. Crews needed to be autonomous. The entire NR process had to be portable such that new crews could achieve the same outcomes as those leading the program. In other words, he had to scale out
NR leveraged written operating procedures for nearly every aspect of daily work. Every experiment, every new bit of knowledge was integrated into the standard operating procedures. These procedures represented the best knowledge NR had accumulated up to that point in time.
That enabled crews to assume responsibility for an entire vessel. That included its design, the operating procedures themselves, troubleshooting and problem solving routines, and even training. All this had already been proved out by NR. Crews just had to follow the procedures
This approach is great for launching the first submarine. What about the second or the tenth? What happens after Rickover eventually leaves the program?
Well, Rickover modeled two different leadership behaviors. First is thevision and goal setting. Rickover exemplified exellcence and pushed others as well. The second is learner-in-chief. Rickover understood that human knowledge is imperfect. Leaders must embrace this and demonstrate how to continually perfect their knowledge for themselves and for the larger organization
Then, scale that process by developing the same capabilities in others. A colleague recounts wonderful story about just that
Rickover came to class on nuclear technology on behalf of the US navy shortly after World War II. He kept asking the instructor to repeat lessons in simpler terms. The class became restless as the new student embarrassed himself. The instructor asked if Rickover would like private tutoring on the topic. Uembarrassed by this, Rickover accepted. When the session happened, it was not just Rickover and the instructor. More people from the class showed up, even some of those who sneered at him showed up. Rickover commented: “I guess I’m not the only dummy in the class.
I love this story because it demonstrates the importance of asking for clarification. I know what I’m about to say is oftenly repeated, but the odds are if you have a question, then someone else the room does too.
For whatever reason, they may be afraid to ask it or simply speak up. Being a leaner-in-chief means accepting that your knowledge is imperfect, then demonstrating how to move from “not understood” to “understood”
I think Rickover is a fascinating character. I can wonder how much grit and patience such an undertaking requires. The fact that they were able to operationalize a new technology and do it safely is tremendous
I often think back to these programs and the early days of NASA. It truly astounds me how much they were able to accomplish and how much they changed the world. I wonder if I channel some of that mythical “right stuff” into my own work. It seems that Rickover had some of it.
This is evident in books about him. Listen to these titles: “Rickover and the Nuclear Navy: The Discipline of Technology”, “Rickover: the struggle for Excellence”, “The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made a Difference”. Here’s one I particularly like: “The Never Ending Challenge of Engineering: Admiral H.G. Rickover in his own words”
Rickover understood that the end state was an illusion. Instead there was only improvement
I’ll conclude this episode with a quote from Rickover that shows why he had some of the right stuff
The discipline of technology means that the organization must adapt to the technology and not the technology to the organization. For advanced development, data are never complete, particularly if the product of complex technology is to operate at high standards for years. The discipline of technology requires exhaustive testing of materials and components to determine the laws of nature. If these are not absolute in the sequestered atmosphere of a scientific laboratory or research centers, there is no reason to expect they are better known on the shop floor. The discipline of technology requires thorough and deep consideration of the match between the product and its use, and the intense analysis of the present and anticipated future conditions of operation
Alright, let’s leave Rickover here for now.
In the next episode, I’ll discuss how Taiichi Ohno and Sakichi Toyoda pioneered the first capability: system design and operation.