Observations from Four 3M Inspections in 2011


The purpose of this post is to provide some observations for junior officers that they might be able to apply to their involvement in the Maintenance and Material Management (3M) System and other important programs. I participated in four 3M Inspections (3MIs) in 2011 during my last year in the Navy and saw similar problems from ship to ship (failure to train the Sailors doing the maintenance, failure to spot check the maintenance effectively, significant weaknesses in work isolation practices, and weaknesses in electrical safety practices). I also participated in an assessment of CVN 3M programs and how they are supported and evaluated by the type commanders and noted some key differences in how the three type commanders support the program (only one does historical spot checks during inspections that involve re-performing most of the maintenance).


Prior to my arrival at the type commander staff in November 2010, the 3M team was moved from N7 (Training and Readiness) to N43 because it was felt that their mission, support and assessment of the ship's preventative maintenance program, matched the material readiness mission of N43 (Ship Materiel) and could be better integrated with the other material readiness programs of N43. My first concern with the 3M team was that they focus on actual performance of the maintenance and not fail spot checks for minor administrative and performance errors. Unfortunately, there are widely held beliefs in the fleet that the 3M inspectors fail spot checks for trivial errors (failure to use a government pen to record data, failing to hold a ladder handrail, or performing some minor steps of the maintenance out of order). I verified that not a single spot check failed for one of these spurious reasons while I accompanied the team and it did not require my personal intervention for this to be the case. This was the way the 3M team was already functioning.

There are basically two types of spot checks, monitored maintenance (the inspector actually watches the M/P perform the entire maintenance check in real time, providing on the spot training) and historical spot checks (requiring the M/P to gather all his tools, isolate the system, and actual re-perform key parts of the maintenance). Some ships have been known to create a third form of spot check, a "simulated" spot check (merely a discussion of what the M/P was thought to have done). It is so hard to collect useful data from "simulated" spot checks for program evaluation that I don't really consider this a valid way to assess the 3M program.

When I accompanied the 3M team on inspections, I spent most of my time with the inspectors as they did spot checks so I could gather first-hand information about inspector approach and Sailor performance. I could also use these observation opportunities to provide mentoring to and get mentoring from individual inspectors.

Shipboard 3M Program Weaknesses

I don't claim that these observations are necessarily profound or the only weaknesses that exist. They appear to me to be the most important, however. I list them here not to disparage anyone, but to help improve the maintenance that is being done on our ships. I suspect these issues apply throughout the Navy even though I collected them on only one type of ship.

  • While many of the Maintenance Requirement Cards (MRCs) are overly complex and cumbersome and need to be streamlined, MRC complexity is not the driving force for the vast majority of the spot check failures.
  • There are too many E5s assigned as Work Center Supervisors (WCSs) when there are more experienced and more knowledgeable E6s readily available. This does not mean that all E6s are better than all E5s at being WCSs, but the law of averages should tell you that more experience is better when it comes to being WCS and making sure M/P are trained to conduct their maintenance.
  • Sailors are not being trained to perform the maintenance they are assigned. Time and again, the failures I witnessed stemmed from poor understanding of the goals the maintenance was designed to accomplish and how to use the tools to achieve the goals. While many ships seem to think that they can pass the inspections by spot checking their Maintenance Personnel (M/P) to death, their leadership time would be much better spent making sure the  M/P know how to actually do their maintenance. This seems obvious, but based on my experience, it is not.
  • Many ships have ineffective spot check programs. They either don't evaluate the M/P knowledge in depth or the officers and chiefs doing the spot checks don't understand the maintenance themselves well enough to effectively judge whether it is being done correctly.
  • Because the 3M inspectors require all materials to be present and systems to be actually isolated, they are able to identify significant weaknesses in work isolation and electrical safety practices. The weaknesses are particularly acute among ratings that regularly work in the vicinity of energized equipment. Ships do not need to wait until a 3M inspection to assess and reinforce disciplined practices for these programs.

Differences Between Type Commanders

Only one type commander does historical spot checks as described above that actually require system isolation and re-performance of parts of the maintenance. It can certainly be argued that it takes a lot of time and a bigger 3M team to evaluate a ship's 3M program this way, my experience and data collected from four 3M Inspections (3MIs) indicate that there are important deficiencies that can only be identified this way. If one chooses a lesser form of historical spot check, the deficiencies will still exist (presuming they are not being addressed any other way), you just will not know about them.

Implications Beyond the 3M Program

These observations reinforce many of the Leadership Lessons I discussed during my retirement ceremony speech 12 August. For leadership "lessons" to be truly useful, they must be generalizable across many aspects of a leader's job. I will not repeat all my remarks, but just a few key observations:


  • High performance in an organization starts and ends with the people. As a leader, you have to know what your people are actually doing to have any chance of influencing how well they do it.
  • There are no shortcuts to excellence.
  • Learn about work where work is done.
  • Professionals embrace scrutiny.
  • Adopt the approach of world-class athletes. Always look for an edge to make yourself better.