By: LT Dave Nobles
Shipyards are filthy, filthy places.
There are a lot of things that I love about the Navy, but a prolonged stay in a shipyard for a maintenance availability just ain’t one of them. Nonetheless, my ship has been moored at BAE Systems Shipyard in San Diego for an extensive Combat Systems Modernization to AEGIS Baseline 9C.
As anyone in the Navy can tell you, the shipyard environment brings with it a unique set of leadership challenges. Not the least of these is keeping things clean. BENFOLD entered the shipyard in August, and I can tell you: We’ve been battling to maintain cleanliness in this industrial environment ever since.
Fast forward to Saturday. It was a typical duty day for me as Command Duty Officer, and I had just finished observing evening colors. After we’d finished up, my Section Leader and I walked back to our berthing barge (moored outboard of us, because the crew can’t sleep on the torn-apart warship) for 8 O’Clock Reports when I noticed something.
I looked over to my left on the way into the barge and noticed some dirt on a bulkhead (wall, for the non-nautical). Honestly, it didn’t even seem too dirty, so I reached out and touched it. When I did, my fingerprints left two bold white streaks through the layers of dirt that had built up there.
Now, this is a bulkhead that we all walk by on a daily basis on our way into the barge. As I said before, we’ve been waging war against the dust bunnies since we came in the yards, so how did we miss this?
Because it became part of the scenery. We fell into the entrenchment trap.
At a small level, it’s the Broken Windows Theory in action: A building with broken, unrepaired windows is more likely to be vandalized. By the theory, vandals believe that if the windows aren’t repaired, then it must be “all right” to break more. Eventually, that leads to increased crime of all types in a neighborhood.
In the shipyard environment, surrounded by filth, metal shards, discarded contractor earplugs and the like (trust me, there are many worse things, too) the dirty bulkhead became subconsciously “all right” despite our best efforts as a crew.
Well not anymore: Because we caught it. We fixed the window.
And as we scrubbed the filthy bulkhead together with warm, soapy water, I had some time to reflect. This was a microcosmic example of a bigger phenomena: When you’ve been in a place or at an organization long enough, things just start to become part of the scenery. Whether it be a process, a dirty wall, or a program, sometimes it pays to take a step back and view it with a fresh set of eyes. A critical set of eyes.
At all of our organizations, we may have grown accustomed to practices that may require a fresh take or a change. These, my friends, are the petri dishes of innovation.
So, what did I learn at the end of the day? Well, first and foremost, I got a good reminder to bring a more critical eye to the daily walk of my department’s spaces onboard the ship. But, I also learned that the same critical, fresh eye can be applied to any area on the ship and beyond.
In the book Creative Confidence, Tom and David Kelley advocate carrying “bug lists” of things that you may see with fresh eyes that could be done better. The idea being that the list will inspire idea generation for a movement, service or business that you could start to fix it. The book is also filled with examples of people who’ve gone the full distance when they found something that needed fixing and fixed it. Really inspiring stuff.
So, let’s do the same onboard our ships and within our organizations. Let’s don the fresh set of eyes and refuse to let things become part of the scenery.
Mahatma Ghandi said that we should be the change that we want to see in the world. So, let’s resolve to change what needs changing and fix what needs fixing, and let’s make things better. Because better is good.
Don’t forget the warm, soapy water.
LT Dave Nobles is a Surface Warfare Officer assigned as Weapons Officer aboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). He is also a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell.
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