One of the most powerful lessons I learned began one day in 1988 when I got a call to see the Deputy Director of a shipbuilding project management office. His opening statement summed up everything: “Hutch, the Captain is getting his ass chewed by SP over at Kings Bay.  I want you to find out what’s the problem.”

[The Navy, indeed the entire military, loves acronyms.  SP stands for Special Projects – the top priority program that created the Polaris sea launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and the submarines (SSBN) that launched them.  Today it’s called Strategic Systems Programs.  Old names die hard in the military.]

A short while later I was speaking with my counterpart at SP and got some facts about the problem. They were building a new submarine training facility Kings Bay, GA. The budget was over $500 million. There were 13 training simulators being developed – with 12 behind schedule.  And SP is looking for money to cut!
Next I spoke with all the people in NAVSEA (Naval Sea Systems Command) that had anything to do with the Kings Bay project to understand how things worked.  The resulting picture looked like this:
I then found out that why everything was behind schedule. And the reasons were mindbloggling:
  • The contractors were not meeting the scheduled delivery dates
  •  Because the Contract Officer Technical Representatives (COTR) weren’t providing answers quickly
  •  Because the contract officers (CO) weren’t awarding the contracts as scheduled
  • Because the project offices weren’t approving the technical specifications on scheduled
  • Because the NAVSEA project office wasn’t providing direction in a timely manner
  • Because the specific personnel in that office responsible for answering the questions were not transmitting their letter responses in a timely manner.
  • Because their superior had to sign every letter.
  • And the superior would not sign a letter if it had any typos or errors.

This superior at the root of the delays filled a position in his department called the “E3.” His job was to make sure that everything was coordinated and information was communicated to every department and command involved in the mammoth project. The goal was to keep everyone in the loop so the project could be finished on time and under budget. He did this by reviewing all letters, memos, and request for accuracy and then signing them before they could be sent.

When I first walked into the E3’s office, the one feature that dominated his desk was the inbox – and it had a two foot high pile of paper in it. 

He would go through the letter he was reviewing examining every aspect of the document.  Any error, however small – comma misplaced, typo, anything – would result in a red circle, a notation in the margin, and the letter being returned to the subordinate responsible for correction.  When it was corrected and returned to him, he would put it on top of his inbox and then proceed to work from the bottom of his inbox.  

One letter had been in his inbox for six months.

When I pointed out that the time spent processing letters for his signature was delaying everything at Kings Bay, his response that he couldn’t allow a letter with a mistake to leave his desk! 

Yes my friends – a half a billion dollar project was dangerously behind schedule because of a single, grammar-loving spell-checking bureaucrat with a red pen.

After two weeks of dealing with the E3, I returned to the Deputy and reported that he could solve the Kings Bay problem by “shooting the E3, giving signature authority to E3’s subordinates, and I don’t want E3’s job.”  

That sounded too drastic to the Deputy, so he told me to reexamine the situation.  

Two weeks later I reported again that the problem could be solved by “shooting E3, giving signature authority to E3’s subordinates, and I don’t want E3’s job.  

And one week after that I was called into the Captain’s office. His first words were, “Hutch, you’re E3.”  

Sigh. The only acceptable answer was, “Aye, Aye, Captain!”

As new E3, I made only one change to the procedure for signatures.  I told my two subordinates that if they had a letter that needed my signature and I was at my desk, that I would immediately review the letter and either sign it or return for correction.  If I wasn’t at my desk, they were to leave the letter on my chair and I would sign it or return for correction when I returned. The backlog of letters was eliminated within a month, I eventually returned $60 M to SP – enough money to build a new radio training room that the fleet had been begging for – and in 18 months everything was back in the green.  

My procedure change did cause me problems twice in the 18 months I was the E3:

  • One day I signed two letters on the same subject addressed to two different commands – and I was instructed that there should have been only one letter!
  • I accidentally signed a letter to the Pentagon should have been signed by my superior.

That’s it. In both cases, I expressed sincere sorrow at these (ahem) heinous crimes and promised they would never happen again.  And they didn’t. These were the kind of mistakes that the old E3 was so terrified of committing that he’d put a rigid process in place to prevent them. But the prevention was worse than the problem he was trying to avoid.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once wrote that the hardest thing he had to learn as a general was to sign a bad letter because the cost to correct it was too high. And that was a lesson I learned applies to more than just generals and admirals – it applies to each of us.  Today, no remembers the typos or content of letters signed by any old E3 in the Project Management Ship #396 office – but the fleet has a first class training facility at Kings Bay.  The letters were only a means to the end. The E3 was so focused on doing the details of his job that he lost sight of the purpose for his job in accomplishing the mission.   Focus on the result that’s critical to your goal – don’t fret the small stuff.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.