These privileges, these responsibilities do not appear in print. They have no official standing. They cannot be referred to by name, number or file. They exist because for over 200 years the Chiefs before you have freely accepted responsibility beyond call of printed assignment and have, by their actions and performance, commanded the respect of their seniors as well as their juniors. -from The Chief’s Creed.
Captain Marques is currently serving as a Military Fellow to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He Com-manded USS SANTA FE from 1999-2001.
Next to the submarine piers at Pearl Harbor stands a tired and unassuming 2-story building. This structure was the peri-scope repair facility and during World War TI it was a constant scene of activity as technicians worked to refurbish and focus the periscopes of our submarines before they set out in search of Japanese shipping. These were the tools that men like Dick O’Kane, Mush Morton, and Gene Fluckey would use to bring the Japanese empire to its knees.
Half a century later, the functions of the building had been replaced by a larger and up-to-date facility a hundred yards away and the second floor had been converted into a homespun lounge of recycled furniture. On a Friday afternoon in January 1999, a group of as-yet unrecognized men sat in the lounge. They were the chiefs of USS SANTA FE and they had a problem.
Since its commissioning 7 years earlier, the ship had had an undistinguished career. She had won no unit awards and sported a mediocre record on inspection results. More alarming, perhaps, was that during the past 12 months, she had only reenlisted 3 Sailors which placed her squarely at the bottom of fast attack submarines (SSNs) for retention. This was evidence that the Sailors on board were not happy.
Now, in one of the most amateurish change-of-command ceremonies in recent memory, these chiefs were given a new commanding officer-me. And while most Friday afternoons in Pearl Harbor were designated Aloha Friday with work wrapping up early, allowing the Sailors to take advantage of the Pacific waves before it got too late, on this day, the Chiefs had a more pressing agenda, and had asked me to participate in their session.
As we sized each other up, the Chiefs listed their problems:
- Below average advancement rates
- Poor performance on official and unofficial evaluations
- A spiritless qualification program, with Sailors delayed in qualifications waiting on checkouts and examinations from the wardroom
- An inability to schedule, control and commence work on time, resulting in men languishing around in the morning, only to have to stay late in the afternoon to get the ship’s work accomplished
- An inability to control the schedule of their men, with leave chits getting lost in the chain of command, schools getting canceled and the chiefs getting second-guessed on their manning plans
-Low morale and retention
It’s an oft-repeated Navy adage that “the chiefs run the Navy. However, in this case the authority of the Chief Petty Officers had long been eroded away. The reasons for this went from institutional (requiring more senior officer supervision for more activities in an effort to manage problems) to personal (as some officers reacted with over-control and micro-management in an effort to avoid mistakes). Whatever the history, the bottom line here was that the Chiefs did not run USS SANTE FE. And that was their problem.
In retrospect, two things were remarkable about that meeting. First, the chiefs made a conscious decision to take charge. And as we discussed the implications of that, it was clear that along with assuming the authority to run the boat, would come the responsibility for its success and failure. During my short time on board I had observed, at all levels in the chain of command, the crew referring to other crew members as they. This carried the implicit psychological meaning that the crew did not think of themselves as one intertwined unit whose fates were intimately linked. It was clear from this meeting that practice would end. And more than anything else, the subsequent success of the boat was due to the fact that this group of men voluntarily and unconditionally accepted responsibility for its future.
In fact, the language issue being so significant, we agreed that henceforth, they could only refer to someone not belonging to the crew of USS SANTA FE-and from now on no member of the crew could refer to any other group or member of the crew as they. We would be we. The torpedomen would refer to the nukes as we, the chiefs would refer to the officers as we, and the crew would refer to the chiefs as we.
The second remarkable aspect of the meeting was that the chiefs focused on mechanisms that would put them in charge. There wasn’t much time wasted on discussing the philosophy of what the role of the chief petty officer was in today’s Navy, and there wasn’t much time wasted on exhortations and speeches. We didn’t have time for those luxuries-and the sole output would be concrete mechanisms.
Mechanism 1: Chiefs take charge of their men
First and foremost, we wanted to put the chiefs in charge of their own men: their schedules; leave; schools; and advancements.
The current process for managing leave (encouraged by the Standard Submarine Organization and Regulations Manual, known as the SSORM) was that all enlisted leave chits needed to be approved by the Executive Officer. As in most hierarchical organizations, documents get reviewed by everyone up to the approving authority. Hence, our Sailors’ leave chits were being signed by the requestor’s leading first class petty officer, divisional chief, departmental chief, Chief of the Boat, Division Officer, Department Head and finally the Executive Officer. We had more signature requirements than spaces on the form!
And the issue of signatures hinted at another problem. Leave chits would frequently get caught in a sort of administrative ping-pong, bouncing between members in the chain of command who could not agree on approval.
Perhaps it was Chief Machinist Mate Welzenbach who suggested that enlisted leave chits be approved by the Chief of the Boat (COB).; Chief Welzenbach ran the machinery division and was thinking about retirement when he accepted orders to USS SANT A FE at the behest of the commodore. He was a continuous source of professionalism and innovation.
This change would require the Executive Officer to delegate his authority for leave chit approval to the Chief of the Boat. Administratively, the number of signatures would be cut in half, but more significantly, the fate of the Sailors’ leave would lie in the hands of their chiefs.
I was reluctant to agree. In my previous jobs I had, on several occasions, countermanded ill thought-out leave plans. Additionally, I was concerned that the junior officers would lose the experience of learning personnel management and lose touch with their divisions. The chiefs agreed upon some methods for mitigating these impacts on the junior officers but fundamentally they convinced me because they were willing to take responsibility for the performance of their men. Poor performance, as a result of a poor personnel management, would be reflected in the responsible chiefs’ evaluations. Thus argued, I agreed.”
The result of this seemingly minor administrative change was leveraged to put the chiefs squarely in charge of all aspects of managing their men including their watchbills, qualification schedules and schools. The only way the chiefs could own the leave planning was if they owned the watchbill. The only way they could own the watchbill was if they owned the qualification process. Hence, this change acted as Archimedes’ lever, placing the chiefs in charge of all aspects of leading their men.
Mechanism 2: Chiefs take charge of the schedule
The scheduling process was a hierarchical top-down approach. Inputs were provided to the department heads and executive officer, who published the Plan of the Week and Plan of the Day. It was inefficient and largely ineffective.
Chief Electronics Technician Larson may have been the one who suggested that the Chief of the Boat prepare the Plan of the Day and present it to the Executive Officer (XO), rather than the XO publishing it from 011 high. Chief Larson had served on 2 688-class submarines before, and arrived a couple months previously from the Submarine On-Board Training developers in New London, CT. Chief Larson spearheaded several innovative uses of computer-based training, chart management, and maintenance management. He served as acting COB for me on several occasions.
This simple transition also forced a cascading impact on how the schedule was managed that no amount of lecturing or exhortations could have caused. The only way the COB could write the daily schedule was if he wrote the weekly schedule. The only way he could write the weekly schedule was if the chiefs got together and cooperated on writing a coordinated schedule. This forced them into the planning process. The result was a much more efficient scheduling process, owned by the chiefs.
This is not to say that everything proceeded without a hitch from then on. We occasionally would have a gun shoot for the engineering department scheduled the same day as a reactor startup-two incompatible events. However, these occurrences were significantly reduced and when they did happen, the chiefs knew who to blame.
In a word, this change forced the chiefs to take ownership of the entire scheduling process, and to evaluate and improve that process to make it more effective.
Mechanism 3: Chiefs take charge of performance
This piece evolved over the next year following several near misses. As I sat through a couple critiques, it appeared that there was a correlation between Chief Petty Officer involvement and success of an evolution or maintenance action.
It could have been our Engineering Department Master Chief, or bull nuke, Chief Electrician’s Mate Jensen who suggested that a chief be in charge of every evolution and maintenance action on the boat. Chief Jensen was another of the recent arrivals to the ship. He proved to be a continuing source of improving standards and processes on board.
The administrative mechanism was to add a column to the night orders and in-port maintenance planning forms listing the chief-in-charge. The result was that nothing happened on the boat for which no chief felt it was his responsibility to make sure it proceeded correctly, per procedure. If the evolution or maintenance action went south, the chief in charge would be prominent at the critique.
The officers and crew quickly adapted to this framework, and it was a standard report when getting permission to perform an evolution to report the chief in charge.
The only rule for being a chief in charge was that you needed to be on the ship and know the evolution was occurring. Beyond this, we avoided specifying the level of involvement, preferring instead to allow the chief to determine his own level of involvement-from on-site monitoring, pre-evolution certification, or simply acknowledgment that he was the chief in charge.
We defined a c/1ieffor the purposes of this control function as a real chief or anyone qualified Duty Chief Petty Officer. This allowed the Duty Chief to be the chief in charge during weekend duty section evolutions without having to call in chiefs off liberty. The additional benefit was that it added a visible step increase in responsibility for those qualified duty chief, and was an added incentive.
The net impact of these changes was to put the chiefs in charge of the boat. The real power of this only surfaced later, as reenlistment rates soared. As I talked with crewmembers about their decision to reenlist, it became apparent that looking forward to having a job that influenced the destinies of their men, which is how they now viewed their chiefs, played a vitally important role.
Chiefs of USS SANT A FE, early 1999:
MMCS Bruner, COB MMC Welzenbach
EMC Jensen, EDMC EMC Refvem
HMCS Hill ETC Foster
ETCS Norbury STSC Worshek
ETCS Hughes MMC Hutchins
MMC Downham MMC Kanahele
Editors Note: Within 3 years of this meeting, USS Santa Fe had earned the Arleigh Burke Fleet Trophy, the squadron Battle “E, ” 3 unit awards and commendatio11s, received the highest possible grades 011 inspections, and had risen to the 1111m-ber one spot for overall retention amo11g all SSNs, Atlantic and Pacific. In 2001 nine of the ten eligible first class petty officers were selected for chief. one of every three enlisted men 011 board was advanced, and she set a record for reenlistment bonuses during deployment that was only recently surpassed and by ships that deployed longer than 6 months.