Jun 222011
 

Long, black and never comin' back?

In 1990, the USS Jack (SSN-605) pulled into Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (PNSY) in Kittery, Maine, to begin defueling operations in preparation for decommissioning.

I was one of the senior Engineering Laboratory Technicians on board. I was responsible for reactor and steam plant chemistry and radiological controls.

Shortly after we pulled into dry dock the senior guys left for other assignments (billets) and I found myself the Leading ELT.

We had 35 years of nuclear materials on board – from things like tools and instruments we used in our work to bagged-and-tagged material that we couldn’t just throw in a garbage bin somewhere.

And we had to get it off the ship… oh, in addition to the fuel cells that were getting removed by people much more experienced than I.

Transporting radioactive material (called RAM) is a politically sensitive process, as it changes hands many times.

There are a lot of signatures, and if the material gets from point A to point B without all the right signatures, the officials in the government write up what’s called an “incident report” and there will be even more explaining, report filing and signatures… and potential career-changing decisions.

A simplified "RAM" tag

I had no idea how I was going to do my job. I only know I needed as much help as I could find.

So I started making lists of the people and their roles in the RAM handling areas of PNSY… and their phone numbers.

I knew I didn’t know enough, and I knew I had a serious responsibility. So I started asking them about their processes, their work, and how all of this defueling was supposed to come together.

I built a relationship with them, and I helped them when they needed anything related to the ship.

I was concerned about nagging them too much, but they seemed pretty cool about it. So when the time came to move the material off the ship, I made as many phone calls as I could think of.

The last step is cutting out the reactor compartment and welding everything back in place

It turns out, it was one of the fastest transfers to-date, or so I was told. And all without an incident of losing “tag-control” of the material. Before anyone knew it, all the RAM was off the ship and we could focus totally on the defueling.

I ended up being awarded “Sailor of the Quarter”, I received a letter of commendation from the Commander of Submarine Group Two, and two months later I was the guy who lowered the colors for the last time over the USS Jack… not something a nuke chemist often gets to do.

So what does this have to do with leadership, strategy, technology or writing software?

For one thing, it was the first time in my life I can remember how powerful it was to build good relationships with people and then just pick up the phone when I needed help.

The connections I make today through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and this blog remind me of that phone list (ahem, 20 years ago)… except that the people today who want to be available to help and be helped announce themselves.

We gather in areas of similar interest, whether commenting on a blog or listening to certain hashtags on Twitter. We build identity with each other and we help. It’s very cool, and having an uncommon interpretation of its meaning will go a long way.

Do you have a network to whom you can reach quickly for help?

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