Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Excellence In The Things We Own

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, Mike Stevens, recently sent a series of letters to the Chief Petty Officers of the Navy in which he laid out the foundations of his “Zeroing In On Excellence” theme.  Two things strike me about this and they’re related.

First, every New Leader, be they MCPON, CNO, a CEO of a company, or whoever/whatever, invariably starts by laying out a New Program.  This tendency includes not just high level leaders but any level that carries enough authority to ensure that the New Program can be implemented by mandate.  Generically, the New Program will, presumably, improve the organizations performance by emphasizing those aspects that the New Leader sees as deficient.  The implication is that the New Leader sees problems and solutions that no one else in previous leadership could see.  That’s all well and good, in theory.  In practice, the New Program is, almost invariably, ineffective, redundant or overlapping with existing programs, focused on peripheral issues, or just plain useless.  In reality, the main function of the New Program is to provide a public relations piece showcasing the New Leader’s wisdom so that others may see how inspiring and effective he is.

The Navy is no different in this regard than civilian industry.  Both are bombarded by a never-ending stream of new programs, each more useless and time-consuming than the last.  Consider how many new programs the Navy has implemented over the last few decades.  Every new CNO has a new program for some pet project.  The Navy generates a constant stream of studies, reports, and white papers, each leading to new programs and few survive long enough to accomplish anything before the next new program comes along and pre-empts it.

The second point that jumped out came from MCPON’s letter of 5-Nov-12, Zeroing In On Excellence:  Good Order and Discipline, in which he discussed feedback from the CPO community and highlighted four areas that dominated the feedback.  One, in particular, caught my eye and forms the basis for this discussion.  It was the desire of the CPO’s to achieve,

“Excellence in the things we have rather than continuously inventing new solutions.”

This is an incredibly simple concept that is packed with wisdom.  Rather than continuously generating new programs, why not master the ones that already exist?  After a lifetime of seeing new program after new program, I have encountered very few that offered any improvement over what already existed so why waste time and resources on new ones?  If we didn’t master the old programs why do we think we’ll master a new program? 

If the steady stream of new and useless programs simply wasted time, that would be bad enough.  However, the real problem with endless new programs is that they chip away at fundamental core values and responsibilities.  Formal programs destroy initiative and responsibility by codifying behaviors that should be left discretionary based on the principles of responsibility and accountability.  For example, Chiefs aren’t what they once were – the backbone of the Navy, the guarantors of discipline (applied in as heavy-handed a measure as needed), the source of all wisdom on matters both naval and personal, the developers of new officers, in short, the ultimate authority on all things Navy.  Instead, we now have programs and training and courses and counseling.  The Chiefs have become administrators of programs and their authority is limited, defined, and regulated by a multitude of programs instead of being the open-ended, all-powerful, all-knowing beings they once were.

So, the MCPON has recognized a Great Truth – that we should master what we have rather than make new programs – and yet has turned around and implemented his own new program.  Bit of a contradiction, there, huh?  Now, to be fair, I don’t know what the details of MCPON’s program entail.  Perhaps it’s intended only as philosophical guidance rather than as a formal program.  If that’s the case, no harm done and perhaps some good will come of it.  ComNavOps will keep a close eye on this to see whether MCPON has actually learned his own lesson or not.

Beyond MCPON’s actions, the idea of mastering existing “things” rather than inventing new solutions is one that the entire Navy should embrace.


  1. An organization needs to have a focus. One thing I liked about the USMC was they had more of a focus across the organization as a whole than the other services. Because every Marine knows he/she might be called on to be at or near the “tip of the spear”.

    I was in the Marine Corps Reserve when 9/11 happened. My unit was stationed on an Air National Guard Base. In early 2001 the gate guards and AF SPs were making sure every driver and passenger driving on base had on their seat belts on. You could get your on-base driving privileges revoked for a month or more if they caught you. But after 9/11 nobody cared at the gate about seat belts; their focus was elsewhere. As an aside, I knew the focus was disappearing a couple of years ago when the gate guards started checking seat belts again.

    Some parts of the USN and USAF have that focus: SEALs, PJs, combat controllers. But the Navy as an entirety lacks that focus. Since 1991 the “raison d'ĂȘtre” has become vague, witness the latest commercials, “A Global Force for Good”. Really? The Peace Corps can say the same thing!

    Without that mission-oriented focus CPOs and their COs will obsess over multiculturalism, alcohol incidents, and other things that take away from the mission. I’m all for reducing DUIs and sexual harassment, but the USN is doing so to the detriment of