Reflecting on a Large Scale

A few months ago I had the opportunity to tour the USS Ronald Reagan while it was in port in Singapore. The RR is one of the largest and most advanced aircraft carriers in the world. This is a truly massive ship, with the flight deck covering 4.5 square acres. This ship itself actually has a US postal code.RR1

Beyond just the sheer size, the complexity of this ship is mind boggling. Expansive hallways with exposed pipes in the walls and ceilings go in all directions. There is a utilitarian reason for everything to be there and virtually everything is standardized (and painted gray).

There is very little of the Top Gun glamour of fighter jet pilots. The coordination and logistics to keep this ship running, on time and on task are especially impressive when you really think about the complexity. Five thousand sailors equals a lot of food, laundry and waste to be dealt with.

Stowed or in varying states of being ready to fly, each fighter plane has a dedicated pilot and often a dedicated group of mechanics taking care of a handful of planes. Hundreds of mechanics each went to different specialized technical schools in different parts of the world to learn the specifics of his/her area. Now they are all in one place, working together as part of a greater unit.

Danger is a major factor, as there is massive mechanical power all over the place. From the catapults to launch the planes to the arresting cables used to land the planes, a person could easily be hurt or killed. There are large elevators powerful enough to move multi-ton planes and helicopters from the lower hold to the flight deck in a mere 10 seconds. Not to mention the nuclear reactor that powers the ship itself. This class of ship can go more than 20 years without “refueling.”

Potential fatalities are everywhere. Getting too close to a jet intake, helicopter blades or a turboprop propeller, or even the edge of the flight deck, compound the danger even more. Consequently, safety is the primary focus. Without a safety focus, functions risk being interrupted, making the ship less effective. Rules and regulations are very tight. For example, the personnel on the flight deck must wear lifejackets that have a whistle and shark repellant, that inflate and illuminate automatically when it comes into contact with salt water.

The sailors are constantly training and re-training to handle everything from on-board fires to inbound hostile ships or aircraft. Be it surgical airstrikes or rescue missions, all potential scenarios are covered so that in any event, the crew members each do their pre-assigned, well-practiced part. There is no improvisation or make-it-up-as-you-go.

So, this all begs a couple of questions…

Is it possible to run your IT shop as such an incredibly structured, high functioning, ready-for-anything organization? Is this the right way to manage a technology group?

Such parallels are commonly drawn, be it an aircraft carrier, an automobile or a factory, any complex organization or object with lots of moving parts and interdependencies will do. Your own “right” answer depends on your perspective, experience and management philosophy. There are generally three answer groupings.

1. Absolutely. This is what IT groups everywhere should strive for.

2. Irrelevant. Such comparisons are overly idealistic and inherently flawed.

3. Good for perspective. Some concepts should be used and applied to illustrate possibilities and how to approach things differently.


Subjectivity is a bigger factor than most will admit, so over a the next three weblogs, I’ll channel three different managerial personalities and explain why each particular answer is correct and the other two are wrong.

Special Notes:
1. Apologies if any of the Navy terminology or technicalities are incorrect.
2. Thanks to the crew of the USS Ronald Reagan for being excellent hosts and putting themselves on the line in service of their country.