Success does not depend on a single event, just as a catastrophe does not depend on a single failure.1 —Dr. Steven J. Spearnned maintenance and casualty control typically, however, are written to deal with a singular task or problem and assume a sailor’s actions will affect only that particular piece of equipment. These procedures often fail to account for other issues within that subsystem or the networked shipboard environment as a whole. As a result, crewmembers must think critically and anticipate the second- and third-order effects of their intended actions, which is often difficult.
The challenges associated with mentally navigating multiple layers of complexity are compounded when systems are not fully operational. Sailors must rely on combinations of procedures to control the situation and prevent the possibility of a cascading casualty. Furthermore, sailors must contend with documentation that frequently is out of date, conflicting, or missing altogether. To deal with these problems, the Navy must answer two questions:
• How much information is a sailor expected to absorb and instantly recall in a constantly changing and complex environment?
• At what point does too much information become cognitively and physically degenerative?
Information Fatigue Syndrome
There were 5 exabytes [5 billion gigabytes] of information created by the entire world between the dawn of civilization and 2003, now that same amount is created every two days. . . . And, by the way, the growth rate is, of course, accelerating. —Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, speaking at the 2010 Techonomy Conference.
Groundbreaking empirical studies on the amount of information humans can absorb before their decision-making ability becomes impaired began to appear in the 1980s. The 2004 article “The Concept of Information Overload” noted a central agreement among researchers that “the performance of an individual correlates positively with the amount of information he or she receives —up to a certain point. If further information is provided beyond this point, the performance of the individual will rapidly decline.”2 (See Figure 1.) Once information-processing capacity is surpassed, “additional information becomes noise and results in a decrease in information processing and decision quality.”3
Other studies stress time as the most important issue in information overload.4 Since time has a “direct effect on information overload,” individuals responding to an emergency are particularly vulnerable to information overload. Without the chance to conduct proper research prior to taking initial actions, a person must rely on his or her own training and experience, hoping not to unintentionally cause a negative chain reaction.5 If the quantity and complexity of the information required to complete a task exceed the individual’s ability to integrate all the information into proper actions within a given time, then information overload has been reached and the person’s decision-making performance will decline.
Factors that signal the occurrence of information overload are stress, confusion, anxiety, and low motivation.6 The long-term effects on a person are similar to stress-related mental and physical illnesses. One study found that 25 percent of workers and 36 percent of managers surveyed experienced and reported health issues as a result of the excessive information required to do their jobs.7 Mental health practitioners refer to this condition as “Information Fatigue Syndrome,” and its presence is evident in today’s Navy.8
“Heavy information load will confuse the individual, affect his or her ability to set priorities, and make prior information harder to recall.” Martin J. Eppler and Jeanne Mengis, “The Concept of Information Overload.”
In the fleet, mishaps have resulted in tens of millions of dollars in damages in the past few years. Subsequent investigations routinely point to human factors as root causes: lack of training, supervision, and communication or simply not following procedures. Reviewed individually, each of these factors seems adequate to cause problems and mishaps. Reviewing them collectively, however, reveals a larger systemic problem.
Sailors are at risk of information saturation regarding their ships’ materiel conditions and the subsequent work-arounds for any deficiencies. All this information can be difficult to absorb on a routine basis and can border on the impossible in a casualty condition. The Navy today not only puts up with the persistent problem of information overload, it has institutionalized it.
A 2016 review of the Navy’s Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class destroyers revealed some distressing statistics. On average, those ships had 25 active casualty reports per vessel.9 For the warfighter, this translates to a reduction in operational readiness, because the affected gear inhibits full functionality in one or more areas. The ship may be able to operate unhindered by a particular casualty, but it likely has lost equipment redundancy or the ability to respond quickly to an emergency. The same review also revealed that, on average, each destroyer had 21 active temporary departures from specifications, which means that 21 pieces of equipment (many of which overlap the casualty reports noted above) were being operated even though they did not meet design specifications. This could be something as simple as a locally made part put in place until the proper part arrives, or it could be something with major consequences. In either case, a formal work-around had been approved that encouraged the operation of a patchwork of defective equipment, increasing risk and further complicating casualty-control and maintenance procedures.
Other institutionalized work-arounds include locally authorized temporary standing orders (TSOs). TSOs are modifications to standard operating or casualty-control procedures put in place because of malfunctions. A 2016 data call to the commanding officers of all destroyers showed that, on average, each ship had 16 active TSOs.10 One ship reported a problem dogging shut its port-side exterior doors. Chain falls were used to secure the doors when not in use. The chain falls were not tightly secured, however, allowing a large wave to push the doors open and water to enter the ship. As a result, a TSO was issued not to use the doors on the port side—a second work-around in support of the first. The level of risk associated with those doors was now higher.
The data call also showed that, on average, each destroyer had a backlog of 1,930 job sequence numbers.11 These are work orders for jobs (some significant, some less so) that need attention, whether for essential planned maintenance or known equipment deficiencies. In either case, they are in the system, awaiting funding and assignment for completion. Some can stay on the current ship’s maintenance project for years without action.12 The compounding effect of all these work-arounds on sailors is clear—they produce an environment in which complexity clouds their thinking and inhibits or delays proper action. Sailors are required to understand fully the condition of all equipment prior to taking their watch. If every destroyer has, on average, approximately 2,000 deficiencies with work-arounds, can sailors ever truly understand the condition of their equipment?
In today’s Navy, fewer people, inconsistent flow of maintenance funds, and high operational tempo create conditions that encourage a climate of “just make it work” and “do whatever it takes to pass the inspection.” Working around problems does not fix them—they continue to exist in increasingly larger numbers and complicate the sailor’s ability to take proper actions. In this environment, information overload will continue to be a contributing factor—and quite possibly the root cause—of mishaps.
Conclusions and Recommendations
There are human limits for quickly understanding, retaining, and implementing critical information. Beyond those limits our crews operate in the realm of information overload, risking safety and mission success. Mishaps will continue until the Navy understands that information overload is a problem and streamlines the entire casualty-to-repair process. We must eliminate the multiple single-purpose reporting and tracking methods currently in use. If not corrected, the mental and physical readiness of our sailors will continue to decline, resulting in more mishaps, more broken equipment, more lost work-days, and lower operational availability.
In a perfect world, the Navy would have the funds to fix everything immediately. In our fiscally constrained, undermanned, and overtasked Navy, however, the only available solution is to modernize the lengthy and tedious processes between initial casualty and repair. Sailors need better display and decision-making tools to keep up with the complexity of their ships. The Navy needs an all-encompassing system that reports casualties and maintenance deficiencies, requests deviations, lists all TSOs, locates and orders parts, requests technical assistance, and tracks deferred and pending mandatory safety ship change documents from start to finish. Some individualized systems (i.e., navigation, engineering, and weapons) already have a similar function, but there currently is no single program that sees all, knows all, and operates across the entire ship.
Many organizations and businesses use display and decision-support software to monitor and facilitate changes to their organizations. The primary benefit of such software to the Navy would be the ability to compile data quickly and economically from multiple systems, subsystems, and individual pieces of equipment to provide sailors with a well-organized and real-time snapshot of the overall materiel condition of their ships.
Employing such software would minimize the potential for information overload, especially in a rapidly changing environment. It would reduce redundancy in reporting, save time and money, and increase overall awareness and readiness. To strengthen our Navy, we should integrate ship-wide display-and-decision support software to provide an effective, common picture that depicts not only problems with individual systems but also the cascading and interrelated effects of system casualties and parts shortages.13 The improvements in safety and mission effectiveness and the reduction in information overload for our crews would pay for the investment many times over.
2. Martin J. Eppler and Jeanne Mengis, “The Concept of Information Overload: A Review of Literature from Organizational Science, Accounting, Marketing, MIS, and Related Disciplines,” The Information Society 20 (2004): 326.
3. Think of information processing capacity like computer memory (RAM and ROM). The more a person has, the easier and faster it is for them to process information. This varies widely from person to person based on natural ability, age, maturity, amount of sleep, etc., and is nearly impossible to calculate in real-time. Joseph Ruff, “Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions,” Brief at the Learning Innovations Laboratories, Harvard Graduate School of Education (December 2002).
4. A. G. Schick, L. A. Gorden, and S. Haka, “Information Overload: A Temporal Approach,” Accounting Organizations and Society 15 (1990): 199–220.
5. Thomas W. Jackson and Pourya Farzaneh, “Theory-based model of factors affecting information overload,” International Journal of Management 32 (2012): 526.
6. C. A. O’Reilly, “Individuals and Information Overload in Organizations: Is More Necessarily Better?,” Academy of Management Journal 23 (1980): 684-696.
7. Philip Chard, “Information Overload: Are We Technology’s Masters…or Servants?,” WorldatWork Journal 11 (Third Quarter 2002): 19.
8. Ruff, 5.
9. Data provided by email from COMNAVSURFLANT on 20 April 2016.
10. Data Call (21-26 April 2016): 60 Destroyer COs polled, 20 responded (33% response rate).
11. Data Call (21-26 April 2016).
12. Some ships have resulted in canceling out old JSNs and resubmitting new ones in order to avoid the perception of job stagnation.
13. For example, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command’s (SPAWAR) Naval Aviation Logistics Command Management Information System (NALCOMIS), which “is an automated information system that provides aviation maintenance and material management personnel with timely, accurate and complete information on which to base daily decisions. It is a single, integrated, real-time automated system that supports workers, supervisors and managers.” Quoted from SPAWAR Systems Center Atlantic’s Website: www.public.navy.mil/spawar/Atlantic/ProductsServices/Pages/NALCOMIS.aspx. (9 September 2016).
Commander Bennett currently serves as the director of afloat safety at the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Virginia. He commanded the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) and has been selected for promotion to captain.