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Innovation and safety in high-risk organizations

The construction or recertification of a nuclear power plant often draws considerable attention from activists concerned about safety. However, nuclear powered US Navy (USN) ships routinely dock in the most heavily populated areas without creating any controversy at all. How has the USN managed to maintain such an impressive safety record?

The USN is not alone, many organizations, such as nuclear public utilities, confront the need to maintain perfect reliability or face catastrophe. However, this compelling need to be reliable does not insulate them from the need to innovate and change.  Given the high stakes and the risks that changes in one part of an organization’s system will have consequences for others, how can such organizations make better decisions regarding innovation? The experience of the USN is apt here as well.

Given that they have at their core a nuclear reactor, navy submarines are clearly high-risk organizations that need to innovate yet must maintain 100% reliability.  Shaped by the disastrous loss of the USS Thresher in 1963 the U.S. Navy (USN) adopted a very cautious approach dominated by safety considerations. In contrast, the Soviet Navy, mindful of its inferior naval position relative to the United States and her allies, adopted a much more aggressive approach focused on pushing the limits of what its submarines could do.

Decision-making in both organizations was complex and very different. It was a complex interaction among individuals confronting a central problem (their opponents’ capabilities) with a wide range of solutions. In addition, the solution was arrived at through a negotiated political process in response to another party that was, ironically, never directly addressed, i.e. the submarines never fought the opponent.

Perhaps ironically, given its government’s reputation for rigidity, it was the Soviet Navy that was far more entrepreneurial and innovative. The Soviets often decided to develop multiple types of different attack submarines – submarines armed with scores of guided missiles to attack U.S. carrier battle groups, referred to as SSGNs, and smaller submarines designed to attack other submarines. In contrast the USN adopted a much more conservative approach, choosing to modify its designs slightly such as by adding vertical launch tubes to its Los Angeles class submarines. It helped the USN that it needed its submarines to mostly do one thing – attack enemy submarines – while the Soviets needed their submarines to both attack submarines and USN carrier groups.

The Hunt for Red October, Soviet Submarine, by Kevin Labianco. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 via Flickr.
The Hunt for Red October, Soviet Submarine – 1970s, by Kevin Labianco. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 via Flickr.

As a result of their innovation, aided by utilizing design bureaus, something that does not exist in the U.S. military-industry complex, the Soviets made great strides in closing the performance gaps with the USN. Their Alfa class submarines were very fast and deep diving. Their final class of submarine before the disintegration of the Soviet Union – the Akula class – was largely a match for the Los Angeles class boats of the USN. However, they did so at a high price.

Soviet submarines suffered from many accidents, including ones involving their nuclear reactor. Both their SSGNs, designed to attack USN carrier groups, as well as their attack submarines, had many problems. After 1963 the Soviets had at least 15 major accidents that resulted in a total loss of the boat or major damage to its nuclear reactor. One submarine, the K429 actually sunk twice. The innovative Alfas, immortalized in The Hunt for Red October, were so trouble-prone that they were all decommissioned in 1990 save for one that had its innovative reactor replaced with a conventional one. In contrast, the USN had no accidents, though one submarine, the USS Scorpion, was lost in 1968 to unknown causes.

Why were the USN submarines so much more reliable? There were four basic reasons. First, the U.S. system allowed for much more open communication among the relevant actors. This allowed for easier mutual adjustment between the complex yet tightly integrated systems. Second, the U.S. system diffused power much more than in the Soviet political system. As a result, the U.S. pursued less radical innovations. Third, in the U.S. system decision makers often worked with more than one group – for example a U.S. admiral not only worked within the Navy, but also interacted with the shipyards and with Congress. Finally, Admiral Rickover was a strong safety advocate who instilled a strong safety culture that has endured to this day.

In short, share information, share power, make sure you know what you are doing and have someone powerful who is an advocate for safety. Like so much in management it sounds like common sense if you explain it well, but in reality it is very hard to do, as the Soviets discovered.

Feature image credit: Submarine, by subadei. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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