Lessons from ‘It’s Your Ship’

Therese Dunphy

April 3, 2018

If you didn’t attend the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association’s (NSSGA) annual convention, you missed out on a wonderful keynote address by Captain Michael Abrashoff, author of the best-selling book, “It’s Your Ship.” He drew some very interesting parallels between managing a naval ship and managing an aggregates operation.

When Abrashoff took command of the USS Benfold, it had one of the highest accident records in the Navy, some of the worst performance metrics, and a retention rate of just 8 percent. During his first 12 hours as the ship’s captain, one sailor received a DUI and another new sailor was beaten and hospitalized on the first after completing his training. Abrashoff had his work cut out for him.

He quickly went about changing the ship’s culture. Abrashoff worked with staff to design an onboarding process to get new sailors off to a good start by assigning a high-performing sailor in their division as a mentor. All new recruits also had a one-on-one meeting with him. During that meeting, he explained that safety was a top priority. If they ever felt they were being asked to perform an unsafe task, they could bypass the chain of command and come straight to him without fear of repercussions. It paid off. Two years later, the ship came in second for the Navy’s safety award.

Abrashoff said that his goal was to create a culture where he would be proud for his own family members to be part of the crew. He focused on his own communication with sailors to ensure that he explained why he was making certain changes and how the changes would impact the crew’s safety.

“We tried to give them the best training we could, and we listened to them,” he added. In fact, Abrashoff interviewed every sailor on the ship and got to know each of them. He turned military hierarchy upside down, telling them that if they knew how to improve something — even incrementally — he wanted to hear their idea. He allowed sailors to challenge the status quo by doing things such as swapping out metal fasteners with stainless steel to streamline maintenance. It allowed the ship to extend painting intervals from two months to 10 months.

“What would you do? It’s your ship,” Abrashoff often asked his sailors. The philosophy paid off. At the end of his tenure, the ship had a nearly 100-percent re-enlistment rate, and some of the changes made on the USS Benfold were adopted throughout the Navy.

If safety in the workplace, employee retention, and improved performance are among the goals of your operation, implement a few of these lessons from the sea. Like Abrashoff, consider how to make your site one where you’d be happy to have your own children report for duty.

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