Friday, June 12, 2009

Seven Rules of Admiral Rickover by Gordon Graham


Continued Professional Training

June 8, 2009

SPEAKER: Gordon Graham


Seven Rules of Admiral Rickover”

Thanks for inviting me back to Texas to speak to you regarding your job as a representative of the telecommunications community. It is an absolute honor to be with you here today. My hat is off to you for all you do – and I recognize the key role you play in being the first point of contact between citizens in need and the public safety community. I may have met some of you in prior presentations, and if that is true you know my focus in life is in the Management of Risk.

There are all sorts of applications of the discipline of risk management. My goal is over the next two hours is to give you some ideas, strategies, tactics and thoughts on what you can do to better protect yourself, your team, your public, your organization, and your noble profession. Also, I would love to see you smile just a bit also. Let’s get started.

One of the great icons of the 20th Century was Admiral Hyman Rickover. He is know as the “father” of our nuclear navy and his efforts have made America safer. Born in Warsaw in 1900, Rickover rose to rank of Admiral and directed the development of our nuclear navy, which has a tremendous safety record. He recognized he was dealing with a highly risky, highly complex issue, and he developed rules for success.

How can these rules help you in your highly complex, highly risky world of telecommunications operations? How did his focus on quality control penetrate the organization so deeply so as to reach to the line employee level in the nuclear navy? Let’s take a look at each of these rules and explore the possibilities.

Rule 1. You must have a rising standard of quality over time, and well beyond what is required by any minimum standard.

We have to get better and better at what we do. Our public deserves it. Our personnel deserve it. We must be constantly looking for a better way to do things. Status Quo – we have always done it this way – is not longer acceptable.

On an organizational level, there are better ways to get and keep good people. There are better ways to build your policy manual. There are better ways to train your personnel. There are better ways to supervise. There are better ways to discipline errant employees.

On an operational level, we must improve our performance in response times, quality and timeliness of written reports, training, candor in performance evaluations, equipment andvehicle maintenance, physical conditioning, and anything else that we can measure.

Continuous improvement has got to be part of the way we do business.

Rule 2. People running complex systems should be highly capable.

Successful public safety operations require people who know how to think. Fifty years ago, you did not need to be all that sharp to be in public safety.

Things have changed. Technology, equipment, strategies and tactics involved in providing services to our constituents have all changed. This is an extremely complex job, and if you hire people who can’t think things through, you are in route to disaster.

If you allow the hiring of idiots, they will not disappoint you – they will always be idiots. In view of the consequences that can occur when things do not go right in your complex, high-risk job – this may end being the cause of a future tragedy.

Every nickel you spend in weeding out losers up front has the potential to save you amillion dollars. And I can prove that statement if you want me to.

Rule 3. Supervisors have to face bad news when it comes, and takeproblems to a level high enough to fix those problems.

When you take an honest look at tragedies in any aspect of public safety, from the lawsuits to the injuries, deaths, embarrassments, internal investigations and even the rare criminal filing, so many of them get down to supervisors not behaving like supervisors.The primary mission of a supervisor is “systems implementation”.

If you promote people who either can’t or won’t enforce policy, you are in route to tragedy. To be sure, the transition from line employee to supervisor is a difficult one, but the people you choose to be supervisors have to like their people so much, that they will enforce the policy to protect each of them from harm or loss.

Not to beat this point to death, but you show me a tragedy in public safety operations –including some in the news today – and I will show you the fingerprints of a supervisor not behaving like a supervisor.

And for those of you who have promoted, remember that every day families are entrusting you with the safety of their loved ones. This is a huge responsibility.

Rule 4. You must have a healthy respect for the dangers and risks ofyour particular job.

Many public safety jobs are high risk in nature, and the consequences for not doing things right can be dramatic. Remember the basic rules of Risk Management. RPM –Recognize, Prioritize, Mobilize.

You must do a risk assessment on each job in every public safety department and identify the tasks that have the highest probability of causing you grief. Then you must prioritize these tasks in terms of potential frequency, severity and available time to think prior to acting. Finally, you must mobilize (act) to address the recognized risks appropriately and prevent consequences.

Rule 5. Training must be constant and rigorous.

Every day must be a training day! We must focus the training on the tasks in every job description that have the highest probability of causing us grief. These are the High Risk, Low Frequency, Non Discretionary time events. We must assure that all personnel are adequately trained to address the tasks that give them no time to think, and that they understand the value of thinking things through when time allows.

Rule 6. All the functions of repair, quality control and technicalsupport must fit together.

Audits and inspections are an important part of your job as a leader in public safety. We cannot assume that all is going well. We must have control measures in place to assurethings are being done right. This is not micro-management – It is called doing your job.

If you do not have the audits (formal and informal) in place, you will not know aboutproblems until they become consequences, and then you are in the domain of lawyers.That is too late for action, as all you can do then is address the consequences.

And if you take the time to study the life of Admiral Rickover, you will quickly learn thathe was widely despised in the Navy because of his insistence on using the audit processas a tool to hold people accountable.

Rule 7. The organization and members thereof must have the abilityand willingness to learn from mistakes of the past.

Analysis of past data is the foundation for almost all of risk management. We (public safety operations) keep on making the same mistakes over and over again.

As I read the lawsuits, injuries and deaths, organizational embarrassments, internal investigations and even the rare criminal filing against our personnel I know that we can learn so much by studying the mistakes we have made in the past. It all gets down to Risk Management.

Here are three statements that have guided me through most of my adult life. First is a quote, albeit paraphrased, from the great risk management guru of the 40’s, Archand Zeller.

“The Human does not change. During the period of recorded history, there is little evidence to indicate that man has changed in any major respect. Because the man does not change, the kinds oferrors he commits remain constant. The errors that he will make can be predicted from the errors he has made.”

What does this mean? We have not figured out any new ways to screw things up. We are making the same mistakes over and over again. Refineries have not figured out any new ways to blow up. Police have not figured out any new ways to get in trouble. Restaurants have not figured out any new ways to kill people. Planes have not figured outany new ways to crash. Fire Departments and firefighters have not figured out any new ways to get in trouble.

And Telecommunications personnel have not figured out any new ways to get in trouble. Please do not give me that nonsense that “bad things just happen”. I am sick of hearing that faulty “poor me” refrain. There are no new ways to get in trouble. To be sure, there are variations on a theme, but in reality it is the same stuff over and over again. Let me jump ahead in the lecture.


By the end of our brief time together today, I want you to fully understand that you, regardless of what your job is, are in a great position to do something about all of this right now.

The second statement important in my life thus far came from my mentor, professor and friend Chaytor Mason. He was a risk management guru in the 70’s. Here is a capsulized version of his response when I accused him of being the smartest person who ever lived.

“The smartest person in the world is the woman or man who finds the fifteenth way to hold two pieces of paper together.”

My instant response when I first heard this was confusion, but then I figured it out.While there are no new ways to screw things up (Zeller) there are always new ways to fine tune and revisit our existing systems. We must be looking for new and improved ways of doing this most complex job, and you are the ones who can do that. There are better ways to hire telecomm personnel, and there are better ways to train them. There are better ways of doing performance evaluations, and there are better ways to do the things we are tasked with doing.

Status quo (we have always done it that way – we have never done it that way) does not work. There is a better way of doing business, the 15th way, and we must constantly be looking for it. My third belief in life is a summary of the above two thoughts.

“Things that go wrong in life are predictable and predictable is preventable.”

Thanks for your patience. I have been using this line since 1980 and I appreciate your indulgence. Want proof? Take a look at your newspaper today. These handouts were finalized on May 14. And every May it starts to warm up and people get in boats for an early start for the summer and they don’t know how to operate the boat safely and they overturn it and some will drown. And every year the US Coast Guard tells us that 800 or so people drown and 90% have got PFD’s on their boat – and 90% aren’t wearing this device. Already this year we have seen this occur with the NFL guys in Florida.

And now we are in June and later this month we will have the kids dying on the way home from their Prom – alcohol and high speed will be the cause. And in July it will be more kids dying in hot cars. And in August it will be the kids dying from dehydration during football practice and in September California will burn down again – as it does every year in September. It goes on and on, but…


It was an honor to address you today. I hope you leave with an enhanced vision of the value of risk management. And I hope our discussion today will give you something you can do when you get back to work to improve your specific NENA operations. Finally, please keep our soldiers and sailors in your prayers. Without them, we would be in one heck of a fix right now. I look forward tos eeing you again soon. In the interim, if you need anything, please do not hesitate to contact me anytime.

Gordon Graham