Compounding interest of disasters in the making   – Asia Times

Compounding interest of disasters in the making   - Asia Times

previous article (“Rickover’s and airmail pilots’ disaster avoidance method”) recalled Admiral Hyman Rickover, who initiated and was in full charge of the US Navy’s submarine program.

He required that either the CEOs or top managers of all suppliers and maintenance companies must be on board the submarines during dive tests. There were no catastrophic accidents during all the decades he was in charge.

The admiral’s additional principle that brought about his success was to insist on a most rigorous selection of people in his team. However, this principle often came by defeating bureaucrats’ heavy hands, which created much animosity among his higher ups. The way he overcame them offers insights.  

Time Magazine dedicated a cover article to Admiral Rickover on January 11, 1954. It describes how he redesigned the defective motors on the submarine S-48. To build the motors, he had to fight with his superiors against slipshod ways of doing things. 

The article notes, “These activities got him commendation, but won few friends and no preferment.” It quotes a friend saying that Rickover had little tolerance for mediocrity, none for stupidity and mediocrity: “If a man is dumb, Rickover thinks he ought to be dead.”

Rickover did not conceal his opinions and many of the officers he regarded as dumb had grown into admirals, cruising the Pentagon. They had not forgotten or forgiven.

Meanwhile, in July 1951 the Navy’s selection board for promotions, consisting of nine admirals, passed Rickover over twice, in spite of pleas from his superiors in the Bureau of Ships and from the secretary of the Navy.

Those decisions almost ended his career in the Navy. But Rickover’s reputation by then was such that the press and the Congress protested, the Navy secretary intervened – and Captain Rickover became a rear admiral. 

Even when only lip service is paid to meritocracy the heavy hand of bureaucracies can defeat the” vital few” – unless there happen to be principled politicians in office and a trusted Fourth Estate, the role the press still played in the 1950s.   

By June 1952, in the yard of the Electric Boat Co in Connecticut with President Truman presiding along with luminaries from the Army, Secretary of the Navy Dan Kimball awarded Rickover The Legion of Merit for “the most important piece of development work in the history of the Navy.”

This was no surprise: His team had designed and built the first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, which required the development and first use of a controlled nuclear reactor, all done within three years. The Nautilus has shaped submarine warfare ever since and it laid the groundwork for a fleet of nuclear aircraft carriers and cruisers – also built by Rickover and his team.

In a 1982 speech at Columbia University, Rickover outlined his management style in a simple paragraph:

When I came to Washington before World War II to head the electrical section of the Bureau of Ships, I found that one man was in charge of design, another of production, a third handled maintenance while a fourth dealt with fiscal matters. The entire bureau operated that way. It didn’t make sense to me. Design problems showed up in production, production errors showed up in maintenance, and financial matters reached into all areas. I changed the system. I made one man responsible for his entire area of equipment – for design, production, maintenance, and contracting. If anything went wrong, I knew exactly at whom to point. I run my present organization on the same principle.

During his 63 years with the Navy, Rickover had no use for consultancy gobbledygook. He insisted on receiving direct reports of problems his team has found – in plain English. His achievements required a specialized staff of a vital few coordinating, with accountability sharply defined. He proclaimed:

The man in charge must concern himself with details. If he does not consider them important, neither will his subordinates. Yet the devil is in the details. It is hard and monotonous to pay attention to seemingly minor matters.

In my work, I probably spend about 99% of my time on what others may call petty details. Most managers would rather focus on lofty policy matters. But when the details are ignored, the project fails. No infusion of policy or lofty ideals can then correct the situation.

This observation takes us to Washington and other political capitals now. Consider the 1,000-plus pages just approved bringing a US$1.6 trillion deficit in 2024 and $7.6 trillion in deficits accumulating until 2034. Consider the large deficits announced in European capitals, recently in Paris. Who will be held accountable?

When a gigantic spending bill was passed on March 9, 2000, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the 2,000-plus page document outlining Obama health care reform: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” Congressman Bill Posey complained that the entire process was upside down, “lacking in transparency and accountability.”  Congressman Posey lost and the consequences since have confirmed Rickover’s observations.

Perhaps, someone should have reminded Washington that Marie Antoinette, before being sent to the guillotine as Robespierre’s Revolutionary Government took full power, was called “Madame Deficit.” 

In “Inviting Disaster”, published 20 years ago, Chiles James suggested that one way to prevent disasters was to have the top managers ask employees directly, face-to-face, if they detected a problem. Not requiring them to report problems in writing permitted employees to speak frankly, reducing the risk of having their comments leaked and facing consequent ostracism.

Where such communication channels were not in place, warning about problems in writing achieved nothing, as Chiles shows was the case with Apollo 1, the Challenger spacecraft and Three Mile Island, among others. Employees warned in writing – and nothing happened.

It appears that this was the case with the Google scandal recently, as it is hardly credible that none of the Gemini team, not one, detected the nonsense they were doing. A more Rickover-style, hands-on manager would have detected the flaws, or at least would have fired members of the team when detecting the nonsense.

What happened there was not a one-time, one-person mistake. It was a problem of internal culture.

Catastrophes cannot be eliminated. The best that can be done is to put laws, regulations and organization in place that are more likely to prevent them. Prevention means having the best people matching the tasks at hand and an organization that can react the fastest possible way when a bad event does occur and the organization then acts to mitigate it.  

The pilots’ and Admiral Rickover’s’ insistence that stakeholders’ top representatives participate in the action (examined in the March 30 article), was successful in preventing disasters and can be applied in the political sphere in particular. 

In other spheres, in the case of the military in particular, the best that can be done is to be able to respond in the shortest time possible when attacked or when the mistakes surface.   Many laws and regulations and the ways bureaucracies work slow down the correction of mistakes, rather than speeding them up. 

When this happens, mistakes compound and the compounding interest – what Einstein called the greatest force in the universe – works its disastrous magic.  

The article draws on Reuven Brenner’s books and articles, “Betting on Ideas: Wars, Inventions, Inflation and Force of Finance” among them.