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Lessons from the USS Nimitz #2: Helping people be good at their jobs

(This is part of a series of posts about my trip to the USS Nimitz with a group of bloggers.  Guy Kawasaki tells the story best.)

Life on an aircraft carrier is hard.  You’re away from home, it’s loud, it’s stressful, you work constantly, it’s dangerous, and there is never a moment of privacy — and bad guys might be trying to hurt you.

But it was interesting to see how 50 years of experience has taught the Navy how to make it work seamlessly. From videos like this (from Jennifer Van Grove), you’d think it would be total chaos.

But actually, it’s surprisingly calm. 5,000 people work in total harmony.  Even though they are living inside a floating airport that can launch and land 25 airplanes in 20 minutes, while being chased by submarines (we were there during a simulated battle).

Everyone used the same phrase: Ballet. It really was like that. Everything happened just like it should, with a surprising amount of cool and order.

Consider that the average age on the ship is 25, and the majority of people are 19 or 20.  They have astonishing levels of competence and confidence.

How do they do it? Here are four lessons I learned on how to keep your cool from the U.S. Navy:

1. Details matter. Everything has a process and a plan. Each little step is there for a reason. There wasn’t a speck of dirt or a pencil out of place. Lots of little things done well adds up to big things done well. You saw this in how they cleaned, but you also saw it in how we were briefed, how the safety measures worked, how everyone triple-checked everything. No loose ends, ever.

2. Everyone knows their jobs. People know what to do and how to do it. Whether they are building bombs or making 18,000 meals a day. Everyone has the training and confidence to do something well — and it gets done well. Everyone has clear objectives and standards to judge themselves by. (If you want people to succeed, they need to know what success is.) On top of that, you can relax a little when you know everyone else has taken care of their piece, and you can focus on your job.

3. Special places matter. In an environment with very little personal space, people found a place to call home. An office, a special table in the mess, a corner of the hangar bay. You need to give people space to get settled. (I never understood companies that don’t give you a good permanent desk — you can’t make someone a nomad and expect them to put down roots.) You have to have a place to put a picture of your family.

4. Proven is better than newer. The Nimitz has been sailing since 1975. It works — really well. My wife wasn’t thrilled that we were dropping from the sky to be caught by a wire on a moving football field. Until we realized that this is proven, solid, and well tested. After 35 years, I’m comfortable with it. I don’t want to be the guy to debug whatever they invent next. (In 20 years, I’ll be ready to trust Lasik.) A video from Guy:

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