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Lessons from the USS Nimitz #1: Keep it simple — It’s not about the technology

(This is part of a series of posts about my trip to the USS Nimitz with a group of bloggers.  Guy Kawasaki tells the story best. Click the photos for close-ups.)

One of my favorite lessons from the USS Nimitz was KEEP IT SIMPLE.

The entire flight deck is organized by a simple table-top diagram called the Ouija Board. It looks like this:

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This is an incredibly important job. His job is to make sure every plane is in the right place, fueled, and ready to take off, while making sure the runway is clear, and no one gets run over, during war, at sea.  Imagine trying to park 60 semi-trailers on a 4-way freeway intersection, during a pre-school soccer game, in a thunderstorm, during a Harley rally, and never block traffic.  Except they’re airplanes, on a boat, full of bombs.

Look closely and you’ll see that he uses metal models, washers, bolts, and thumbtacks. (photo by Robert Scoble)

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Why?  Because it never breaks.

He told us he was offered a multi-million-dollar touch-screen computer system to replace it.  His answer? (paraphrased): How do I fix it in the Persian Gulf under attack, or during a typhoon?  I’ve got everything I need for $10 from Home Depot.  And a spare set in a tackle-box under my desk.

Another example: The location of every bomb on the ship is tracked, in real time, on these whiteboards (photo by Guy Kawasaki).  Thousand of bombs have to move across dozens of decks and find the plane to get loaded.  You only have minutes to get it right.

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And the biggest one of all:  All of the action on the flight deck is controlled by hand signals, in a coordinated series of motions. Why? 1. It’s insanely loud and no one could hear you on the radio.  2. You don’t want to use radios to tell enemies that you are about to launch an attack.  3. Hand signals always work.  Watch this clip to see how it works:

We have had a lot of success implementing this in our office. It’s hardly a comparable environment, but simplicity has improved office-wide clarity and communications.  We’re replaced a lot of our software-based project management systems with these:
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We spend a lot less time managing the software, and everyone can look at the wall to know what is going on. You walk down the hall and instantly know the score.

Lesson:  Technology isn’t the answer to everything.  Simple solutions often work better.

Related posts from my fellow travelers:

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Comments

  1. Merrill Richmond June 15, 2009 at 7:26 am #

    Amen. More than once we’ve fedex’d a disc (or drive) at the end of the day rather than spend time trying to figure out the FTP protocols and procedures. Better is the enemy of good.

  2. Brian Dunbar June 15, 2009 at 1:18 pm #

    1. It’s insanely loud and no one could hear you on the radio.
    I learned this the hard way in the grunts. We had an excellent plan to defend X at Marine Barracks. It worked flawlessly when we executed, using radio to coordinate the small teams that were out of visual sight of each other in thick brush.
    Then we added the helo that – in the real world – would be there. Hovering 60 feet overhead.
    Goodbye, radio. Hello smoke grenades, messengers and rock flinging to get people’s attention.
    Aircraft don’t make noise – they generate solid walls of sound.
    Sounds like you had a great time with the Navy – glad they treated you right.

  3. Jenny, Bloggess June 15, 2009 at 3:40 pm #

    You are so much smarter than me it’s kind of embarrassing.