Friday, April 16, 2010

Gnawing on the Kool-Aid

I usually stick to blogging about my direct experiences, whether onboard the ship, as a professional, or just on life in general. It's nice and comfortable that way. No one can argue that I'm right or's my experience after all. But I'm gonna stretch a little on this post, and talk about A Big Coast Guard Issue. Consider it my practice for grad school. I'll try to keep it as relevant to KISKA as possible, so you guys don't all pass out asleep from boredom.

There's been a lot, A LOT, of discussion about modernization over the last few years in the Coast Guard. I never did quite understand why LANT and PAC were so different, whether it was from the AREA (operations/policy) or MLC (maintenance/logistics) side of things. Some folks have heard me whinge about the vagaries of geographic disparity especially as it related to treatment of habitability considerations for cutters in drydock away from homeport. I admit to being extremely pissed off when I found out that, not only did another (LANT) cutter (in drydock, away from their island homeport) have kitchens in their hotel rooms, they also had a messing contract at five local restaurants, despite being closely located to some government dining facilities, while KISKA's (PAC) crew was living with mini-fridges and microwaves in Waikiki, the land of expensive tourist-fleecing, high-calorie, oversized meals. All because two different offices were in charge of the contracts. I don't want to make this my signature issue, but it so clearly demonstrates to me the inconsistencies that (I think) modernization was designed to fix that I can't help using it in proving my point.

And the new construct can definitely take advantage of some economies of scale. OPCOM v. two AREA Command Centers; consolidation of training center oversight into FORCECOM; parts availability from a single source...there's lots and lots of information available about how modernization will make us more responsive and adaptable.

I have drunk the kool-aid known as Modernization, and I like it. Change is necessary for our dynamic times.

But I think the kool-aid might need stirring some more. There are some chunks that haven't quite dissolved enough to be totally palatable yet. I find myself chewing the kool-aid sometimes, and it sticks in my teeth a little (I think it's orange-flavored).

One of the (many, many) reasons I like working with my XO and MKC is that we have plenty of theoretical and ideological discussions, usually about CG topics (though sometimes to the detriment of worklist completion...after all, those logs will still be there tomorrow; right, XO?). Drawing from our collective and individual experiences, we ponder how the big picture issues (modernization, budget cuts and workforce management, environmental philosophies and carbon footprints) impact us in our little KISKA world. So we've been talking about what modernization means to us for a while.

I think the first discussion that I can really point back to being a light-bulb moment for me was while we were still in drydock, during all our shaft alignment problems. It was a discussion about the prices paid for restoring our materiel condition, long-term maintenance decision-making and operational impacts, and ultimately, who was responsible and accountable for the deteriorating condition of our ships and the increasing costs (people, money, time) for keeping them working. That was back in August or September.

Since then, we've gone a few more rounds, heard ADM Allen speak about a cultural shift required by modernization, and read LT Ben Goff's treatise (posted on COMDT's blog on 24 Mar 2010) about the surface sub-culture's endemic resistance to change, which is extremely well-written and to the point (I have to admit to reading it with a dictionary sitting next to me; "heuristic" may be my new favorite word).

As I understand the new construct, engineering and materiel condition are of equal importance as operational mission requirements, and are why we're moving towards the aviation model for preventive maintenance for ships and boats. If a critical preventative maintenance card is not completed, the vessel goes into a maintenance status. Maintenance for individual ships is managed heavily from a centralized point (Surface Forces Logistic Command, SFLC; Patrol Boat Product Line, PBPL for KISKA and other patrol boats), and becomes very black/white, go/no go.

We used to think that 85% PMS (preventative maintenance system, my least favorite CG acronym) completion rates for ships were pretty darn good. The first CO of my recent WHEC tour used to presciently say that there was no way that aviators would accept anything less than 100% PMS (I think it's called something else in the aviation world) completion rates for their aircraft, so why were ships allowed to run with 70% or less of their PMS done? PMS completion rates also used to fall on the shoulders of the Commanding Officer. If anything went wrong engineering-wise with the ship, one of the first questions asked was, why weren't these PMS cards done? Never mind that the CO had just brought the ship back from an operational patrol, packed with law enforcement missions, training, administrative reports and personnel issues (all managed with underway connectivity), the crew might only be home for the same amount of time that they had just been out to sea, and the local shoreside maintenance support was over-tasked with limited availability to assist because now there was another cutter inport. There's only so much time in the day, and operations always takes precedence over maintenance...I think because maintenance can be deferred, while operations are usually fairly time-sensitive.

So I totally agree that the old way is not the best way. But it's still a tough mental shift for me as a CO. The Coast Guard Regulations say, "The responsibility of the commanding absolute..." I take that pretty close to heart, and it's tough to define where that absolute responsibility ends.

I know that I'm not responsible for the fact that my ship is 10 years past her designed service life. I know that I'm not responsible for the nearly four-month drydock extension "enjoyed" by KISKA that royally screwed up the patrol boat schedule for Sector Honolulu last summer. I know that I'm not responsible for the holes found in watertight bulkheads yesterday...on day 3 of our dockside.

I know that I am responsible for documenting the materiel condition and machinery and casualty status for the ship, including CASREPing stuff that doesn't work, ensuring the EPO (Engineering Petty Officer) documents Corrective Maintenance Actions (CMAs) in CMPLUS (MKC and I just had a mind-boggling acronym-fest that left us both a little dazed) and CSMPs for the LRMP (see what I mean?) that gets discussed with the APM during the A-TM MTGS (now I'm just being silly). I know that I am responsible for training the crew so that they are able to combat casualties when they do occur in order to minimize damage and bring the ship back to an operational status. And I know that I am responsible for operating the ship in a manner that minimizes risk exposure when there is no commensurate potential reward (i.e., removing the ship from the pool of assets available for flight ops training while we were fighting the shaft vibration gremlin...'cause you know, just know, that little punk would have started the shaft vibrating with the helo right overhead with Murphy-perfect timing...bad for the ship, bad for the helo).

But where is that line drawn? Is responsibility for maintenance kinda like the 1964 definition of obscenity from Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward, "I know it when I see it."?

I don't know what the answer is here.

On a less lofty, more prosaic level, I'm concerned about the "people price" associated with the newly established product lines. I have not had any conversations on this subject with the individuals currently in the positions mentioned...please do *not* assume I'm speaking for them. These are my thoughts, my concerns and my observations.

In the patrol boat (PB) world, WPB 110s have two guys that do a fantastic job of responding to frantic phone calls 24x7x365 from nearly 40 different ships with sometimes mission-crippling casualties, all around the world, at all hours of their day. Every ship thinks their situation is the most critical of all, and the CASREP guys have to prioritize and talk down squeaky wheels. And they're supposed to do all this for four years straight. And if either of them takes any of the 30 days of leave they earn for the year, the other guy takes *all* the calls. That's the casualty response guys.

The Port Engineers (PEs) on the Availability Project Management (APM) side travel to be onsite for a ship's drydock or dockside availability so they can be the Contracting Officer's Technical Representative (COTR), working with the ship, contractors and CG Contracting Officer. While this sounds okay when the availability is scheduled for two months, the reality can be extended periods away from home with no hope of leave for the duration of the availability period. Of the three recent WPB 110 drydocks with which I'm familiar, all three were extended, two of them up to five-plus months. Five months away from home...that's more than most WHEC 378s, and chances are good that the PE has another availability back to back, especially if the first one gets extended.

And it's not the supervisors' fault either. They're doing the best they can with what they've got. I recently received an email about Port Engineer head hurt after the first three sentences trying to keep track of who was going where for what boat...three PEs trying to cover five availabilities all over the place. Yeeik!

Pretty soon, we're gonna run out of the good, dedicated people who are currently in those jobs. They're going to get burned out.

The difficulty with these positions is that they are single points of failure for maintaining operational cutters. If an individual fails in this position due to burn-out, lack of knowledge or experience, or just plain ol' nogivashittedness, cutters will not be able to get underway and operations will suffer.

Of course, bringing in more people levies different challenges, like the need for thorough and clear pass-downs between members so that details don't get missed, or the boats aren't answering the same questions over and over again. I'm not sure what the answer is here either.

I got this bit of advice from a good friend (she gave me fantastic feedback on the first draft of this post...thanks, Friend!): "Basically,...any problems that seem new to us only seem that way because we are new. There is nothing new under the sun and there aren't really any new CG problems-they come packaged with different labels and in different boxes but at some level we have been dealing with the same issues since our inception." Somehow, that just really speaks to me, and gives me hope that our leaders will find the answers to the questions that I'm flailing with.

So that's my take on some of modernization, at least for right now. Do you want cookies with your kool-aid? Oh, wait, that's not very healthy, and weigh-ins are this about some pita and hummus?


CDR E. A. Westfall said...

Good post that really puts the various issues/concerns from the small cutter afloat perspective on the table. Well done.

Dan Taylor said...

I appreciate you sharing your perspective. I'd read Ben's paper back in February when he posted it on the Vice's "inside the firewall" blog. He raises cultural issues I think are healthy to get out on the table. The differences between how mishaps are dealt with in the surface and aviation cultures are definitely worth considering.

I shared a link to his paper back in February, and one of the folks who read it left this comment: "He accurately describes the curse of the “hero culture” and the intrinsic difference in how two asset communities treat casualties. It has been visible in Mishap Reports for those who have ever done research in that database. Often the cause of a mishap is described in terms of a mechanical failure (leaky fuel valve, loose hinge bolt, etc), and the root cause analysis stops there. Aviation would always continue the analysis to determine the cause of the mechanical failure (why was the valve leaking, why was the bolt loose, etc). Then maintenace processes would be improved (or frequency increased, or operational processes altered, etc). All of this is done independent of fault/accountability determinations."

I think you're asking yourself great questions about your authority and responsibility as CO. You're not responsible for the holes found yesterday. But what if the previous CO had a team show with the people, parts, and tools to make the repair, but decided to exercise her command prerogative to get underway and defer the maintenance. Would *she* be responsible?

I agree PMS is a bad name. CG aviation calls them Maintenance Procedure Cards (MPCs). By whatever name, you're right, we don't fly aircraft if there was overdue maintenance. We balance operations and maintenance to get the maintenance done so we wouldn't be in that position. Those of us in the aviation engineering world rely on the support delivered by the product line.

You mentioned that it seems like operations always takes precedence over maintenance. My perspective as the EO was that Engineering exists to support Operations. We would plan our maintenance to provide ops with the aircraft needed to support the mission, while accomplishing all the planned maintenance dealing with unplanned (corrective) maintenance. When Murphy struck (he hides on the hangar deck too) we would change plans, work extra hours, call for help, but the idea of *not doing* required preventive maintenance simply wasn't an option.

Again, I really enjoyed reading your perspective. It's an important conversation. Keep gnawing on it!

Just a Girl said...

The way that I understand maintenance documentation in the cutter fleet right now, any long-term issue that needs fixed is documented in a CSMP (current ships maintenance project) and the APM reviews those to put together availability worklists. So, if that hypothetical predecessor of mine ensured documentation of the holes appropriately and repairs were incorporated into the ship's next maintenance availability, I think she's done her job.

However, this is where some of that surface sub-culture comes in, where there's a feeling that CASREPs are bad, and reflect poorly upon the command (I absolutely do not buy into my mind, CASREPs are merely a reporting requirement to let operational and maintenance commanders know the status; transparency in action). But someone, somewhere in KISKA's past, must have subscribed to it, because there were undocumented belzona patches on holes in fuel tanks. That individual...yes, I hold hir (generic him/her) responsible for the frantic few days we had toward the conclusion of our drydock upon the discovery of those holes....because we didn't know about the original "corrective maintenance action" (CMA) taken.

A subject for another post, maybe, is the inherent differences among aviation and cutter and small boat cultures in terms of gradients of ownership. Because I think that plays a *huge* part in the responsibility/accountability mentality. And yet another post is the difference between responsibility and accountability. And yet another post...goodness, I'm getting ahead of myself :)

Dan Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Taylor said...

I think you're right. If your predecessor documented long term issue so it's visible to the support organization, and worked with them to affect a repair, the CO's done hir part. Make support organization aware, make cutter available to make repairs. That's all the organization can ask for repairs that are beyond crew's ability to make.

My official work is leading the project that will deliver CG-LIMS, the enterprise logistics IT system that will replace the oldest parts of ALMIS and implement common processes for all types of assets -- ships, boats, aircraft, and C4. That modern IT system is part of the solution (and is hard enough), but the more important (and harder) changes are cultural. Undocumented repairs and configuration changes like you've described add to cost and complexity of support. They made the last few days of your drydock frantic, and they add to the overall "people price" you describe in the first post.

The reflection you're doing now before going to grad school is great. Who knows, maybe you'll catch someone's eye and something will be improved before you come back. ;-) I encourage you to get those ideas out before they become distant memories!

Jay said...

I'm still digesting the rest of post, but...airplane maintenance is done in a couple ways. For bigger planes there's either a phase system or a progressive system where preventative maintenance is accomplished in chunks between flights. Basically, though, you have 2 years to complete the full list of everything. However, if the phase or progressive schedule is missed, the airplane is grounded until it's completed, no ifs ands or buts about it. We do defer fixing some things if we're waiting for parts and it's a minor issue, but that tends to be a bit the exception, and there's usually time limits on how long you're allowed to defer things.

Like Dan Taylor said, operations and maintenance are balanced so that the maintenance happens. Also like he said, and you said, operations seems to take priority over maintenance. Let me add that it absolutely should take precedence. If we didn't fly the planes (sail the boats?) what need for maintenance? I go sometimes a bit crazy over the way our maintenance department overrides operations here. They do a fantastic job...Cessna told us that they've never seen planes so well maintained in the field...but when the plane is moved a week early depriving the away base location of a plane for maintenance's convenience....I get a little annoyed.

Anyway....'nuff for now. Gotta go to the weekly staff meeting

Azulao said...

Changing "culture" is the hardest thing you have mentioned here. Just one example -- I recently listened to an interview with a surgeon about why it is that medical care in this country CANNOT move past the "save the person at all costs" mentality.

For the record, he was talking about his very own 94-yr-old mother who was being nudged into extremely invasive surgery, apparently to try to solve the problem that she was 94. It took his authority as a senior surgeon to say no, his mother would not be put through that trauma.

Answer: culture. The culture of medicine. And, heavy training and intervention do not change culture, at least not quickly. Human beings learn VERY fast and change their minds very slowly.

Azulao said...

Oh hey -- you should take a look here:

'Course, the CG is not the academy, but I thought this was very relevant and interesting.

Just a Girl said...

Thanks for the link, Azulao. It was an interesting read...a lot of parallels in such different institutions.