Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Want to get work done right? Follow these 7 Principles of Operational Excellence from the flight deck of The Big Stick

This week I joined a small group of leaders for a two-day stay on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of the Navy’s ten nuclear-powered supercarriers known as “The Big Stick,” as its team of 5,000 workers conducted training exercises 150 miles off the Pacific Coast near San Diego.

Here’s a picture of the phenomenal people in my group that I now consider close friends.

It’s an understatement to say it was a trip of a lifetime. Words can’t do justice to the scale and power of this ship and the commitment of the team that makes it all work. In later posts I can describe the gut-kicking 1.6g hook landing and catapult takeoff that started and ended our visit. Or what it’s like to stand a few yards from thundering F-18 jets in full-throttle the moment before catapult. Or what it’s like to watch a surface-to-air missile fire from the deck and strike a drone missile. Or the honor of a breakfast briefing with the carrier’s commanding officer Craig Clapperton and a lunch briefing with rear admiral James Bynum, the leader of the entire Carrier Strike Group.

But today’s focus is on execution. Getting things done right. It’s about what it takes for teams like these to operate with excellence in an environment where doing things right is a matter of life and death.

At the end of the trip, as our group was planning to board the plane and leave the carrier, I noticed a poster on the wall of the flight deck with these seven principles. In the world of supercarrier operations, these are the seven principles of excellence:

Principles of Operational Excellence

  • Integrity. Adhere to the highest standards at all times.
  • Level of Knowledge. Know your job and procedures. Never stop learning.
  • Procedural Compliance. By the book procedures. No short cuts. Fight complacency.
  • Formal Communications. Use clearly stated and standardized language that minimizes misunderstanding.
  • Questioning Attitude. Speak up, ask, investigate when you sense or know something is not right.
  • Forceful Backup. Speak up, ask and act when you know something is wrong.
  • Risk Management. Identify, understand and mitigate risks.

The poster finishes with these words: “These seven principles apply to every activity at all times. Following and adhering to these principles will ensure safe mission or activity execution no matter your role or experience. Virtually every mishap, close call or operational failure, both on and off duty can be traced to a violation of one or more of these principles.”

It’s not every day that we get a look at the operational principles in an organization that’s been getting things done for 241 years. It makes me think we should take these ideas to heart.

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