March 10, 2016 | Mark Paradies

Normalization of Excellence – The Rickover Legacy – Technical Competency

No Simple Answer

If you read last week’s article about stopping the normalization of deviation with the normalization of excellence, you are ready to start learning to apply Rickover’s philosophies of excellence to achieve amazing performance.

In his testimony to Congress, he starts out explaining the nuclear program and the success that has been achieved to that point. He then explains that there is no simple formula to achieve this success. Rather, what we now recognize as a management system is an “integrated whole of many factors.” He emphasizes that these factors cannot be used individually, but, rather, must all be used together. He says, “Each element depends on all the other elements.”

So before I start explaining the individual elements, heed Rickover’s advice:

“The problems you face cannot be solved
by specifying compliance with one
or two simple procedures.
Reactor safety requires adherence to
a total concept wherein all elements
are recognized as important and
each is constantly reinforced.” 

 If you aren’t in the nuclear industry, you can replace the words “reactor safety” with “process safety” or maybe even “patient safety” to apply Rickover’s philosophies to your industry.

First Three Elements of Rickover’s Philosophies

The first three elements that Rickover explains are:

  • Technical Competence
  • Responsibility
  • Facing the Facts

This really is the core of Rickover’s management philosophy and I will explain each in detail.

Technical Competency

Rickover believed that to manage a high-risk enterprise (nuclear power plant, refinery, offshore drilling platform, or other high-risk ventures) you have to fundamentally understand the technical aspects of the job. This was NOT an overview of how things worked. It was a detailed understanding of the science, chemistry, physics, and engineering behind the processes.

The requirement for technical knowledge didn’t stop with the operations manager or plant manager. The technical knowledge requirement went all the way up to the CEO/President level. The higher on the org chart you were – the better your technical knowledge was supposed to be.

Rickover said:

“At Naval Reactors, I take individuals who
are good engineers and make them into managers.
They do not manage by gimmicks but rather
by knowledge, logic, common sense, and hard work.” 

Selection & Rickover’s Interviews

All the managers (officers) in the Naval Nuclear Power Program went through a rigorous screening process. First, they were selected from the top portions of good engineering programs from universities across the U.S. Non-engineer majors were also considered if they had excellent grades in physics, calculus, and chemistry. All people selected then went to Naval Reactors headquarters where they took a technical test to evaluate their technical abilities. Tough engineering, math, chemistry, and physics questions were asked on a non-multiple choice test where the work to achieve the answer had to be shown.

The next day the candidates were put through several technical interviews by high level Department Heads at Naval Reactors.  The candidates were asked to solve tough real-life scenarios and apply their technical skills to real-world problems.

Finally, each candidate had the now famous Admiral Rickover interview. Rickover reviewed the candidates academic performance, test results, and interview performance and then asked some of his famous style of questions to evaluate how the candidate reacted under pressure.

Rickover Quote: Interviews

My test and interviews went well enough until my Rickover interview. Before the interview, you sat in a room listening to a continuous lecture on what you should and should not do when in the presence of “The Admiral.” You were informed that you would be accompanied into the room by a senior officer who would sit directly behind you. That you should not address The Admiral until he spoke to you (he was a busy man who didn’t need to be interrupted). That you should take your seat in the chair in front of his desk and wait for him to address you. That when he asked you questions, you should answer directly and that “No excuse sir!” was not an answer. If he asked you a question, he wanted to know the answer … not an excuse. That a direct answer was “Yes Sir! or No Sir!” If he asked you if you were married, “Yes Sir” would be a good answer.

Before too long, my name was called, and I departed with my escort for The Admiral’s office. When I entered his office, I was shocked. Spartan would be a generous description of the accommodations. Old furniture was probably WWII surplus. Rickover’s desk was piled full of neatly stacked folders full of paper, and he was working on something with his head down.

He was a tiny, wiry-looking old man (see below). He was probably in his late seventies, and I was in my senior year of college, so too me he looked ancient.


There was an old-looking wooden chair directly in from of his desk. I sat down and immediately noticed that one of the legs was shorter than the rest. The chair naturally tipped back and forth. You could either lean forward and have the chair tilt forward or lean back and have the chair lean back. I leaned back, trying to maintain a straight posture.

I watched Rickover as he worked. He was busy reviewing paperwork and occasionally signing something as he moved files from one stack to another. Finally, he stopped and took a file from a different stack, and started looking at it. I thought, “That’s my file.”

A minute or two later, he looked up at me and said.

“Midshipman Paradies, I see here you got a lot of Cs
in your studies at the University of Illinois,
can you tell me why you did so poorly?”

My first thought was … “I’m sure glad he didn’t ask me about that D or E.” I certainly didn’t want to mention drinking beer and playing football and basketball, so I responded:

Well, Admiral, Electrical Engineering at
The University of Illinois is a difficult curriculum
and that’s all the better I could do.

I didn’t know that this was one of his standard questions and that he was looking for you to make excuses. I also didn’t know that Rickover had an MS in Electrical Engineering and that he thought it was a tough curriculum.

He said, “OK.”

He closed the file and looked me in the eyes, and asked:

“Midshipman Paradies, are you married?”

That was one of the questions that they warned us to answer directly. I said, “No Sir.”

He asked, “Are you engaged?”  I said, “Yes Sir.”

He continued to look me directly in the eyes (a very penetrating stare) and asked:

 “Has your fiancé ever told you
that you are good looking?”

That question caught me totally off guard. Here is this shrunken, bent-over old admiral asking me about being good looking … where was he going with this?

I answered, “Yes Sir.”

He asked,

 “What do you think she meant?”

 I was at a total loss. What did she mean? Who knows. I certainly didn’t want to say. I said,

Well, I guess, Admiral that
she liked the way I looked

He said, “No, Midshipman Paradies, you are wrong.”

I then gave my best answer of the day. I said,

Yes Sir.”

He said,

What she meant was that she wanted to marry you.
When you go back home, will you ask your fiancé what she meant
and send me a letter and tell me what she says

I said, “Yes Sir.”

He said, “Get out of my office,” and pointed toward the door.

That was the end of my interview. I had passed. And I did go back and ask my fiancé what she meant and wrote the Admiral and told him what she said.

You might think that writing the letter wasn’t important. But it was. The Admiral’s staff kept track of every letter that he was owed. When I returned to Naval Reactors Headquarters four years later for my Engineers Exam, the woman who checked me in asked,

Do you have any outstanding correspondence with the Admiral?

I said, “No.” She looked in a folder and said, “That’s correct; you sent the letter that you owed the Admiral in 1978.”

My Admiral Rickover interview was rather straightforward compared to the stories I’ve heard about other Midshipmen. Perhaps the favorite one I heard was from a friend of mine we’ll call Midshipman F.

Midshipman F was a History major. He had taken calculus, chemistry, physics, and other technical subjects and had done quite well. Rickover asked him if he wanted to be in the Naval Nuclear Program, why didn’t he get a technical degree. He responded that to understand the world, history was important.

Rickover then started to tell him that he had wasted his time with history classes. Rickover bet that Midshipman F didn’t know anything about history and asked him questions about history (which were “current events” to Rickover). After listening to Midshipman F answer some history questions, Rickover told him that he was “stupid” and didn’t know anything about history, and to go stand in his closet.

Midshipman F went over to the closet and opened the door, but there was already someone in the closet who looked like a senior officer. He stepped in, shut the door, and they both stood there in the dark and didn’t say a word.

After what Midshipman F said seemed like forever, his escort came over and opened the door and told Midshipman F that The Admiral would like to talk to him again. They went back to arguing over history and Midshipman F was kicked out of the Admiral’s Office twice to sit in the “penalty box” (another very small room with a chair where you would be sent when The Admiral wanted to make you cool your heels). Midshipman F never gave up his argument about the importance of History and was eventually allowed into The Admiral’s program.

But whenever F would tell the story, he ended it with:

I’ve always wondered whatever happened
to the other guy who was in the closet.

Initial Training

When you were accepted into the Nuclear Navy, you had to complete a year of extremely difficult technical training before you reported to your first ship. The competition was tough. In the 100 people in my class, many had Master’s Degrees in Engineering. One guy had a “photographic memory.” He could remember everything that was written on the board and everything the instructor said verbatim. Not only could he do that, but he did it while doing the homework from the previous lecture. I had the third lowest GPA of anyone in the class and was immediately assigned to “remedial study.”

We had 7 hours of class a day with an hour off for lunch. I used my lunch time to study and usually put in an additional 5 hours each night and another 12 hours on the weekend. I had to keep study logs with how I applied my time in 5-minute intervals. I did well, graduating in the top 10 students in the class. Others did less well … 10 students failed out in the first six months. After six months, you were assigned to a nuclear prototype plant (an actual naval reactor that had been built ashore to test the design) and went through advanced classes and qualifications to be an engineering officer of the watch (EOOW). For this qualification, you worked shift work with mandatory 12-hour days of watch standing, studying, and “check-outs” from qualified personnel. Again, I did well and was the second officer to qualify in my class at the prototype five weeks before the end of the six-month tour. One individual failed our prototype training (failed to qualify in the six-month time span).

Why is it important to know about this pre-ship education? Because it gives someone who did not go through the program an idea of the technical knowledge that Rickover expected before anyone was allowed to go to sea and re-qualify to run one of “his” reactors.

And this was just the start of Technical Competency.

Continuous Training and Skills Assessment

Once at sea, there were never-ending qualifications, continuing training, drills, and annual “ORSE Board” inspection with level of knowledge exams, interviews, and crew drills.

An officer had to pass another level of Technical Competency called the “Engineer’s Exam.” To prepare for this exam, the officer was supposed to study in his “spare time” and learn everything there was to know about the design and technical specifications of the reactor plant and systems on his ship and general naval reactors design criteria and engineering calculations. Any topic from the start of Nuclear Power School to current operating problems to any potential equipment failure on his ship was fair game for the 8-hour test (with 30 minutes off for lunch) and three technical interviews. You couldn’t get less than a 3.0 score (of 4.0 total) on any section of the exam and couldn’t get less than a 3.2 of 4.0 total on the test. Also, a bad answer to any question could cause you to fail. All the questions were essays or engineering calculations. And you had to write fast to complete the exam. During the interview portion of the exam on the next day, any of the interviewers could flunk you if they didn’t like the answers to their questions. Once again, at the end of the process, you had an interview with The Admiral. If you passed, you were then allowed to be assigned as the Engineering Officer for one of Rickover’s ships. People did fail. They were given one more chance to go back, study, and come back in six months to try again. If they failed again, their career in the Nuclear Navy was over. My guess is that the failure rate wasn’t too high, probably around 2%.

Finally, before you were allowed to become a Commanding Officer on one of Rickover’s ships, you had to qualify for command at sea and then go through “Charm School.” Charm School was an assignment to Rickover’s staff where you studied advanced topics and went through a series of brutal interviews with Rickover and his staff members. It was probably someone going through Charm School who was standing in Rickover’s closet when Midshipman F opened the door as part of his Rickover interview.

Successfully completing Charm School (in some number of months to a year) got you your ticket to your very own “boat” (submarine) or nuclear-powered surface ship as the Commanding Officer. Again, there were people who did not get Rickover’s blessing to command a nuclear-powered ship. And despite over a decade of service, there was no appeal. If you didn’t have what it takes … you were out.

Most officers also managed to get an advanced degree during their careers. Usually, a Master’s Degree in Engineering or maybe a Ph.D. in Physics.

That’s Technical Competency – Read On…

After my time in the Nuclear Navy, I worked at Du Pont, and then, as a consultant. I’ve visited many refineries, chemical plants, and oil companies. The only thing that comes close to the technical competency required in the Nuclear Navy is the qualification in the commercial nuclear industry and the training program for astronauts at NASA. However, neither program has advanced technical training requirements for senior-level executives.

Therefore, meeting Rickover’s Technical Competency requirement requires a change in the technical training of senior managers.

Read Part 4:  Normalization of Excellence – the Rickover Legacy – Responsibility

Operational Excellence, Process Safety
Show Comments

2 Replies to “Normalization of Excellence – The Rickover Legacy – Technical Competency”

  • Brian Newell says:

    I interviewed with The Admiral in 1975. Accepted.
    I also qualified Engineer Officer. He did not interview me then but I passed him in the passageway and he addressed me by name! I was impressed.
    Worked for E.I. DuPont de Nemours then Westinghouse Savannah River Company in 1988-90. I remember you well!

    • Mark Paradies says:

      I thought the Admiral interviewed every Engineer Exam candidate. Perhaps it was just before his forced retirement. I interviewed with Admiral McKee after my exam and interviews with staff. Very uneventful.

      The SRP/SRS – DuPont/Westinghouse transition was very ??? I don’t exactly know how to describe it. I had 9 different bosses in 6 months. Three at one time for a short period. I don’t count the one that was only my boss for a day.

      What was your job?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *