By LT. TIM HILL, SC, USN, SUPPLY OFFICER PCU ZUMWALT (DDG 1000)
When I saw those words pop up on the detailers list of available jobs, I could not call fast enough to put my name in the hat. No hesitation. How often do we get a chance to do something truly unique? The answer for us in the supply community is fairly often, but this was and is a different beast. I went to a nondescript college, passed Officer Candidate School, and did a division officer tour on board the USS George Washington (CVN 73). That is a resume that I am proud of but nothing that really makes me stand out. Now a chance to go to a first-in-class ship that will be the most advanced warship the world has ever seen when it sails is the type of stuff you join the Navy for.
My primary goal every day that I show up to work at Pre-Commissioning Unit Zumwalt (DDG 1000) is to prove that I am no longer needed. When I tell anyone this, their thoughts immediately go to the negative. Perhaps they believe that I am obviously burnt out, lazy and no longer wanting to be in the Navy? In actuality, the opposite is true. Much like my supply community peers; I am always trying to be better (or faster and funnier as my CO likes to put it). Our jobs are to utilize and leverage the existing infrastructure to be as efficient as possible and to provide the best customer service while being accountable the whole time. This is no small task, and there comes a point where significant change is needed to make any real progress.
It is innovation that allows us to make the leap to the next level of performance. Although it can be a drastic change, it does not have to be overly disruptive. Innovation can be an evolutionary process just as much as it can be revolutionary. To use the future USS Zumwalt as an example, one such change is operating the supply department with far fewer personnel than a standard Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. Leveraging an on board supply department of only 14 personnel, we are tasked with providing the same outstanding and excellent service that the Supply Corps delivers to the Fleet. Now, eliminating personnel is not in itself an innovative process, however, it is a catalyst for changing the status quo. Too often in the Navy the answer to a problem is to throw more people at it. Take away that option, and the equation for supporting a 15,000-ton warship changes drastically. Now, we are taking a tough look at processes that are unnecessary, can be cut altogether, or changed to set this ship and future ships up for success. We don’t have all the answers yet. How do you run an effective stock control division with only two logistics specialists? How do you maintain high standards of cleanliness and serve a quality meal while running a galley with no food service attendants? These are just two examples of tough questions we are working our hardest to answer.
Innovation sometimes requires the rule book to be tweaked or rewritten. In the supply community, sometimes what is established gospel needs to be questioned. What is so great about our community is that we do not frown on this questioning mentality. CSSN Jones, you have an idea how to improve the layout of the serving line to allow Sailors to get their meals quicker? Let’s hear it. LS1 Martinez, you know an administrative change that can be made to the requisition process that you think will ultimately improve inventory accuracy? Let’s try it out.
The phrase, “this is how it’s always done” is the death knell of innovation. Sometimes, though, we will ultimately fail at change. As an example, we can make a process quicker but we might be sacrificing an unacceptable level of accountability, as well. Fear, however, cannot be a driver for the prevention of innovation. As long as the attempt was earnest and did not risk the mission, we do not punish failure. Failure is simply an opportunity to try again.
With the future DDG 1000 we are tasked with hitting the mythical “I believe” button that our software solution for off-ship distance support will be available and functional on time. There is a lot of risk here if the answer is that it will not meet the standards we require and be operational on time. Should it work, we may very well have created a capability for all other ships to drastically reduce the administrative burden from the Stock Control Division. It’s worth the attempt and it’s worth the risk of failure.
I admit I am jealous of the supply department that I will ultimately be leaving behind. As much as I can be a champion of innovation, I can also be its throttle. A fresh point of view is needed from time to time. We all must be able to reflect on ourselves, share what we learned and pass the torch when it is time. We get our end-of-tour awards, a pat on the back and a new set of orders that tell us to go somewhere else and start over. While that might seem anticlimactic, it’s an amazing opportunity that has to be embraced because innovation and improvement never ends. The apotheosis of innovation is the end of your job as it currently exists. There will always be a need for the clever inquisitive minds that make up the supply community. Will I prove that the future USS Zumwalt does not need a Supply Officer? Probably not, but that’s not going to stop me from trying.