Last week I found myself on the flight deck of the USS Midway, a de-commissioned aircraft carrier that is now docked in San Diego and open to the public. As I was walking the flight deck, enjoying the sort of weather that makes people envious of San Diego, I happened upon one of the ongoing presentations being given on board by Navy veterans providing insights into different aspects of the ship. The specific presentation I watched was provided by this guy, who was giving a talk on landing a plane on a carrier deck (aka “recovery”). His only props were the model plane he is holding in the picture and the photo behind him.
One of the things that struck me was the unrelenting measurement that carrier pilots are subject to, and how the language of the military is different than the language of today’s civilian world.
After a pilot lands on a carrier deck, he is given a score on a four point scale by an officer on the ship, with four being the best possible score. If a pilot, during approach, starts in the wrong spot but quickly adjusts, then guides the plane in perfectly and puts the wheels down in the perfect spot, he would be graded at a 3. It is only the pilot that approaches on a perfect angle, descends at a perfect speed, and hits a landing area in the perfect spot that is given the perfect score of 4, and in the Navy, the description associated with that perfect score is “ok”.
In a world of grade inflation and the “we’re all winners” zeitgeist, there’s something comforting about a world where meeting expectations is described as “ok”.
In the world of carrier pilots, since every landing is measured, every pilot is constantly carrying their running average. According to the presenter, a normal average for a pilot is in the 3.3 range, and “if you’re carrying a 2.7 for a while the good news is you’ll be the first one to get home to see your family, because you won’t be flying navy aircraft anymore”.
All of this serves as a reminder of a few things that are applicable to most businesses…
- If you want to improve something, measure it.
- Excellence is a function of high standards. Although the example above concerns external standards imposed by the Navy, each pilot earned the right to sit in the cockpit based upon their own internal standards.
- There is something motivating about conforming to high internal standard – for instance completion of an ambitious “to do” list at the beginning of the day – and upon successful completion simply give yourself a nod and quietly say “ok”. Give it a try sometime.