Friday, October 17, 2014

Fixing the little things

Toilet, from Wikipedia

I once had a toilet that didn't work well.  It did its job OK, but often I had to jiggle the handle or fiddle with the tank to get it to stop running.  At the time it was a minor annoyance, which I let slide for about a year.

Then one day I used the toilet right before walking out of the house to go to church.  My family came back from church almost two hours later to find our toilet hadn't stopped running and had overflowed (from the tank, since the limit switch broke) and was cascading water down through the upstairs floor into our kitchen.  Luckily I had homeowners insurance, which covered the toilet, new tile, new subfloor and the cleanup.

What I realized later in life was that the toilet was a little problem that I had chosen to life with.  I could have spent part of an afternoon fixing the problem, but instead I just put up with it.  And in the short term, it was fine.  But over time, all the other components inside the toilet broke, and since I had already written off the toilet as broken in my mind, I didn't notice the slide until it caused a thousand dollars in damage to my house.

Work is no different in the Navy.  We regularly live with hundreds of problems.  I've encountered places that don't have supplies because the supply officer didn't realize his LS1 didn't know how to properly order supplies.  I've seen qualification programs that relied on gouge because nobody looked at the actual references because they were too hard to find.  I've been at commands where leave chits would sit in supervisors boxes for weeks before approval.  All of these were little problems that, over time, Sailors simply accepted as routine.

One of our jobs as leaders is to fix problems.  At my last command, I discovered that leave chits in one particular division would sit for weeks before approval.  After finding out what was wrong, I told all my divisions that if a leave chit pops in your box, you have 24 hours to decide yes or no, and if I discovered it was taking too long I would remove their leave authority.  That got people's attention, so the leave issues stopped.  The better part was that Sailors gained trust in their chain of command because they knew they would get a yes or no fairly quickly on leave plans.

The phrase that always makes me angry is "that's how we've always done it."  My first response to that is typically sarcastic.  "Well, we always used to sail ships with sails/use coal for heat/not allow women to serve."  Just because we did it in the past doesn't mean it makes sense anymore.  Any command that isn't questioning the basic assumptions about what they are doing and if there is a way to make it better is setting themselves up for obsolesence.

So nice fancy words, but how do you put that into action as an officer?  Simple.  Find a few small problems.  Maybe the desk where you stand EOOW is a mess and makes your job hard, but nobody wants to clean it.  Or perhaps all the references for your SWO pin aren't in one handy place.  Start small, figure out what you want it to be, and carve out the time to fix it.  After you fix one little problem, find another one and fix that.  Then, for your next one, bring someone along to help.

What you start is a snowball effect of action.  Too many people take a grandiose view and after discovering they can't fix the whole world, they quit in disgust.  For my command's warfare qualification, I started with simply creating a wiki to gather information.  Then I used it to schedule boards.  Over time, the board scheduling got more and more routine.  Soon other LTs started jumping in and making improvements, and after a year we had the best program out of all the NIOCs.  I didn't walk in and try to fix it all at once.  I simply bit off a small piece, and in the end my vision happened.

Start small, and start now.  The more small problems you fix now, the better you'll be at fixing big problems later.