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Bright ideas to fix the fleet: Sailors answer Navy's call for solutions

More than 1,000 offered - good, bad and just plain odd

Aug. 12, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Sailors suggested the best way to truly establish a fleetwide 'culture of fitness' was to allow time for workouts during the workday. Here, sailors exercise in the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis.
Sailors suggested the best way to truly establish a fleetwide 'culture of fitness' was to allow time for workouts during the workday. Here, sailors exercise in the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis. (MC3 Benjamin Crossley / Navy)
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Thousands of sailors are stepping up to expose time-wasting, inane tasks and layout solutions — and the brass is listening.

Thousands of sailors are stepping up to expose time-wasting, inane tasks and layout solutions — and the brass is listening.

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Thousands of sailors are stepping up to expose time-wasting, inane tasks and layout solutions — and the brass is listening.

Sailors offered 1,097 solutions, large and small, as part of an effort intended to swash-buckle paperwork and refocus on the fleet’s essence: training, leading and war fighting. The ideas were submitted to the Navy’s new online forum, which allowed everyone from a fireman apprentice to a fleet commander to post ideas and comments and vote on them by clicking thumbs-up or thumbs-down buttons.

“Not just the sailors were watching this, but the senior leaders in the Navy were online and they were checking these things out,” said Rear Adm. Herm Shelanski, one of the two flag officers supervising the Reducing Administrative Distractions, or RAD, campaign that will report its solutions to the chief of naval operations.

After logging more than 76,000 votes, the next step for this democratic experiment comes in August: Honing the top suggestions into viable and effective ways of doing business. A team of 35 officers is wading through the best ideas, while officials from across the Navy’s many fiefdoms — training, manpower, maintenance, security, information technology — are reviewing your ideas to look for improvements.

Some are skeptical that the brass will really make things easier and, to be sure, the initiative’s engagement was limited: 5,817 sailors and Navy civilians, about 1 percent of the entire force, used the site.

Asked whether anything would really change, Shelanski replied: “Yeah, I’m scared, too, but we’re going to give it a good shot here. I’m very confident that we’re going to get things changed. The CNO wants this to happen.”

Your ideas run the gamut: Fewer websites and databases, and more feedback on how chiefs are chosen. Less PowerPoint. An awards “dashboard” that makes it easier to track what awards you’ve earned.

Dozens of the ideas could be easy-to-implement “quick kills.” Hundreds more may prompt rethinks of complex programs. Officials plan to offer a few sailors with the best ideas as much as $1,000 in prizes when the initiative wraps up in late September.

Some ideas are already changing how the fleet does business. Officials are simplifying evaluation-writing software. They are considering a SailorWiki, where sailors can share instructions and gouge. And they are assessing ways to cut the paperwork and sailor time-drains from maintenance to general military training.

What’s more, the forum has boosted admirals’ awareness of the deck-plate sentiment.

“We know more about what’s going on and in general to understand what sailors are thinking is not a bad thing,” Shelanski said in a Aug. 9 interview. “Sometimes to get the honest truth — we need it. We may not always like it.”

Navy Times sorted through your ideas for suggestions that would do the most to save time and improve sailors’ lives. We also sifted out ideas that are:

■ Controversial but are worth consideration, such as retooling the uniform-development process.

■ Smaller in scale but still notable — stop paying for fancy, manicured lawns on Navy bases in the desert, for example.

■ Just plain bad, or not likely to happen, like a plan for a “reverse IA” program so Army individual augmentees could pay back the Navy by filling open at-sea billets.

But first, the eight fixes sailors suggested that we believe you need to know about:

1. Consolidate websites

The most popular idea may also be a practical one: Drastically cut the number of websites and databases that sailors need to use. Many complained about the challenge of juggling so many logins and passwords at all times for the myriad websites, such as BUPERS Online, the Navy Standard Integrated Personnel System, Navy Knowledge Online, and on and on.

“I, at one point, had to memorize 14 different passwords,” wrote one sailor, who recommended the Navy develop a common portal to access all of these sites. Many sailors offered similar ideas. The two most popular garnered a total of 2,395votes — far outpacing all other suggestions. Officials are working on a one-stop “My Navy Portal” that allows access to many important websites and databases.

2. Create an awards dashboard

It can require some digging to figure out what awards and ribbons you’ve earned. The Navy’s awards website allows users to look up some of their own awards, but one officer suggested that this needs to go much further and encompass all medals, campaign ribbons and unit awards.

“This idea is inspired by a recent inspection where I found out that 35 of my sailors didn’t have the [Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal] or Sea Service Ribbons on their records because no one in the past bothered to tell them about it,” this anonymous officer wrote. “The dashboard could completely eliminate this problem.”

Commands could send records for every sailor’s ribbons and awards to the Navy’s Awards Web Service, but with more than 322,000 personnel, entering those into the database in a timely manner would be a challenge.

Another idea was to link unit identifier codes and a time frame to each award, a step that makes it easier to later figure out whether a sailor is eligible for a unit award — the Humanitarian Service Medal, for example.

3. Fix evals

Sailors had two big gripes about evaluations: They’re too focused on collateral responsibilities, and they often don’t offer an “honest” take.

The system puts a premium on showing a sailor’s improving performance and requires that any problems be well documented. Some complain that this allows mediocre performers to appear as though they’re improving over time because of the pressure to score them higher.

This “forces E-7 boards to read between the lines,” wrote one sailor, whose suggestion got 145 votes. “The marginal sailor always appears to perform better over time. At the same time, new high-performing but more-junior sailors are unfairly ranked too low.”

Others complain that there’s too much importance given to showy collateral duties that take sailors away from their primary responsibility — doing their job. One senior sailor complained that those with “a command collateral that the department head is aware of” have a leg up on diligent sailors who focus on their work in the shop.

“The common trend I saw on the majority of the ships I went to was there were one or two people who knew what was going on,” wrote this sailor, who identified himself as a former afloat training group assessor. “The rest kind of hung out until they had a [morale, welfare and recreation] or [drug and alcohol programs adviser] meeting.”

Three suggestions on the topic garnered a total of 302 votes, together among the higher tallies.

4. Workday PT

Many sailors say the “culture of fitness” is an empty slogan until commands allow their sailors to work out during the workday, whether individually or as part of command physical training. Exercise is built into the day for the Navy’s most-demanding branches, such as SEALs and explosive ordnance disposal technicians.

Mandating exercise as part of the workday, one sailor wrote, “would cost no money” and boost the fleet’s fitness level.

Many think the Navy’s fitness push is unfair — you must work out on your own time but are held professionally responsible if you fail the tape test.

“As a [command fitness leader] for the last five years, the Navy PFA is broken,” commented one sailor. “Everyone knows that and those that can fix it, don’t.”

Still, commanding officers have a heavy workload, and it can be difficult to set aside hundreds, if not thousands, of sailor man-hours each week for workout time.

5. Fix the maintenance 'nightmare'

The fleet’s maintenance scheme is unwieldy and taxing — a paperwork drill, say sailors who deal with it every day. The scheduling system is confusing. Even straightforward checks, such as deck-drain inspections, run for many pages. Keeping the maintenance checks up to date is as time-consuming as the work.

One officer called maintenance and material management, or 3M, “an admin juggernaut,” while others labeled it a “nightmare” and the generator of an “insurmountable” amount of paperwork.

Sailors questioned many of 3M’s assumptions: Why does all maintenance require a step-by-step instruction? Why aren’t revisions updated automatically, rather than putting that burden on technicians? Why don’t different maintenance databases link up?

Sailors took aim at 3M, labeling it the fleet’s biggest administrative distraction; calls for overhauling it garnered 582 votes. A three-star even chimed in to say that fixing it must be the “NUMBER ONE issue.”

“It has to be about the maint check: Simple as possible and able to be complied with,” wrote Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman, the head of the surface Navy. “Too many checks today are extremely difficult to comply with or have steps that are ridiculous.”

Another related idea was to make it easier to obtain cleaning solution, which currently falls under the hazardous material program. The red tape involved in getting even a small amount of cleaner makes the process take much longer than it should, the writer states; the plan for “sanity” in the HAZMAT program received 351 votes.

“If it can explode, catch on fire or melt stuff ... then control it,” wrote one sailor. “Otherwise, give me the damn bottle so I can get to work.”

6. Instruction craze

Sailors are awash in instructions.

There are command instructions, type commander instructions and OPNAV instructions on subjects ranging from operations to advancement, land management to cellphone use.

It’s your responsibility to navigate all these instructions and the frequent updates they receive, and now a sailor is calling to ease that burden by storing the latest versions in one place and reducing their number.

The sailor suggested a searchable database that has copies of all current instructions, going much further than the current website that collects only OPNAVs. That would serve as a launching point for his next idea:

“The Navy should make a goal of a 50 percent reduction in the number of instructions,” the sailor suggested.

“Honestly, with the sheer number of instructions and the ad hoc nature which they are updated, it is a huge burden and nobody ends up reading anything useful.”

The suggestion had a lot of takers — 683 votes, all told.

“Great idea!” one sailor wrote. “The Navy should be embarrassed that I use Yahoo.com as my means to search for instructions.”

One option officials are considering is a NavyWiki, a website like Wikipedia where users create and manage the content. Sailors could upload instructions and other gouge.

7. Selection-board feedback

“Sailors spend an enormous amount of time waiting, wondering and logging in, trying to find out if they have made the next rank,” wrote one surface sailor. “Once they find out that they did not, they spend more time trying to figure out why.”

The sailor wants the boards for chief, senior chief and master chief to inform those who don’t make the cut why they were passed over, a widely shared view that backers say will also help produce better sailors.

The idea comes down to feasibility: informing the roughly 14,000 sailors passed over for chief could take months and a staff of dozens. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing, sailors say.

Board members could log a sentence or two for each hopeful they eliminate — “Needs to seek more responsibilities” or “Recommended duties below average,” for example.

Navy Personnel Command could pilot this with small ratings to see whether it’s feasible. The suggestion got only 59 votes but remains popular, especially for chief hopefuls.

“We need to take care of our shipmates and leaving them guessing as to why they didn’t make it is not a good answer,” one active-duty sailor commented.

8. 'Culture of efficiency'

The Navy is simply too bureaucratic and top-heavy, one sailor said, and leaders need to step up and change their mentality to make things easier.

“What we need now is a culture of efficiency,” wrote this active-duty surface sailor, whose idea received 71 votes. “A paint chit taking six hours to route should be something that is never stood for. A simple request chit taking three days to get routed through four people should never be tolerated.”

Both sailors and officers need to make reducing demands a priority, according to the proposal — especially within their own programs.

“No one wants to be the one to stand up and go, ‘We can do this better, easier or not at all,’” said the unnamed sailor. “The ship’s 3M manager is never going to say ‘Yeah, the 3M process is bloated.’ A command counselor is never going to say, ‘The PTS ... process doesn’t make any sense.’ ”

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