Go to '27-Section Duty'

By Captain John Cordle, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Shipboard life during maintenance availabilities is increasingly tough duty for the wardroom and the crew: long hours, double shifts, more extensive force protection watches, and personnel attending schools, to name a few. To support these requirements, most surface ships collapse from a six-section duty schedule (one night in six is spent on board ship) to a three-section rotation. This means that every third night, an enlisted sailor or officer can expect to spend an entire workday on the ship, stand one or two watches, and support evening activities such as drills and training in addition to any contractor work that occurs on the back shift. The next morning they wake up and work another full day—that is, if they were able to sleep at all. Over time, this schedule can generate not only fatigue at work but also stress at home (for example, a full “weekend” only occurs once per month—not a great formula for family time), especially when a duty day is followed by a day of work, essentially resulting in a 36-hour workday.

Figure 1 shows the predicted effects of a single midnight watch on an individual’s work effectiveness (the line between yellow and pink on the graphs indicates that the effects of fatigue are roughly equivalent to that of a blood alcohol content of 0.05). Not only is this type of routine strenuous, it is tremendously inefficient: Essentially, we are under-using our sailors to sleep while on the ship. Certainly their presence is necessary in case of fire, flooding, or attack, but perhaps there is a better way.

During their 2014 extended availability, the USS Gettysburg (CG-64), found one. Under the leadership of Captain Brad Cooper, they fomented a sea change in in-port watch-standing equivalent to the idea of a circadian watch-bill at sea. Captain Cooper called it the “80/20” plan or “27-section duty.” This was not simply increasing the number of duty sections, but a completely new paradigm in applying “talent to task.” The crew called it “fantastic” and, in the words of one second-tour division officer, “life-changing.” As a result, the ship completed a complex maintenance period on time and with above-average productivity, retention, and morale. This is the story of how they did it.

A Fresh Approach

The 80/20 concept (Figure 2) was based on maximizing productivity and minimizing “wasted time” spent on the ship, with a secondary goal of maximizing the quality of training and time off. Remember that this is a crew who just spent six months deployed, so their family lives were already in turmoil, and to be separated another 33 percent of the time while in port would have added another layer of frustration that could have adversely affected their work. Attacking this problem took a team effort and some strategic planning. Starting on their nine-month deployment, the Gettysburg’s team produced a detailed roadmap that included a significant increase in the normal level of weapons and damage-control qualifications (sometimes turning into an “all-hands” process). It was set up as follows:

• The crew was divided into eight “day-shift” sections, with an even distribution of skills, experience, and talent across the sections. Their workday was Monday through Friday from (nominally) 0800 through 1600. Duty sections rotated through the week; one section took all watch-standing duties each day during this period, but none of these individuals was required to stay and/or sleep on board the ship during the workweek.

• Ten percent of the crew was designated “swing shift,” and their work period was Monday through Friday from 1600 to midnight.

• The final 10 percent was designated “mid shift” and worked from midnight to 0800, Monday through Friday.

• Weekend duty was covered by the “day shift” for a 24-hour period on Saturday or Sunday, but rotated through such that one section had a Saturday, then was off for three weekends, then had duty on a Sunday.

Captain Cooper feared that none of the crew would want to work the “mid shift,” but the opposite was true—there were more volunteers than could be accommodated. Younger sailors—those with young children or working spouses—liked the idea of an “offset” workday. He also worried that the back shifts could become “stagnant” or slack off, but with the correct senior leadership in place, each section became a cohesive and coherent team, and all sections pulled together to make the plan work. Personnel were rotated in and out of the various shifts over the course of the six-month period to prevent skills from atrophying, to allow for some variation of the routine, and to level load the sections over time.

Positive Results

The immediate benefits to the individual sailors’ wear and tear, stress, and fatigue can hardly be overstated. Instead of one night in three, some went to zero nights and the rest to 1 in 27 nights. Some of the productivity-related benefits of this plan proved to be profound, and more were realized as the period continued and feedback from the crew was folded into the plan.

Here are a few of the high points:

• Contractors were better supported. Many of the major shipyard jobs are worked around-the-clock, requiring shipboard personnel to open spaces, run tag-outs, or operate equipment. By having a full “duty section” up and about at all times, such support became part of the routine and avoided delays because personnel were sleeping or on watch. This was highly successful from both the ship’s and contractors’ points of view.

• Ship’s force maintenance improved. A large portion of a maintenance period consists of work by the crew members on their equipment or preservation of their spaces—often at odds with the goals of the outside contractors. By working in the evening and at night when there is less contractor work in the spaces, the crew can accomplish significantly more planned and corrective maintenance, essentially adding 16 working hours to the workday.

• Watch-standers were alert and rested. By rotating the watches through the shifts, few individuals had to stand more than one watch per day, and no one had to stand watch when normally they would have been sleeping. This resulted in more alert watch-standers and a work force that was not asleep on their feet during a day after duty.

• More time is available for schools and training. With schools often lasting more than three days, sending personnel to a class under normal duty rotations could affect the duty section’s ability to function. By expanding duty sections and removing the requirement to spend the night on the ship, more time is available for schools and off-ship training with minimal impact.

• Professional development opportunities improved. Because more of the crew were sent to the Regional Maintenance Facility to integrate with the workers in the shops and to assist with repairing the equipment sent there, the sailors developed higher technical competence in their core jobs.

• Personal time increased. A stable routine—with fewer nights away from home, the freedom to spend time with families, to take short trips on weekends, and not to be dead tired at work every third day—created a huge boost in morale. This was noted time and again in feedback sessions Captain Cooper held during and after the maintenance period.

• Stress decreased. Fatigue and stress have been shown to be closely related. The Gettysburg’s depressurized environment contributed significantly to the crew’s achievement of nearly 900 days without garnering a single driving under the influence (DUI) charge, 20 months without an unplanned loss, and the absence of domestic violence incidents during the maintenance period.

None of this happened by chance. The Gettysburg’s leadership knew that the new plan would carry risks and that the requirements for extensive watch- and duty-section qualifications would drive the need for a detailed and rigorous “red-cell” approach. Captain Cooper’s wardroom and crew rose to the occasion, establishing qualification goals and tracking them closely, looking at possible worst-case scenarios such as fires or terrorist attack during off-hours and testing the ship’s response. This process actually began during deployment, and the long lead-time was critical to the plan’s ultimate success. By asking “what can go wrong?” and addressing these issues, the Gettysburg was able to build a plan that worked—and worked well.

Unconventional thought does not mean that you have to sacrifice standards—quite the opposite. The Gettysburg’s crew raised standards and productivity. Its culture of excellence was unpinned by frenetic adherence to procedural compliance and safety. The ship’s leadership kept notes: “By leveraging the 80/20 plan, Gettysburg completed over 30 percent more work items than in the ship’s previous maintenance period, sent 50 percent more personnel to school, and increased advancement and retention significantly over previous years.” Leadership took notice. The crew was recognized by the Secretary of Defense with the Maintenance Award for the best maintenance practices and achievements in the entire U.S. Department of Defense (after winning the Navy and U.S. Fleet Forces Award to qualify). On top of that, the crew earned the Secretary of the Navy Safety Award for the best safety program in the Navy. All this is a testament to the innovation and fortitude of a captain and a crew willing to break with the norm to achieve success. 3

Our Navy should take a hard look at adopting the Gettysburg’s approach as a policy or at least a best practice with clear benefits to safety, productivity, and morale. The first step is to consider codifying the approach and endorsing a skeleton instruction or notice, perhaps at the type command (TYCOM) or Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) level, to ensure that all possible contingencies are covered. Next, incorporate the concept in seminars or case studies in the surface warfare or submarine school pipelines or Navy leadership courses. Finally, conduct a study of actual outcomes of a ship using this plan, versus a test case under the standard duty rotation, perhaps using the resources of the Navy Safety Center or Naval Postgraduate School. At a minimum, leaders could take the brief at the squadron or strike-group level and encourage their personnel to give it a try.

Many recent Proceedings articles have addressed the challenges of keeping up with changes in generational attitudes and expectations. As the Navy struggles to retain the best and brightest young people and looks for ways to improve the “work-life balance,” this concept is the perfect companion to recent improvements to shipboard routines at sea. It requires no extra funding and likely will save money by eliminating costly mistakes from lack of oversight or fatigue. All that is required is for leaders to be willing to invest some time and innovative thought, accept some risk and mitigate it through sound planning, and leverage the groundbreaking work of Gettysburg’s crew. Any takers?

1. COMSUBFOR Force Operational Newsletter, November 2014, and WARFIGHTING SERIAL TEN—INDIVIDUAL READINESS, COMNAVSURFOR, 1 February 2016.

2. F.A.S.T Graph courtesy of Dr. Nita Shattuck, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey California, December 2015.

3. Captain Brad Cooper, USN, “A Culture of Excellence,” brief to COMNAVSURFLANT, 5 March 2015.

Captain Cordle retired after 30 years of service in 2013. He commanded the USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79) and USS San Jacinto (CG-56). He is the 2010 recipient of the U.S. Navy League’s Captain John Paul Jones Award for Inspirational Leadership. He is grateful to Captain Brad Cooper for inspiring this article.


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