Learning From Nuclear Aircraft Carriers About Operational Excellence - TED Video

By Check-6

operational excellence

Most people’s experience with an aircraft carrier is probably a few video clips seen on the evening news.  They tend to think of aircraft taking off in after-burner on a mission relevant to the daily news.  But, have you ever considered the complexity of the environment in which those aircraft operate and the absolute need for reliability?  An aircraft carrier is very similar to numerous industrial environments.  They have been described as floating cities, but what does that mean beyond being…well, big?

An aircraft carrier is just about 1,100ft long, displaces almost 100,000 tons, has two nuclear power plants, and six steam turbine generators.  Below the flight deck, it is a massive floating nuclear power facility / warehouse complex / industrial maintenance & repair facility / office building that houses and supports over 5,000 crew members, who must be berthed, fed four meals per day, and have fresh water.  The ship also includes an 80 bed hospital with trauma center, sanitation and recycling facilities, and emergency services. 

At the flight deck and above, it’s a 4.5 acre floating airport.  A fighter aircraft is roughly the same size and weight as a full size tractor-trailer and its engines produce about 45,000 lbs of thrust.  At idle, the engines can readily tumble personnel, blow them off the ship, or cause severe burns.  Above idle, intakes and jet-blast kill.  This small floating airport has 85 of these flying tractor-trailers.  There are helicopter rotors and propellers which are nearly invisible when turning.  The aircraft are constantly moving, meaning the threats are always in new locations.  The sound of the engines is deafening and requires double hearing protection, making verbal communications almost impossible.  The flight deck is covered with fuel, hydraulic fluid, and flakes of non-skid which are blown up by jet-blast.  The airport moves in all three axes as the ship rolls, causing the flying tractor-trailers on deck to slide forward, backward, and sideways.    

Now turn off the lights and execute the work in the dark.

The 60,000 lb flying tractor-trailers are routinely accelerated from 0 to 175 mph in 1.5 seconds and go from 200mph to a standstill in less than 300 ft.  This abuse causes the need for continual maintenance.  The catapults, arresting wires, and control equipment are also under constant stress and have minimal redundancy.  The power plant and other facilities run 24 hours a day for 6 – 12 months straight.  And everything is constantly exposed to saltwater, sand, ice, and extreme heat. 

The average age of the crew is 21 years.  The crew includes electricians, pipe-fitters, nuclear engineers, millwrights, pilots, engine mechanics, information technologists, doctors, logisticians, air-traffic controllers, machinists, fire fighters, administrators, and a host of other trades. 

The entire crew, including all of the leadership, turn over completely in the course of three years, meaning a full one third of the crew is new each year.  Change is constant, whether it’s the Engineering Department planning for the next power plant turn-around, IT re-wiring the vessel for new infrastructure, or the introduction of new aircraft which bring new operating procedures, supply chain, support tooling, and maintenance procedures.

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Productivity in this environment means launching or landing an aircraft ready to execute its mission every 45 seconds, amongst a host of other critical tasks.

 In order to do this, myriad tasks must be performed properly, efficiently, and on time.  Contrary to sometimes popular belief, the Navy does not accomplish this by writing a detailed procedure and threatening sailors with brig time if they don’t comply.  That would be an extremely short-lived strategy.  Rather, this is accomplished by creating learning organizations and supporting them with deliberate leadership actions at every level.

A learning organization establishes standard work by creating clear, concise, and standard procedures based on the collective wisdom of its practitioners.  It then creates supporting team habits based on simple rules for use in executing the standard work.  These habits help ensure the procedures are executed in a uniform and expected way and establish expectations amongst the team that help it quickly identify deviations.  Finally, the team invests in learning how the standard work can be improved by best practice capture, team member innovation, and / or as the result of inquiry into a defect or incident.  These changes are regular, and nuclear aircraft carriers have adopted numerous processes for ensuring they are well communicated and adopted.

The standard work is then supported by deliberate leadership actions at each level of the command to communicate, set and enforce expectations, correct deficiencies, and ensure long term adoption of the new process.

A nuclear aircraft carrier is a host of complex industrial facilities contained within the confines of an ocean-going vessel.  Operational Excellence is delivered by 21 year old sailors aboard one of the most dynamic environments on Earth through the development of learning organizations with intelligently designed processes, coupled with strong individual and team habits for execution, and supported by deliberate leadership actions. 

In this TEDx Talk series, Co-CEO and founder of Check-6, Brian "Bru" Brurud shares his story of "using what you have at hand" to create remarkable change in your environment. This simple but powerful principle was used in the creation of Check-6 International, Inc.

Check-6 coaches have well over 200 years at sea leading and operating in this environment.  To learn more about how Check-6 can help your organization make Operational Excellence a true part of its culture, please contact us.