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learning from failure


Staff member
Feb 16, 2024
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In 2019 I noted in hybrid sailors that the US Navy was piloting a new way of manning its Littoral Combat class ships, which are modular by design. The crew are all multi-purpose, with several roles onboard and always learning new tasks. They operate with one-fifth the crew size of a regular ship. Specialization is a thing of the past for these crews. One reason for this is that specialized knowledge has an increasingly shorter lifespan, so generalists who are good learners can make for a more flexible, or agile, crew. This approach also has its downsides, such as fewer redundant positions onboard to mitigate combat losses, and lack of deep knowledge for some complex problems.

I concluded that organizations should start testing out new models now. Learn from the Navy and others who are trying new ways of organizing work. For individuals, the ability to ‘flexibly shift’ may become a critical work skill.

Well it seems that the littoral class ship (LCS) experiment has been an utter failure.

• The Navy’s haste to deliver ships took precedence over combat ability. Without functioning weapons systems the vessels are like a “box floating in the ocean,” one former officer said.
• Sailors and officers complained they spent more time fixing the ships than sailing them. The stress led many to seek mental health care.
• Top Navy commanders placed pressure on subordinates to sail the ships even when the crews and vessels were not fully prepared to go to sea.
—The Inside Story of How the Navy Spent Billions on the “Little Crappy Ship”: ProPublica 2023-09-07

This situation reminds me of the observation by Rummler & Brache, “Over the long haul, even strong people can’t compensate for a weak process. Sure, some occasional success may come from team or individual heroics. But if you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time.” This could be rewritten as — put a good bunch of a sailors with an innovative idea into a bad navy, and the system wins every time. Pressure from the hierarchy coupled with political maneuvering doomed this experiment from the start. I wonder if it will result in any systemic changes. Given the amount of money these projects cost as well as the many vested interests, I doubt it.

Knowledge flows at the speed of trust. In this case, it seems there was not enough of that to learn as they worked on this experiment. Could anything have been done differently, given the deficiencies in ship design, interference from above, and an inability to adapt and change the course of production? I doubt it. The only possible successful option I see, given the organizational reality, would have been to use skunk works, outside the official hierarchy.

Most failures are not the failures of good work. It's violated expectations —Peter Block
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