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Trust But Verify January 29, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: ,

I once worked in a company where the President had, in a former life, been a nuclear submarine commander. Needless to say, he had many fascinating stories. He also had an uncanny knack for uncovering the one thing that you had missed, or forgotten, or simply done wrong. When there was some sort of operational failure, he would methodically dig and dig until he uncovered the root cause. He then expected you to fix it, and then to implement some plan that would prevent the problem from ever happening again. Invariably, as he went about one of these rock-turning expeditions, he would repeat that fundamental rule: “You get what you inspect, not what you expect.”

A simple rule. Don’t assume that things are done correctly. Confirm, with your own eyes, that they really are right. Ask pointed questions. Look at logs. Pull on wires. Click things that aren’t supposed to be clicked. Make sure it really works, the way you understand it to work.

This makes a lot of sense when you are living in a submarine. One mistake in that environment, and hundreds of men die. Make a big mistake in a nuclear submarine and millions of people could die.

Working for someone with this philosophy can be frustrating. When my boss would come digging into my world, I would cringe and wait for the inevitable “aha!” moment. Over time I realized that the best way to avoid such moments was to adopt a similar attitude and find the problems before he did. I started doing my own inspecting, finding and fixing things before they became visible problems. Our operational metrics really improved. And the lesson had been passed on to another generation.

Obviously, you cannot inspect everything, all the time. But everything can be inspected, at some point, by someone. As a leader, you need to engage in enough inspection to ensure that your people, and their people, will be inspecting everything else. As they inspect more, and you come to trust their inspection, you’ll find yourself inspecting less. Much to their relief, I might add. But don’t ever stop inspecting entirely. The possibility of inspection is often enough to ensure appropriate attention to detail.

Unlike a nuclear submarine commander, most of us do not operate in a world where lives hang in the balance based on our operational decisions. But businesses do, and with them come customers, and employees, and shareholders, all relying on a small group of operations people to get it right, every time. Are you willing to bet your job on what you expect, or are you going to take the time to inspect your world?

I expect you will.


1. prissyperfection - March 15, 2009

I like your notion that you can’t inspect everything, all the time. There is a fine distinction between inspecting to get what you expect and making a nuisance of yourself by hovering anxiously, making everyone else anxious in the process.
I think the practice of inspecting tends to decrease as the level of trust in a person’s capability and attitude increases.
I enjoyed reading your post! Must have been quite an experience to work with someone with such an interesting background 🙂

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