We Are What We Repeatedly Do

By Chief Sonar Technician (Surface) Kevin P. Owens, U.S. Navy

In the U.S. Navy, the importance of training in our everyday routine has diminished. Many of today's leaders balk at any efforts to give it as high a priority as material maintenance or other aesthetic labors. As a result, we have failed to build training beliefs and convictions that are capable of sustaining our lofty expectations and perceptions of readiness and our visions of excellence—we have missed the correlation between training and organizational excellence. The conduct of training instills:

  • Convictions and beliefs, to guide the quality of our labor and product and to provide us with wisdom and a vision for excellence
  • Consistency, to build integrity and synergy throughout our organization
  • Leadership, to motivate and energize us, together, toward our visions for the future

The importance of training is apparent. Those of us who have spent countless hours training the regular stream of new sailors—as well as those arriving for their second or third sea tours in a fleet that has changed drastically during their time ashore—know it has to be done. But how? Training diverts an enormous amount of time from the other "must-do's" in our daily schedule, and when we do train, it is the fleet that suffers in terms of readiness, quality of life, and pride. In the end, we rarely get a fair exchange for the amount of effort we put in. What are we doing wrong?

If you have studied group dynamics, you probably have heard of the geese model: the instinctive formation that enables geese to fly normally unattainable distances. The geese can do this, in part, because of a shared instinct, the consistency of their formation, and the repetition with which they swap formation positions. The model is a perfect example of the making of excellence, i.e., the synergistic stretch of individual limitations. As humans in an organization that must work in teams, we can mimic such a feat in any job we must learn to do, if we have shared (training) convictions and beliefs and consistency in our efforts. Training is how we learn to perform our jobs; how we train determines whether we achieve excellence in them.

Today, each command is encouraged to train itself, and each uses different learning standards and techniques. In addition, each command has different levels of expertise to perform the training. Under these circumstances—especially in an organization whose people change positions and responsibilities constantly—any effort to attain excellence in the areas we train for will fail. Common convictions and beliefs would help us to focus on how and at what standard our training efforts should be accomplished-and then to adjust the intensity accordingly.

Our current unfocused approach actually makes training harder, and seems to have no vision for excellence of any kind. When we do train, we train exhaustively for results but circumvent what really needs work—the process. We routinely train in spurts, instead of taking the necessary time to get our crews and teams up to speed before we apply them to the task at hand. We set up constrained training time lines and often work other unrelated efforts in conjunction with our training evolutions. Frequently, we "train-react" to deficiencies found in the fleet, conducting short-term stand-downs and mandatory training that produce few long-term solutions. In short, our average training endeavors usually only produce mediocrity.

If our convictions on training demanded excellence, we would insist on zero errors in our procedures and train accordingly—focusing on the processes we perform more than on the result we are to accomplish. We would spend as many man-hours on training as on maintenance, and many more than on field days, titivate ship, and other superfluous efforts. In most mishaps we try to find fault in the sailor, but 90% of the time, it is the training they received (or did not receive) that is at fault. Training is the cornerstone of mission success, for it determines how well we know our jobs and the number of errors we make in them. Ultimately, it determines our professional perceptions and reputation, and that affects us all.

In the end, the goal of all training should be to coach our sailors out of their comfort zones and into excellence—when they will feel pride and better understand the purpose of training.

Training inconsistency is apparent in the fleet—shipboard commands are at different levels of readiness, mishaps and safety problems occur more at one command than another—and it flows from the top of a unit's chain of command on down to the deck-plate level. Many people try earnestly to train their sailors to be their best, but they are constrained by others' less-enthusiastic convictions. Some command training managers care only about seeing M-1 ratings; some division officers and senior enlisted care only that their training looks good on paper; training efforts in one fleet are different from those in another fleet, and so on. Sailors going from school to a squadron or from one ship to another usually will be required to relearn their jobs, and will learn under different training convictions. Our material maintenance efforts in the fleet are marked by strong convictions and consistency. Why can't we do the same thing with training? Our people's professional skills and knowledge require maintenance as much as do our equipment and our ships.

Training plays a fundamental role in developing leaders. When sailors sit down with others and give their time to teach and make the others better, they are practicing—and learning—leadership. By emphasizing training, leaders can earn respect (and credibility if their teachings are correct); it will show the people they teach that they are motivated not by ego but by a desire to help their subordinates improve.

The means to push people from their comfort zones to achieve excellence may not always be popular. Asking people set in a particular mental or physical condition to go beyond that state (i.e., to improve) will bring them discomfort, and they won't like it. But once our sailors feel the sensation that they have done better than they thought they could—or even better than anyone else has before—they will want more. In short, that is leadership.

It has been said that war is a game of errors—the side that makes the fewest wins. Our training efforts, therefore, must evolve from just trying to accomplish training objectives to focusing on the procedures of each task or process being trained on—from filling out disbursing paperwork, to fighting fires, shoring bulkheads, and containing damage, to conducting detect-to-engage exercises against inbound missiles—with the goal of achieving zero errors.

We must rethink the time we give to training. "We are what we repeatedly do"—that is, we need to train routinely and consistently. We need to create training convictions that focus on effective learning-not just the act of training itself. We have to stop relying on our sailors' ability to learn their jobs through trial and error—throwing them into jobs without their knowing what they are supposed to do—and ensure that there always is someone with expertise present to coach and train them properly. The jobs of today's officers and sailors are too sophisticated and complex to rely on the same training techniques we used for 40-mm guns and boiler plants. Ultimately, our training goal must be to ensure our sailors' self-confidence and competence and our team's cohesion before we throw them into the unpredictable warfighting arena.

These concepts demand a lot, but in the long run, the results we get back will be double the effort we put in.

An enlisted surface warfare specialist and master training specialist, Chief Owens has been in the Navy 16 years, including 8 years at sea, 2 years instructor duty, and 2 years at an afloat training organization. He is assigned to Combat Systems Training Group, Norfolk, Virginia.



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