We are working with a fabulous client in the Oil & Gas industry to help them transform their culture into a High Reliability Organization based on the principles of the US Nuclear Navy. They are already doing great work but want to be even better and it’s exciting to be a part of it. If you know anything about the Oil & Gas industry you know that there are a lot of sub-contractors used to carry out the myriad of specialized operations. Getting all these sub-contractors to work together in harmony is hard enough, let alone trying to implement change in the culture. But, that is the task and that’s what “we are fixing to do” as they say in some parts of West Texas. Culture change is hard. What have we learned so far?

One thing we have learned reminds me of a time I went to sea on USS CHICAGO (SSN 721) around the year 2000.  The ship had been in Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard for a couple of years getting basically an overhaul – major pumps and valves rebuilt, new digital instrumentation and controls (one of the first in the Navy), fresh bearings in turbines, etc. I was the Chief Engineering Officer and we were headed out to sea to do “sea trials” where we would test all the propulsion plant equipment under controlled conditions to make sure all the gear worked as expected.

Now as the head of the engineering department with all the propulsion plant equipment to worry about and a young crew where most of them had not been to sea, I had enough on my plate to keep me busy. But, on this particular run, I was going to get to babysit the local Naval Reactors Representative who wanted to go to sea and watch. This NR Representative is the person placed at a shipyard to basically keep an eye on the nuclear fleet for the Naval Reactors Headquarters back in Washington DC. He worked and reported directly to the head of Naval Reactors, a 4 Star Admiral, who was Admiral Rickover’s successor. He was basically a spy and a very powerful one at that. If I screwed up, one phone call from him and I would be applying for a position as check out boy at the local McDonalds.

Turns out this NR Rep is a somewhat friendly guy (or at least he came across that way) and he had never been to sea much or seen the propulsion plant equipment operate.  We talked quite a bit as we spent most of our days and nights in the engine room watching operations. I found out he was a specialist in re-fueling Navy Nuclear reactors and had spent most of his career in that work which is very slow and very meticulous.  He had never seen the nuclear propulsion plant at power punching holes through the ocean.

Navy Nuclear Power Plants are designed to be very dynamic. You can raise power from 10% to 100% in a very short period of time in order to accelerate the 6900 tons of submarine steel through the water when a torpedo is launched at you.  Any of you that work in or have seen a commercial nuclear power plant tend to get excited about a 1% change in power over 10 minutes. I can’t describe the rate of power change for Naval Nuclear plants because it’s classified but let me tell you it would get your blood pressure going to watch. And that’s exactly what it did for my new friend the Naval Reactors Rep – he seemed in awe of these 22-year-old sailors operating this power plant with such finesse.

“Okay, Bob, get to the point.” – I can hear some of you saying that right now. “What does this have to do with Culture Change and West Texas oil fields?” I am getting there. I promise.

So, here I am with my new best friend, the Naval Reactors Rep, down deep in the sea off Pearl Harbor. We need to do a test where we go successively deeper down into the ocean until we get to “Test Depth” – our maximum safe design depth. At each depth we need to cycle open and closed some major valves that let sea water in to cool the propulsion plant most of the time, but need to go shut rapidly in case of flooding.

So we are down there near Test Depth and I am standing in the propulsion plant spaces near where these large sea water valves are locally operated. My best buddy (please note sarcasm) and I are chatting it up when the Engineering Officer of the Watch announces he is shutting the sea water flood control valves. Boom! They go shut. Awesome! Now we know we will be safe if we have flooding. But, wait, we need those valves open to let in the sea water for cooling the propulsion plant. Without the sea water cooling, the propulsion plant will have to be shut down and we will be deep in the ocean without propulsion which on the good to bad scale is, uh, pretty bad.

So, when the Engineering Officer of the Watch announced, “Open Sea Water Flood Control Valves” I am expecting the valves to open. But they don’t. The officer announces the valves will not open remotely and directs them to be opened locally. A flurry of sailors and a crusty old Chief Petty Officer scramble around to carry out this task. The petty officer trying to open the valve near me turns to the chief and says the valve won’t open. Here we are, deeper than 800 feet beneath the surface of the ocean, and we can’t get the sea water cooling valves open. We don’t have a lot of time. The loss of cooling water is causing problems and we will have to shut down the propulsion plant in a matter of minutes.

I turn to see the face of my new best buddy and I see a man with the most terrified look in his eyes I have ever seen. He says to me “Engineer Officer, what are you going to do?”

Fortunately, we had trained on this possibility and the crusty old Chief Petty Officer was ready. He manipulated a couple of small valves no more than an inch in diameter and then told the young sailor to try operating the big valves again. Swoosh, the large sea water valve opens. My new buddy’s face got some color back in it and I have to admit I walked away with a little smirk and twinkle in my eye having enjoyed the terror we had struck in this man after all the terror he had put me through in the months before we went to sea.

As you might have figured out, the sea water pressure on the outside of the submarine hull was pretty high at this depth and the pressure on the inside of the valve was basically zero. This large differential pressure applied across a large diameter valve can make it impossible to open even with several thousand pounds of hydraulic pressure. But, the Chief operated a couple of small diameter valves that even though they had the same pressure differential, the diameter was such that the force was easily overcome by a normal person. I guess that old physics equation got it right:  Pressure = Force/Area… The larger the surface area for a given pressure, the larger the force.

Back to my culture change project. Change is hard. Change is even harder when you try to do it across a large “area” of the company. Start small and lower the differential pressure. Look for the “small valves” that can be turned easily to lower the pressure for the larger valves. I guess that’s what John Kotter was talking about in his great book, Leading Change, when he recommends generating short term wins.

So if you are leading a culture change project, keep in mind to lower the Pressure or reduce the Area so that the Force does not get too large and prevent change. Sounds simple in theory. But it’s hard to execute in the real world. I wish you the best of luck and I just can’t help myself with this one…”May the Force be with you.”   Oh, that was pretty bad, huh?