Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Training....Yet Again

U.S. Navy SEALS in Training
We have beat the drum on the value of improved and innovative training techniques for improving safety management performance for some time.  Really since the inception of this blog where our paper, “Practicing Nuclear Safety Management,”* was one of the seminal perspectives we wanted to bring to our readers.  We continue to encounter knowledgeable sources that advocate practice-based approaches and so continue to bring them to our readers’ attention.  The latest is an article from the Harvard Business Review that calls attention to, and distinguishes, “training” as an essential dimension of organizational learning.  The article is “How the Navy SEALS Train for Leadership Excellence.”**  The author, Michael Schrage,*** is a research fellow at MIT who reached out to a former SEAL, Brandon Webb, who transformed SEAL training.  The author contends that training, as opposed to just education or knowledge, is necessary to promote deep understanding of a business or market or process.  Training in this sense refers to actually performing and practicing necessary skills.  It is the key to achieving high levels of performance in complex environments. 

One of Webb’s themes that really struck a chord was: “successful training must be dynamic, open and innovative…. ‘It’s every teacher’s job to be rigorous about constantly being open to new ideas and innovation’, Webb asserts.”  It is very hard to think about much of the training in the nuclear industry on safety culture and related issues as meeting these criteria.  Even the auto industry has recently stepped up to require the conduct of decision simulations to verify the effectiveness of corrective actions - in the wake of the ignition switch-related accidents. (see our
May 22, 2014 post.)

In particular the reluctance of the nuclear industry and its regulator to address the presence and impact of goal conflicts on safety continues to perplex us and, we hope, many others in the industry.   It was on the mind of Carlo Rusconi more than a year ago when he observed: “Some of these conflicts originate high in the organization and are not really amenable to training per se” (see our
Jan. 9, 2014 post.)  However a certain type of training could be very effective in neutralizing such conflicts - practicing making safety decisions against realistic fact-based scenarios.  As we have advocated on many occasions, this process would actualize safety culture principles in the context of real operational situations.  For the reasons cited by Rusconi it builds teamwork and develops shared viewpoints.  If, as we have also advocated, both operational managers and senior managers participated in such training, senior management would be on the record for its assessment of the scenarios including how they weighed, incorporated and assessed conflicting goals in their decisions.  This could have the salutary effect of empowering lower level managers to make tough calls where assuring safety has real impacts on other organizational priorities.  Perhaps senior management would prefer to simply preach goals and principles, and leave the tough balancing that is necessary to implement the goals to their management chain.  If decisions become shaded in the “wrong” direction but there are no bad outcomes, senior management looks good.  But if there is a bad outcome, lower level managers can be blamed, more “training” prescribed, and senior management can reiterate its “safety is the first priority” mantra.

*  In the paper we quote from an article that highlighted the weakness of “Most experts made things worse.  Those managers who did well gathered information before acting, thought in terms of complex-systems interactions instead of simple linear cause and effect, reviewed their progress, looked for unanticipated consequences, and corrected course often. Those who did badly relied on a fixed theoretical approach, did not correct course and blamed others when things went wrong.”  Wall Street Journal, Oct. 22, 2005, p. 10 regarding Dietrich Dörner’s book, The Logic of Failure.  For a comprehensive review of the practice of nuclear safety, see our paper “Practicing Nuclear Safety Management”, March 2008.

**  M. Schrage, "How the Navy SEALS Train for Leadership Excellence," Harvard Business Review (May 28, 2015).

***  Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, is the author of the book Serious Play among others.  Serious Play refers to experiments with models, prototypes, and simulations.

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