Frederick Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911, emphasizing systematic workforce organization and detailed personnel time-motion studies to increase individual efficiency. The book became a seminal 20th-century guide on maximizing manufacturing and industrial productivity. Although Taylor’s work was superficially about realizing production efficiencies, his research and conclusions were built on a philosophical premise that humans in industrial and manufacturing organizations essentially function as elements of a machine. Ever since this revolutionary work, our society, including the U.S. Navy, has moved steadily toward compartmentalization and automation, and in so doing, we have uncritically accepted Taylor’s philosophical assumptions about the nature of and relationship between technology and humanity.
One of Taylor’s principal assumptions is all machines are made of isolatable and interchangeable parts. Thus, we justify restricting technicians’ training to the specific components of systems on which they are assigned to work. A holistic understanding of a system and how it interacts with and depends on other systems is unnecessary. This mind-set has borne significant fruit over the past century and has enabled the training of many experts in narrowly defined areas. By embracing Taylor’s assumption and constructing Navy training and the enlisted rating system around it, the service has realized significant efficiencies in training time and dollars.
Yet in applying Taylor’s “machinesque” construct to its enlisted personnel (what they do and how we train and employ them on tasks), the Navy has reduced them to programmable machines, or “meat computers.” We assume personnel need be taught only how to translate into actions the already accrued and stored knowledge of the enterprise. Sailors in large part are removed from the necessity and expectation of thinking, and they rely instead on computers or test equipment to do the “thinking” for them, which in the process negates their judgment. Training can be further streamlined, so that it addresses only how a sailor interacts with “the book” to follow strict and detailed steps. Again, this has enabled a great deal of predictability, reduced risk, and standardized maintenance processes across communities. That is the upside of Taylor’s legacy. The downside is becoming increasingly apparent as our systems become ever more interconnected and interdependent.
Human Interaction with a Complex System
Over time, technological complexity has increased nonlinearly until most systems have become systems of systems. We now interact with a much more complex and interrelated web of components. Yet the Navy has chosen to double down on Taylor’s assumptions, continuing to streamline training so it focuses more and more on specific system aspects in isolation. This approach fails to acknowledge the vast interconnectedness of Navy systems and the need for a more knowledgeable, critical-thinking workforce to understand and maintain them. The Navy thus devalues the unique human capacity to see things whole, in all their dimensions, replacing it with a myopic allegiance to pure technical diagnosis. The by-product has been a loss of confidence in human judgment and experience at an institutional level.1
In the short term, naval aviation has saved a lot of money and produced a fine generation of pure technicians. But what if Taylor’s assumption has been embraced so tightly that it is no longer recognized as an assumption? When an enterprise systematically reduces the quality and depth of its long-term training, it develops automatons instead of critical-thinking, creative workers. They are less engaged in the institutions and processes of which they are a part, and therefore less capable of achieving success—as well as less willing to accept responsibility for failure.2 This negative aspect is becoming even more magnified today, as the mentality behind the Navy’s training regimen conflicts with the cultural values of the generation from which recruits are drawn.
Surrounded by sailors who strongly desire to feel valued, commanding officers struggle to achieve buy-in and active engagement. Exhortations such as “Commit to the mission” and “Selflessly sacrifice,” ring hollow in a working environment that persistently, if implicitly, also tells sailors, “You are just another cog in the machine.” This state of affairs may have broad implications, affecting whether sailors decide to stay in the Navy, and whether those who remain do so because they are invested in the organization’s success or because they have no other job prospects.
In addition, as naval aircraft and associated systems age, the percentage of problems that are statistically unpredictable or unique increases. Anomalous materiel defects and interrelated multisystem failures become more common, and the deficiencies in the Navy’s streamlined education and training more apparent, as sailors fail to think critically or respond creatively to problems that do not follow a “script.” This in turn leads to relying increasingly on “reach back”—using personal connections to those in higher-level maintenance tiers to find individuals with the requisite knowledge and holistic understanding of the systems involved.
Educate Maintenance Experts to Think
Persistent reach back is now the norm across the fleet and is a twofold problem. In the short term, it lengthens maintenance times, extending mean time to repair (lowering a unit’s ready-basic-aircraft) and often distracting the already overburdened higher-level maintenance tiers. In the long term, the systematic hollowing out of sailors’ knowledge is generating a dangerous negative performance spiral. Some of today’s organizational-level technicians will be tomorrow’s depot-level artisans and expert craftsmen. As the Navy reduces the investment in training and in-depth schooling, it erodes naval aviation’s capability to produce high-quality artisans and experts.
The preface of the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) manual states: “NATOPS products provide the best available T/M/S [type/model/series] aircraft information and operating instructions for most circumstances. However, no manual can cover every situation or be a substitute for sound judgment; operational situations may require modification of the procedures contained therein.” The Navy trusts its aircrews to have in-depth, thorough knowledge of systems and procedures so they can weigh consequences, discern the interrelated implications of multifaceted problems involving numerous systems, and make timely decisions based on experience. The training is not exhaustive, but it is holistic and emphasizes critical thought, the weighing of alternatives, and the understanding of consequences and dependencies.
In other words, with respect to aircrew, the Navy recognizes that humans are not machines and that in-depth knowledge and judgment are critical to achieving success when dealing with complex systems of systems. Unfortunately, with respect to maintenance training and practices, naval aviation has lost sight of this and carried Frederick Taylor’s metaphor too far, essentially turning all but the highest levels of its professional maintainers into “meat computers” who rely entirely on procedure to function.
Fortunately, this deficiency is finally garnering attention. The Navy claims to be moving to restructure its aviation Navy enlisted classification (NEC) codes, and aviation leaders have stated they intend to drastically reduce the number of cross-platform personnel transfers. Such efforts can be seen as recognition that a human is not a machine. They could, if effectively pursued, represent a sound correction to
the erroneous assumptions that undergirded the failed 2016 experiment removing sailor ratings. In addition, the service should:
- Change course curriculums to emphasize holistic knowledge and critical thinking skills
- Focus investment in hands-on training instead of digital simulations
- Staff training facilities with a sufficient number of instructors who are outstanding in their communities and not allow gapped instructor billets
- Encourage more intentional detailer-to-squadron coordination so that permanent-change-of-station orders are funded with necessary schools as enroute training capital, which will remove the temptation to later waive training due to “operational commitments”
- Give priority to classroom schooling with physical instructors, rather than relying on online and self-paced learning
- Create a more nuanced incentive structure that encourages developing true technical experts and does not overvalue broader and less-relevant professional achievements (for example, when leading petty officers prioritize earning the enlisted surface warfare specialist pin over the safe-for-flight certification)
These proposals require a willingness to recognize and challenge long-standing philosophical assumptions about human beings and the nature of work that for decades have governed naval aviation’s approach to education and training. Machines are not completely isolatable and deconstructable, and a human is not essentially a machine. If willing, naval aviation can reverse the dangerous trend of cultivating aviation maintenance personnel to be equipped only to mindlessly follow detailed procedures. Instead, it should restructure its technical education and incentive systems to harness both sailors’ humanity and their creative initiative as core attributes for true maintenance professionals.
1. Neil Postman, Technopoly (New York: Vintage Press, 1993).
2. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972).