Turning Brick into Paper: An Example

A colleague of mine shared this article, Leaders turn brick into paper in our professional network for military Training Development Officers last week. The article brought back a lot of memories from my days in the Navy. As I read it, I reflected on great, good and not so good leaders at all levels and some real leadership challenges for me personally. Under the section of the article called “Common brick walls” the example of “that piece of equipment that hasn’t worked since I’ve been here and my people tell me it’s never worked” was a real flashback.

When I was assigned to be the Chief Instructor of Acoustics, the standard practice was to send each class down to the dockyard in the evenings to do their active sonar training on-board one of the ships in harbour. It had always been done this way as there was no active sonar simulator at the school, so at first, with many other more pressing items getting my attention, no problem!

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Canadian Forces Fleet School Esquimalt Engineering, Weapons and Acoustic Schools

Then we were “asked” if we could increase the throughput of the school by about 35% for the next two to three years. If you have read the brick to paper article (it’s really good-you should), you’ll have seen the five no’s method for “honing your fortitude.” I may have been guilty of immediately throwing out “no” #1 at the start of the conversation. I’ve always been a can do sort of fella so I told my boss I would look into it, sat down with the senior staff and asked “well, can we do this?” Their immediate reaction was NO and a lot of “bricks” were being thrown into a rapidly growing wall as the discussion progressed. Oh-oh. Problem.

The school is a fairly simple system as shown in the Logic Model below. Students are the inputs, staff and facilities are the resources and trained sailors are the outputs. This system was designed for a throughput of 80 sailors a year. Eight groups of ten.

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That number was based on the number of classrooms, instructors and the various trainers/simulators needed to prepare each individual to meet the Navy’s standard for a new Sonar Operator. We sat down with a calendar, a calculator and a bag of chicken bones and started trying to fit different scenarios together to make 120 sailors go through the system each year. Let’s look at some of the No’s being presented.

NO!! #1: Secure Facilities

84109_secret_squirrel_coin_front_1024x1024Some of the material taught is classified which makes the Acoustic School a secure area and therefore, the number of classrooms available is fixed. The number of classrooms were insufficient, but there were classrooms in other parts of the Fleet School we could use during the heaviest parts of the schedule to teach the unclassified portions of the curriculum. We even developed a Plan B where we could run two shifts with day and evening classes. One brick turned into paper.

No!! #2: Schedule and Teaching Assignments

Training in the Canadian Forces is designed very rigorously and sequencing is one of the many design considerations. For this course in particular, Oceanography always came first because you need to understand how sound works in the ocean before you can start using sonar. Makes total sense. So the courses run three at a time with a staggered start date so one group finishes oceanography and then then next group comes in and starts with oceanography. A well oiled machine.

The instructional staff were assigned to teach one of the three main subject areas: Oceanography/Ancillary Equipment, Active Acoustics and Passive Acoustics. Because the passive acoustics is 2/3 of the entire course, more staff are assigned to that subject. To meet the objective, we would have to start more courses with a shorter stagger between starts and someone teaching one topic might have to teach one of the other subjects. There were also a couple courses where it just wasn’t possible to start with oceanography so we looked at the next best sequencing option and made it work.

The number of staff assigned to each course was temporarily adjusted as well. The standard required that two junior instructors be assigned to each class, with one lead instructor supervising two classes and four junior instructors at a time. Depending on the course load and staff available, this was adjusted as required to ensure that there was minimum one junior and one senior instructor assigned to every class. A single lead instructor may have been supervising three different classes, but everyone was “represented.”

NO!! #3: Staff

Staffing – as you can see from above – was a big issue. The school runs in a perpetual state of staff shortages. As noted earlier, the Acoustic School is designed for a throughput of 80 trainees with (if I remember correctly) a staff of 12. What was never included in the fine print was that from those 12 staff – the Navy would pluck out people for career training courses, higher priority taskings, etc. Looking at the schedule and the number of courses compared to available instructors, current and anticipated staff shortfalls – it was clear we would burn out the team and have periods where, even with me teaching in the classroom, we would be short. This took a few e-mails and phone-calls to work out with the various levels of HQ to make sure that when our staff were selected to go on their own training or for other tasks we would get replacements (normally we just handled it internally). Another brick gone.

NO!! #4: Active Sonar Training

No matter how many ways we looked at the situation, the active sonar training was an issue. There would never be enough ships in the harbour to get 120 sailors trained a year. But wait!! There was a new multi-million dollar trainer called the Naval Combat Operator Trainer or “NCOT” sitting in the basement of our building for training navy combat operators including active sonar. When I first arrived at the school I had asked why we weren’t using this trainer and went to the ships instead.

MDA_Naval_Combat_Operator_Trainer_NCOT
MDA’s Naval Combat Operator Trainer (NCOT) delivered to the Royal Canadian Navy in 2000. 
Photo: MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.

The answer was all kinds of no no no’s from the staff. The software was no good, there were too many errors in it. The trainer crashed all the time and on and on went the reasons. A big brick wall – and like I said earlier, there were more pressing issues when I first arrived. A common (and simple) method for conducting root cause analysis is the “5 Why’s.” Just keep asking why until you find the true root cause. I didn’t learn this method for another seven years, but I was applying it here! No – why? No – why? Repeat. Ultimately, the staff’s position was that the NCOT’s computer based training (CBT) and sonar simulator could not meet the requirements of the training standard. However, my staff – God bless them – couldn’t cite one specific example of where the standard would not be met. No data.

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So we tasked one of my sharpest instructors to take the training standard and all the active sonar lesson plans down to the NCOT trainer and do a gap analysis. This was another term I didn’t learn until later in my career, but we were doing it here instinctively. “Here is the requirement – test they system and tell us where the issues are.” THEN we will talk again. We gave him two weeks. Twice (that I recall) in that two week period, my active sonar expert popped his head in my office, and relayed the great results he was seeing. Not only did the NCOT emulate the sonar very well, it also had self-paced lessons (CBT) that might reduce the amount of face-to-face instruction, reducing the staff burden noted above. Well! Imagine that. Data.

After the analysis was complete, we sat down again and looked at the entire situation. All the No’s had been addressed AND – added bonus – as part of this “naval gazing exercise” (pun definitely intended) we identified some other places where we could further refine the system. While instructors had their “subject area” of expertise, moving forward, they would have to stay up to date on the other areas as well in order to increase our flexibility with manning issues. All our bricks were paper. We increased the throughout as “asked” and the school entered it’s busiest period in recent memory, fully prepared thanks to the dedication and professionalism of everyone on our team! When I left the school in 2002, we were still spitting out 120 (ish) sonar operators a year.

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