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USS Fitzgerald & USS John S McCain Collisions: Response to Feedback from a Reader

Posted: August 30th, 2017 in Accidents, Current Events, Human Performance, Investigations, Pictures, Root Causes

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Here is an e-mail I received in response to my recent articles about the Navy’s collision root cause analysis:

As a former naval officer (and one who has navigated the infamous Strait of Malacca as Officer of the Deck on a warship bridge twice), I read your post with interest and wanted to respond.  You understandably criticize the Navy for taking disciplinary action early on in the investigation process, but you fail to understand the full scope of the military’s response to such incidents.  Yes, punishment was swift – right or wrong from a civilian perspective, that’s how the military holds its leaders accountable.  And make no mistake: The leadership of USS Fitzgerald is ultimately responsible and accountable for this tragedy.  (Same goes for the most recent collision involving USS John S. McCain, which also led to the ‘firing’ of the Commander of the 7th Fleet – a Vice Admiral nonetheless.)  That’s just how the military is, was, and always will be, because its disciplinary system is rooted in (and necessary for) war fighting.  

But don’t confuse accountability with cause.  No one in the Navy believes that relieving these sailors is the solution to the problem of at-sea collisions and therefore the ONLY cause.  I won’t speculate on causal factors, but I’m confident they will delve into training, seamanship, communications, over-reliance on technology and many other factors that could’ve been at work in these incidents.  It’s inaccurate and premature for anyone outside the investigation team to charge that the Navy’s root cause analysis began and ended with disciplinary actions.  How effective the final corrective actions are in preventing similar tragedies at-sea in the future will be the real measure of how effective their investigation and root cause analysis are, whether they use TapRooT, Apollo (my company uses both) or any other methodology.

I appreciate his feedback but I believe that many may be misunderstanding what I wrote and why I wrote it. Therefore, here is my response to his e-mail:

Thanks for your response. What I am going to say in response may seem pretty harsh but I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at those responsible for not taking action a decade ago to prevent these accidents today.

 

I’m also a previously qualified SWO who has been an OOD in some pretty tight quarters. The real question is … Why haven’t they solved this problem with prior accidents. The root causes of these collisions have existed for years (some might say over a decade or maybe two). Yet the fixes to prior accidents were superficial and DISCIPLINE was the main corrective action. This proves the Navy’s root cause analysis is inadequate in the past and, I fear, just as inadequate today.

 
These two ships weren’t at war and, even if they were, blaming the CO and the OOD almost never causes the real root causes of the issues to get fixed. 
 
I seem pretty worked up about this because I don’t want to see more young sailors needlessly killed so that top brass can make their deployment schedules work while cutting the number of ships (and the manning for the ships) and the budget for training and maintenance. Someone high up has to stand up and say to Congress and the President – enough is enough. This really is the CNO’s job. Making that stand is really supporting our troops. They deserve leadership that will make reasonable deployment and watch schedules and will demand the budget, staffing, and ships to meet our operational requirements.
 
By the way, long ago (and even more recently) I’ve seen the Navy punishment system work. Luckily, I was never on the receiving end (but I could have been if I hadn’t transferred off the ship just months before). And in another case, I know the CO who was punished. In each case, the CO who was there for the collision or the ship damage was punished for things that really weren’t his fault. Why? To protect those above him for poor operational, maintenance, budget, and training issues. Blaming the CO is a convenient way to stop blame from rising to Admirals or Congress and the President.
 
That’s why I doubt there will be a real root cause analysis of these accidents. If there is, it will require immediate reductions in operation tempo until new training programs are implemented, new ships can be built, and manning can be increased to support the new ships (and our current ships). How long will this take? Five to 10 years at best. Of course it has taken over 20 years for the problem to get this bad (it started slowly in the late 80s). President Trump says he wants to rebuild the military – this is his chance to do something about that.
 
Here are some previous blog articles that go back about a decade (when the blog started) about mainly submarine accidents and discipline just to prove this really isn’t a recent phenomenon. It has been coming for a while…. 
 
USS Hartford collision:
 
 
 
 
USS Greeneville collision:
 
 
USS San Francisco hits undersea mountain:
 
 
USS Hampton ORSE Board chemistry cheating scandal:
 
 
I don’t write about every accident or people would think I was writing for the Navy Times, but you get the idea. Note, some links in the posts are missing because of the age of these posts, but it will give you an idea that the problems we face today aren’t new (even if they are worse) and the Navy’s top secret root cause system – discipline those involved – hasn’t worked.
 
Are these problems getting worse because of a lack of previous thorough root cause analysis and corrective actions? Unfortunately, we don’t have the data to see a trend. How many more young men and women need to die before we take effective action – I hope none but a fear it will be many.
 
Thanks again for your comment and Best Regards,
 
Mark Paradies
President, System Improvements, Inc.
The TapRooT® Folks

I’m not against the Navy or the military. I support our troops. I am against the needless loss of life. We need to fix this problem before we have a real naval battle (warfare at sea) and suffer unnecessary losses because of our lack of preparedness. If we can’t sail our ships we will have real problems fighting with them.

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US Navy 7th Fleet Announces Blame for Crash of the USS Fitzgerald

Posted: August 18th, 2017 in Accidents, Current Events, Investigations, Performance Improvement, Pictures

USS Fitzgerald

The Navy has taken the first action to avoid future collisions at sea after the crash of the USS Fitzgerald. The only question that remains is:

Why did it take Rear Admiral Brian Fort two months to determine who the Navy would punish?

After all, they knew who the CO, XO, and Command Master Chief were and they could just check the watch bill to see who was on the bridge and in CIC. That shouldn’t take 60 days. Maybe it took them that long to get the press release approved.

The Navy’s Top Secret root cause analysis system is:

Round up the usual guilty parties!

Here is what the Navy press release said:

“The commanding officer, executive officer and command master chief of the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) were relieved of their duties by Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, Commander, 7th Fleet Aug, 18. 

Additionally, a number of officer and enlisted watch standers were held accountable. 

The determinations were made following a thorough review of the facts and circumstances leading up to the June 17 collision between Fitzgerald and the merchant vessel ACX Crystal.”  

Yet here is a part of the announcement from the Navy’s PR Officer:

“It is premature to speculate on causation or any other issues,” she said. “Once we have a detailed understanding of the facts and circumstances, we will share those findings with the Fitzgerald families, our Congressional oversight committees and the general public.”

The emphasis above was added by me.

It is premature to speculate on causes BUT we already know who to blame because we did a “thorough review of the facts.”

Now that all the BAD sailors have been disciplined, we can rest easy knowing that the Navy has solved the problems with seamanship by replacing these bad officers and crew members. There certainly aren’t any system causes that point to Navy brass, fleet-wide training and competency, or fatigue.

As I said in my previous article about this collision:

“Of course, with a TapRooT® investigation, we would start with a detailed SnapCharT® of what happened BEFORE we would collect facts about why the Causal Factors happened. Unfortunately, the US Navy doesn’t do TapRooT® investigations. Let’s hope this investigation gets beyond blame to find the real root causes of this fatal collision at sea.”

With blame and punishment as the first corrective action, I don’t hold out much hope for real improvement (even though the Navy has a separate safety investigation). Perhaps that’s why I can’t help writing a scathing, sarcastic article because the Navy has always relied on blame after collisions at sea (rather than real root cause analysis). Our young men and women serving aboard Navy ships deserve better.

I won’t hold my breath waiting for a call from the Navy asking for help finding the real root causes of this tragic accident and developing effective corrective actions that would improve performance at sea. This is just another accident – much like the previous collisions at sea that the Navy has failed to prevent. Obviously, previous corrective actions weren’t effective. Or … maybe these BAD officers were very creative? They found a completely new way to crash their ship!

My guess is that Navy ships are being “ridden hard and put up wet” (horse riding terminology).

My prediction:

  1. The Navy will hold a safety stand down to reemphasize proper seamanship. 
  2. There will be future collisions with more guilty crews that get the usual Navy discipline.

That’s the way the Navy has always done it since the days of “wooden ships and iron men.” The only change … they don’t hang sailors from the yard arm or keel haul them in the modern Navy. That’s progress!

Bless all the sailors serving at sea in these difficult times. We haven’t done enough to support you and give you the leadership you deserve. Senior naval leadership should hang their heads in shame.

What is the Root Cause of the USS Fitzgerald Collision?

Posted: July 17th, 2017 in Accidents, Investigations, Pictures, Root Causes

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As a root cause analysis expert and former US Navy Officer who was qualified as a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) and was qualified to stand underway steaming Officer of the Deck watches, I’ve had many friends ask me what was the root cause of the collision of the USS Fitzgerald.

Of course, the answer is that all the facts aren’t yet in. But that never keeps us from speculation…

But before I speculate, let’s honor the seven crew members who died as a result of this accident: Dakota Kyle Rigsby. Shingo Alexander Douglass. Ngoc T Truong Huynh. Noe Hernandez. Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan. Xavier Alec Martin. Gary Leo Rehm Jr.

Also, let’s note that the reason for good root cause analysis is to prevent fatalities and injuries by solving the problems discovered in an accident to keep a similar repeat accident from happening in the future.

Mia Culpa: It’s been a long time since I stood a bridge watch. I’m not familiar with the current state of naval readiness and training. However, my general opinion is that you should never turn in front of a containership. They are big. Even at night you can see them (commercial ships are often lit up). They are obvious on even a simple radar. So what could have gone wrong?

1. It was the middle of the night. I would bet that one thing that has not changed since I was in the Navy is FATIGUE. It would be interesting to see the Oficer of the Deck’s and the Conning Officer’s (if there was one) sleep schedule for the previous seven days. Fatigue was rampant when I was at sea in the navy. “Stupid” mistakes are often made by fatigued sailors. And who is to blame for the fatigue? It is built into the system. It is almost invisible. It is so rampant that no one even asks about it. You are suppose to be able to do your job with no sleep. Of course, this doesn’t work.

2. Where was the CO? I heard that the ship was in a shipping lane. Even though it was the middle of the night, I thought … where was the Commanding Officer? Our standing orders (rules for the Officer of the Deck) had us wake the CO if a contact (other ship) was getting close. If we had any doubt, we were to get him to the bridge (usually his sea cabin was only a couple of steps from the bridge). And the CO’s on the ships I was on were ALWAYS on the bridge when we were in a shipping lane. Why? Because in shipping lanes you are constantly having nearby contacts. Sometimes the CO even slept in their bridge chair, if nothing was going on, just so they would be handy if something happened. Commander Benson (the CO) had only been in his job for a month. He had previously been the Executive Officer. Did this have any impact on his relationship with bridge watchstanders?

3. Where was the CIC watch team?  On a Navy ship you have support. Besides the bridge watch team, you are supported by the Combat Information Center. They constantly monitor the radars for contacts (other ships or aircraft) and they should contact the Officer of the Deck if they see any problems. If the OOD doesn’t respond … they can contact the Commanding Officer (this would be rare – I never saw it done). Why didn’t they intervene?

4. Chicken of the Sea. Navy ships are notorious for staying away from other ships. Many Captains of commercial shipping referred to US Navy ships as “chickens of the sea” because they steered clear of any other traffic. Why was the Fitzgerald so close to commercial shipping?

5. Experience. One thing I always wonder about is the experience of the crew and especially the officers on a US Navy ship. Typically, junior officers stand Officer of the Deck watches at sea. They have from a two to three year tour of duty and standing bridge watches is one of many things they do. Often, they don’t have extensive experience as an Officer of the Deck. How much experience did this watch team have? Once again, the experience of the team is NOT the team’s fault. It is a product of the system to train naval officers. Did it play a factor?

6. Two crews. The US Navy is trying out a new way of manning ships with two crews. One crew is off while the other goes to sea. This keeps the ship on station longer than a crew could stand to be deployed. But the crew is less familiar with the ship as they are only on it about 1/2 the time. I read some articles about this and couldn’t tell if the USS Fitzgerald was in this program or not (the program is for forward deployed ships like the Fitzgerald). Was this another factor?

These six factors are some of the many factors that investigators should be looking into. Of course, with a TapRooT® investigation, we would start with a detailed SnapCharT® of what happened BEFORE we would collect facts about why the Causal Factors happened. Unfortunately, the US Navy doesn’t do TapRooT® investigations. Let’s hope this investigation gets beyond blame to find the real root causes of this fatal collision at sea.

Is punishment the best way to improve performance in the Navy?

Posted: September 20th, 2017 in Human Performance, Performance Improvement, Pictures

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In my decades of root cause analysis, less than 2% of incidents are caused by some sort of willful action that does not have a system cause. However, in many incident responses, companies discipline people for mistakes that were caused by system problem. This unwarranted punishment leads to:

  • Covering up problems.
  • Lying about what people did.
  • Morale issues when people are punished for things that were not their fault.
  • Mystery incidents that no one seems to know anything about (no one will talk).
  • Poor performance because the root causes of the problems are not being addressed.

Thus, I was disappointed when I saw the US Navy resort to discipline before the root cause analysis was completed after the collision of the USS Fitzgerald. Then again more discipline was used (this time against an Admiral) after the collision of the USS John S. McCain.

I wrote several articles about the collisions:

What is the Root Cause of the USS Fitzgerald Collision?

US Navy 7th Fleet Announces Blame for Crash of the USS Fitzgerald

USS Fitzgerald & USS John S McCain Collisions: Response to Feedback from a Reader

Several senior naval officers and others that discipline was needed for Navy personnel when a mission fails or a ship collides with another.

This brought to mind two sayings that I learned in the Navy. The first is:

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

The second is:

Why be fair when you can be arbitrary.

Do people in the Navy really respond to random discipline? The kind of discipline that’s been proven not to work in the civilian world?

I spent 7 years in the US Navy and have had close contacts with many people in the Navy since I left to start my civilian career. What I can tell you is this:

  1. Being at sea is different than working in a civilian job
  2. The Navy generally has a stricter set of operating rules than a civilian workforce does.
  3. There is a wider range of disciplinary actions that are available in the Navy than in the civilian word. (Although flogging and keel-hauling have been eliminated.)
  4. You can’t quit in the Navy if you have a bad boss.
  5. It’s difficult to fire someone that works for you if they are incompetent (you are stuck with those who you are assigned to lead).
  6. People ARE NOT different. They don’t become some sort of robot just because they joined the Navy.

Why did I include point #6 above? Because I’m often told that discipline is needed in the Navy to improve performance (One Admiral told me that it “sharpens the Commanding Officers game”).

It seems that some believe that senior naval officers (people commanding Navy ships – the Commanding Officers or COs) would try less hard, be less alert, and have worse performance if they didn’t have the threat of being relieved of command if they run into another ship or run aground.

Yes – the CO is ultimately responsible. Therefore, how could it NOT be the CO’s fault? They have ultimate authority on their ship … don’t they?

Let’s look at a an example. What if:

  • A ship was assigned a rigorous operational schedule of demanding technical missions.
  • The ship had several key pieces of equipment that that had been reported as broken (because of lack of time, parts, and money to perform maintenance).
  • The ship had many junior, barely qualified personnel serving in key positions because of the Navy’s planned rotation of officers and enlisted personnel and planned reduction of ashore training before new personnel arrived for their tour of duty.
  • The ship was undermanned because new ships were designed with new, smaller, crews but still had the same work to be performed as on older ships with 20-30% more people. This saved the Navy budget money – especially in the time of sequester.
  • The ship had several key personnel left ashore – with no replacement – because they were pregnant.
  • The CO was new to the ship and had little experience with this type of ship because he was assigned wartime duties ashore in Iraq during the Gulf Wars and missed an Executive Officer and a Department Head tours that would have provided more applicable experience and knowledge for this assignment.
  • People were fatigued after several tough evolutions but still had to drive the ship through a narrow, busy straight to get to their next assigned mission.

Is any of this under the CO’s control? Don’t these circumstances contribute to a mission failure if one occurs (like a collision). Would discipline make any of these factors change?

Does telling the CO that you are going to punish him (or her) if he or his crew makes a mistake make ANY difference?

Please leave me your comments. I’d be interested in what you have to say.

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The world’s most modern Navy struggles with outdated culture

Posted: September 6th, 2017 in Accidents, Current Events, Root Cause Analysis Tips

To students of safety and accident prevention, the recent collisions involving the guided missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) seem strange. How can this happen with top shelf modern warships, equipped with state-of-the-art electronics, radar and GPS? Hint: look for human performance issues, and a culture of blame and punishment.

These are tragic accidents, with unnecessary loss of lives. The Navy’s immediate response was a 24-hour “safety stand down,” and a 60-day review of surface fleet operations, training, and certification. Perhaps more significantly, the Seventh Fleet commander Vice Admiral Aucoin was fired, due to a “loss of confidence in his ability to command.”

And this is where the problems start. To an outside observer, the Navy culture of “firing those responsible” seems very old fashioned. Not only do we waste money on repairing ship damage that should never have happened, we also voluntarily get rid of a large investment in recruiting and training with each officer let go.

A better answer is to analyze what happened in each case, find the root causes and put in place corrective actions to prevent the same accidents from happening again. The Navy investigation results are classified, but let me offer up two possible causes:

1. Guided missile destroyers are smaller, leaner and meaner than the conventional destroyers they replaced. They sail with a smaller crew and fewer officers. However, there is still the same amount of horizon to scan, so to say, so officers will have larger spans of responsibility and fewer opportunities to rest. Fatigue is a powerful influence on human performance.

2. The world is a dangerous place, and getting worse. A shrinking Navy is deployed on the same number of missions around the world, not allowing enough time in between for maintenance of ships and systems. Training and development of crews also suffers.

Our long experience in root cause analysis tells us that no matter how sophisticated systems or equipment are, they need maintenance to work properly. There is also always human factors involved. Human performance is fickle, and influenced by many factors such as fatigue, alertness, training, or layout of control panels. It is better to do a thorough RCA to identify causal factors and fix them, than to fire people up and down the chain of command and still have the same issues again later.

#TapRooT_RCA

Second Navy Ship Collides – What is going on?

Posted: August 23rd, 2017 in Accidents, Investigations, Pictures, TapRooT, Video

First, god bless the missing and dead sailors and their families and shipmates who experienced this, the second crash in the past two months.

I’ve waited a couple of days to comment on this second Navy collision with fatalities because I was hoping more information would be released about what happened to cause this collision at sea. Unfortunately, it seems the Navy has clamped down on the flow of information and, therefore, no intelligent comments can be made to compare the collision of the USS John S. McCain with the earlier collision of the USS Fitzgerald.

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What do we know?

  • They are both similar Navy DDG’s with the same staffing levels (only 23 officers).
  • They were both in a shipping channel.
  • They both hit (or were hit by) a merchant ship.
  • The crew was trained to the same Navy standards.

That’s about it.

Of course, we know what they did to those involved in the previous accident (see my previous article HERE).

Was the timing of this second collision just bad luck?

We could use the Navy’s collision statistics to answer that question. Of course, you would have to agree about what is a collision. Would a grounding count? Would there have to be injuries or a fatality?

We would then use the advanced trending techniques that we teach in our pre-Summit trending course to see if the second collision was so close in time to the first that it indicated a significant increase in the collision frequency. To learn about these techniques, see:

http://www.taproot.com/taproot-summit/pre-summit-courses#AdvancedTrendingTrending

Since we don’t have facts (and will probably never get them), what is my guess? The things I would consider for this accident are the same as for the last. Look into what happened including:

  1. Fatigue
  2. Where was the CO?
  3. What did the CIC watch team do?
  4. Experience/training of the bridge and CIC team.

What should the Navy do? A complete, detailed TapRooT® Investigation.

Admiral Richardson (formerly the head of the Navsea 07 – the Nuclear Navy) has the right words about the analysis the Navy is performing. What is missing? A systematic guide for the investigators and prevent them from jumping to conclusions.

In a TapRooT® Investigation, we would start collecting facts and developing a SnapCharT® to truly understand what happened. Next we would identify all the causal Factors before we started analyzing their root causes using the Root Cause Tree® Diagram. Next, we would consider the generic causes and then develop effective (SMARTER) corrective actions. Unfortunately, this will be hard to do because of the Navy’s tradition of blame.

Some of my friends have been asking if I thought that some type of sabotage was involved. Some sort of hacking of the combat systems. In my experience, unless it was extremely foggy, you should be able to use your eyes and the simple bridge radar to navigate. You don’t need fancy technology to keep you from colliding. Simple “constant bearing decreasing range” tells you a collision is coming. To prevent it you turn or slow down (or perhaps speed up) to get a bearing rate of change to bring the other ship down whichever side is appropriate (use the rules of the road).

The trick comes when there are multiple contacts and restricted channels. That’s when it is nice to have someone senior (the Commanding Officer) on hand to second check your judgment and give you some coaching if needed.

Most of the time you spend of the bridge is boring. But when you are steaming in formation or in a shipping channel with lots of traffic, it quickly goes from boring to nerve-racking. And if you are fatigued when it happens … watch out! Add to that an inexperience navigation team (even the Commanding Officer may be inexperienced) and you have an accident waiting to happen.

Is that what happened to the USS John S. McCain? We don’t know.

What we do know is that the Navy’s typical blame and shame response with a safety stand down thrown in won’t address the root causes – whatever they may be – of these accidents.

The Navy seldom releases the results of their investigations without heavily redacting them. What we do know is that previous  investigations of previous collisions were heavy on blame and included little in the way of changes to prevent fatigue or or inexperienced watch standers. The fact is that the corrective actions from previous collisions didn’t prevent this string of collisions.

What can you do? Advise anyone you know in a position of responsibility in the Navy that they need advanced root cause analysis to improve performance. The young men and women that we send to sea deserve nothing less. Navy brass needs to end the blame game and coverup and implement truly effective corrective actions.

Is There Just One Root Cause for a Major Accident?

Posted: July 26th, 2017 in Accidents, Courses, Investigations, Pictures, Root Cause Analysis Tips, Root Causes, TapRooT

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Some people might say that the Officer of The Deck on the USS Fitzgerald goofed up. He turned in front of a containership and caused an accident.

Wait a second. Major accidents are NEVER that simple. There are almost always multiple things that went wrong. Multiple “Causal Factors” that could be eliminated and … if they were … would have prevented the accident or significantly reduced the accident’s consequences.

The “One Root Cause” assumption gets many investigators in trouble when performing a root cause analysis. They think they can ask “why” five times and find THE ROOT CAUSE.

TapRooT® Investigators never make this “single root cause” mistake. They start by developing a complete sequence of events that led to the accident. They do this by drawing a SnapCharT® (either using yellow stickies or using the TapRooT® Software).

They then use one of several methods to make sure they identify ALL the Causal Factors.

When they have identified the Causal Factors, they aren’t done. They are just getting started.

EACH of the Causal Factors are taken through the TapRooT® Root Cause Tree®, using the Root Cause Tree® Dictionary,  and all the root causes for each Causal Factor are identified.

That’s right. There may be more than one root cause for each Causal Factor. Think of it as there may be more than one best practice to implement to prevent that Causal Factor from happening again.

TapRooT® Investigators go even one step further. They look for Generic Causes.

What is a Generic Cause? The system problem that allowed the root cause to exist.

Here’s a simple example. Let’s say that you find a simple typo in a procedure. That typo cause an error.

Of course, you would fix the typo. But you would also ask …

Why was the typo allowed to exist?

Wasn’t there a proofing process? Why didn’t operators who used the procedure in the past report the problem they spotted (assuming that this is the first time there was an error and the procedure had been used before)?

You might find that there is an ineffective proofing process or that the proofing process isn’t being performed. You might find that operators had previously reported the problem but it had never been fixed.

If you find there is a Generic Cause, you then have to think about all the other procedures that might have similar problems and how to fix the system problem (or problems). Of course, ideas to help you do this are included in the TapRooT® Corrective Action Helper® Guide.

So, in a major accident like the wreck of the USS Fitzgerald, there are probably multiple mistakes that were made (multiple Causal Factors), multiple root causes, some Generic Causes, and lots of corrective actions that could improve performance and stop future collisions.

To learn advanced root cause analysis, attend a public TapRooT® Courses. See the dates and locations here:

http://www.taproot.com/store/Courses/

Or schedule a course at your facility for 10 or more of people. CLICK HERE to get a quote for a course at your site.

Forge Your Own Path

Posted: November 7th, 2016 in Career Development, Career Development Tips

The following article was reprinted with permission from the author, Captain George Burk, USAF (Ret), Plane crash, burn survivor, motivational speaker, author, writer. Visit his website at www.georgeburk.com or contact Captain Burk at gburk@georgeburk.com.

Steve Allen, a well-known (at least to many of my generation in the 1950’s and 60’s) television host, writer and musician passed away several years ago. His humor, writings and music will be missed by many people around the world. In many ways, he was a TV pioneer. His invention of the TV talk show had its roots in what seemed like certain failure.  It was the early 1950’s and TV was still in its infancy.  Many of you “older folks” like me probably remember the black and white Dumont Television. I can still hear him yelling, “smock, smock,” and Don Knotts replying in a quick, high, pitched voice “No!” when asked by Allen if he was “nervous” on the “Man on the Street” segment.

In 1947, at the age of 26, Steve Allen was out of work after his coast-to-coast comedy radio show was canceled.  Reluctantly, he took the only job offer he had at the time: as a disc jockey at a Los Angeles radio station.  A few months later, he started to tinker with the format.  Within two years, he changed the series into a popular one-hour comedy talk-show.

That program led to a variety-talk show on the CBS television network from 1950 to 1952 and then a late-night talk show on NBC’s flagship station in New York.  That show became so popular that NBC sought a counterpart to its “Today Show,” placed Allen on the network, renamed the show “Tonight” and let him create the format.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Johnny Carson took over from Allen and hosted the show for almost 30 years (“And now, heeeere’s Johnny!”).

Steve Allen’s four year stint as host of the “Tonight Show” from 1953-1957 became the spring board for his fifty year career built on perseverance and ingenuity.  Allen’s secret was he “didn’t waste time,” and what he was doing gave him so much pleasure that there wasn’t any time for something called a “weekend.”

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to meet a number of people — a few I met while a patient in the burn unit –who overcame the severest type of injuries any human can experience.  After their release from the hospital, they didn’t choose the path with the least resistance because they didn’t want to think or act like a victim. They sought to forge their own path in life.  Adversity was seen as a “gift” to help them grow and improve; a temporary road block on their life’s journey.  For example, a man who overcame a deformity and taught himself to dance; an artist who learned to paint after she lost her vision; a man who lost his face in a plane crash in Vietnam and started a burn camp for children several years after his release from the hospital.  There are literally thousands of other examples of personal courage, compassion, humility and perseverance.

I met Steve Allen. It was circa 1975 on a Continental Airlines flight from Kansas City, MO to Wichita, KS. I sat next to him for the 45 minute flight. I didn’t intrude on his privacy because he was working on some papers and reading. But I did take a moment to share how much I enjoyed his television shows. I ended my brief conversation with “Smock, smock.”

He smiled and thanked me.

Steve Allen – comedian, author, lyricist, composer, jazz pianist and playwright – built his career on several principles and so did many of my friends.  Here are a few of them:

When dealt a lemon, get creative (make lemonade).

The star of a dozen TV series, Steve Allen never let a cancellation notice faze him.  When his prime-time NBC variety series was given the “ax” in June 1960 after four years, he came back the next year on another network.  He never stopped his creativity and always found ways to put to use the talents he had at his disposal.  Many of the people I know and have met don’t spend a lot of time whining; they choose “winning” and concentrate on what they have, not what they don’t.  Improvise; find a way.  When the “tree of life” is filled with lemons, pick a few lemons and make lemonade. Like much of life, it’s a choice!

“I believe that if life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade…And try to find somebody whose life has given them Vodka and have a party.” Ron White

The first time you choose to make ‘lemonade’ is a challenge. How ‘large’ is the ‘lemon?’ You need help to ‘squeeze’ the ‘lemon?’ What about the ‘seeds?’ How much ‘raw sugar’ to add to ‘sweeten’ it? The second time you make ‘lemonade’ and each time thereafter, you know the ‘ingredients’ and how much of each to use; the ’lemonade’ becomes ‘sweeter’ easier to ‘make.’

“Never stop learning, growing, or giving up.  One hand is better than none!”

Get out of your own way. 

Allen always cautioned people that at the moment of creativity, I call it an “Epiphany”, don’t second guess yourself.  “The editing, the revision, the improvement can come at a later point, but at the moment your original idea is flowing, just let it go.  In other words, get out of your own way,” he said. The approach works.  He wrote 53 books, six musicals, four plays and 52 record albums. Key: Have a concept of what you want to do, believe in yourself and then begin to pursue your idea(s) and dream(s).  You can always find “99 excuses” not to do something; all you need only one reason to act.  Don’t procrastinate – create.

“One may understand the cosmos but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.” G.K. Chesterton

 Don’t get bound by limitations (yours and others’).

Steve Allen wrote more than 7,200 songs yet he couldn’t read a note of music.  The 1985 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records lists Allen as the “most prolific composer of modern times.”  His hits—-including “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” and “Picnic” have been performed by more than 80 artists, including Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Lionel Hampton. Other examples include people who ski, swim and compete in marathons.  They never let their “dis-ability” become a “lie-ability,” or “can’t -ability.”

“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitations. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly.” Richard Bach

Keep going, no matter what.  As an author, Allen received more than his share of rejection slips as has many other authors.  Yet, “just about everything I write does seem eventually to get published,” he said.  One of his tricks was variety.  He’s written everything from murder mysteries to books on comedy and religion.  Obstacles can’t be seen as stop signs but as detours; a gift that’s telling you maybe there’s a better way of doing things.  You’ll experience token naysayers who may try to discourage you from pursuing an idea; perhaps they have a hidden agenda — they didn’t think of it first —or try to disparage you or your idea in front of others. Let them deal with their deep-seated insecurities and low self-esteem.

You: Have a dream, believe in yourself, know what you want to do, and don’t let anything or anyone deter you from accomplishing it.  To paraphrase William Shakespeare, “Know thyself and to thine own self be true!”

“Don’t watch the clock. Keep going.” Sam Levinson

Live up to your expectations – not down to others’.

To think small never got anyone anywhere.  Remember, Michaelangelo didn’t paint the “Sistine Floor” and Orville and Wilbur Wright knew that they would find a way to make an airplane fly.  How many other stories have you heard about people who kept trying and trying until they succeeded—from proving the world wasn’t flat, to finding cures for malaria, chicken-pox, typhoid and polio; the peanut and its many uses, electricity, the light bulb,  telephone, automobile, space flight and the computer chip.  Examples are almost endless.

“Don’t lower your expectations to meet your performances. Raise your performance to meet your expectations.” Ralph Marston

Our brain is a computer too; instead of zeros and ones, it uses electrical impulses.  But to be effective any computer must be programmed with good data.  If you input garbage, you get garbage out (GIGO).  If you “program” your mind (computer) with positive thoughts and good information, positive things will happen.   Establishing high expectations (programming the computer) is an important first step.                  

Benchmark.  You’ve undoubtedly heard this many times before, but it bears repeating.  It’s when you identify precisely what you want to improve; determine who does it the best and then study them. The term “benchmark” is usually applied to organizations and it’s an important tool to help improve a specific business process.  The principle has far-reaching applications for personal improvement, as well.

To be really effective, (you’re really committed to change, right?) the benchmark principles must be applied sequentially; that is, inside – out; personally, then outside in, professionally.  Regardless of what it is you want to improve, to make the commitment to change personally is the first and most important step.  That’s why many 12 Step Programs begin with the person acknowledging publicly that they have a problem and…they can’t accomplish their goal(s) without Divine intervention. Without this important first step, true healing and meaningful change can’t begin.

If you are truly committed to becoming a better speaker, writer, leader, boss, husband, father — human being, the first step in your journey starts with the admission that you want to change. The second step is to determine who does what you want to improve the best and then study them.  Watch them, read about them, ask people for positive, constructive feedback, accept the feedback as a gift….and then use it!  If you want to change and improve bad enough, you’ll find a way.

We’re not here very long –the blink of an eye in cosmic time – and we can choose to make this web called “life” stronger by right actions and right words or weaker by negative thoughts and negative words.  We can build up or tear down; make those around us feel like heroes or goats.  The next time you’re shaving, brushing your teeth, or putting on your make-up, take a moment and look in the mirror.  Who do you really see?  What’s that “inner voice” say to you…and us?

Remember that life (and success) is a marathon, not a sprint.  Never give up.  And laugh often.

Humor will get you through just about anything.  Believe me!!

“A sense of humor…is needed armor. Joy in one’s heart is a sign that the person down deep has a pretty good grasp of life.” Hugh Sidey

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