Sewage Pumps and Leadership

If you don’t read Jim Taggart’s Changing Winds leadership blog, you really should add it to your list – he does a great job!  Yesterday I read his latest entry Work Hard, Play Hard: Leadership Lessons to Redefine Your Thinking about Michael Abrashoff, retired U.S. Naval Captain and co-founder of GLS Worldwide.  Jim’s post is a review of Michael’s book, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.

As I read this post it reminded me of the time I heard Michael speak in Toronto a few years ago.  He told one story in particular that always stuck with me – and it’s about time that I shared it with someone else…

The USS Benfold

When Captain Abrashoff took command of the USS Benfold in 1997,

the ship had one of the poorest service records in the U.S. Navy.  One year later the crew of the USS Benfold achieved the highest performance ratings in the fleet – and went on to win multiple awards and achievements.

The details of this remarkable turnaround are well worth the time it takes to read the book – I highly recommend that you check it out.

Sewage

Here is the story (as I remember it)…

its_your_ship-196x300

During the first 30 days of his new command Captain Abrashoff spent most of his time exploring the ship,
and one of the lessons he learned was that he had a sewage problem.

In the lowest part of the ship, in the dark of the bilge, there are pumps that move the ship’s sewage. It seems like such a meaningless thing – sewage pumps.  This is a fighting ship of the sea, outfitted with the latest technology that the U.S. defense industry can attach to a floating vessel with the purpose of blowing other things up.

But the sewage pumps were junk.  And they were junk in all of the ships of this class.  So there was a shortage of parts to keep them running.  And – as these things always go – there was a shortage of engineers who knew how to keep them running.

Big deal – these are just sewage pumps.  They have no impact at all on the ship’s capacity to launch missiles.

However, if these pumps are not functioning, the ship is not combat ready.  No sewage pumps, no operations.

Every Day

So, Captain Abrashoff, recognizing the importance of these pumps, but more importantly, recognizing the importance of the sailors who kept them functioning properly, would make the difficult climb down into the depths of the ship to check on his staff – every day.  Let’s repeat that — every day.

industrial_pump-280x187He could have just as easily picked up the phone and checked in, or had one of the ship’s officers do it for him.  But he recognized the critical failure point that these pumps represented in his efforts to change the performance and culture of his command.

So he took the time to personally visit these sailors so that they would clearly understand how important their work was to the success of the organization.

Where Are Your Pumps?

You might lead a small group or a large organization — either way, there are some great questions in this story:

  • Do you know where your sewage pumps are?  Can you describe — right now — which functions (processes) will stop your organization in its tracks.  Which ones seem vital, but under scrutiny maybe aren’t so critical as you thought?
  • How much time do you devote to those items deemed “important” by your managers and leaders that don’t add any value to actual accomplishment?  Do you have the guts to ignore these for the good of your organization?
  • Do you hide behind paperwork and reports or do you climb down into the “bilge water”?  How often do you get out of your office and talk to the people who make your organization actually work?  Not the “junior officers” and other middle-managers, but the “coal face” workers who make real things happen?
  • How important is prestige in your organization? Does the value of the paycheque dictate the value of the individual? Does your culture acknowledge the importance of those who “do” being just as (more?) important as those who “discuss”?

What other questions or observations can we draw from this story?  I would love to know if this story resonates with others as it did for me.


note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 31 August 2011

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