Courage To “Stop the Job”

Header image for article titled "Leading From Lockdown" by Caleb Moore

Stopping a job or a dangerous situation is critical in the high risk, high tempo, highly competitive world we live in today. This courageous act will become more and more critical as our economic environment continues to be more and more aggressive.

Traditionally, stopping any job has been a culturally unpopular action for anyone in any business. Historical thinking suggests by stopping the job, you’re too cautious, too conservative, you don’t know enough about your business, you assume a lack of experience, it’ll cost precious time and money or you’ll garner unwanted negative attention if you “stop the job” and you’re wrong. Unfortunately, we have learned the hard way through mission failure, serious injury and loss of life that this way of thinking is best left in the past.

A hand stopping dominos from falling

In naval aviation, and specifically in strike fighter naval aviation, for many of the same reasons stated above, we long ago adopted a culture of “stop the job” criteria centered around safety and mission success. This culture has proven successful by saving countless lives.

In training, when 2 or more aircraft are engaged in air-to-air combat, we’ve established a set of rules (appropriately called, “training rules”) that are not only briefed, but read, verbatim every single time before you engage another aircraft. During the briefing these rules are not memorized, they’re not summarized, they are read word for word from the briefing card no matter whether you’re the newest of students or the commanding officer of TOPGUN.   These rules delineate the basics of safety during an extremely high risk, high threat environment. If any of these standardized rules are violated, it is the obligation of all aircrew to look out for each other and when a violation is observed, call out a “knock it off.” A “knock it off” requires that all participants cease any aggressive maneuvers and verbally acknowledge the call by repeating their callsign and the words “knock it off.” In this case a “knock it off” is exactly the same as anyone calling a “stop the job.”

In other fast paced high-risk team environments such as energy production or exploration, similar procedural steps can be taken to ensure effective “stop the job” or “stop work authority”. It’s important to consider how to establish a foundation of “stop the job” criteria for the newest member on your team. After all, what might look dangerous to a team member on the job for 15 days, will look a lot different, or even normal, to a team member who’s been on the job most of his/her life. That’s why it’s so critical to establish a set of “training rules” creating a foundation for each potentially high-risk environment or evolution regardless of experience or time on the job. For example, depending on the task, a pre-brief (pre-tower) might include areas of danger for all to be sensitive to; Sea states, Pinch points, standing in the wrong place (Line of fire), load shifts or someone entering the work environment that didn’t attend the pre-brief. Briefing the appropriate high-risk focus areas before the evolution will give even the most junior team-mates the confidence to call a stop to any job.

It’s critical to understand that the severity or importance of the job has no bearing on “stop the job” criteria, in fact, it’s inconsequential. For example, in combat, the Commanding officer determines the criteria for a “strike abort” (a situation or situations encountered that would call off the mission). That authority may be directed, not delegated, from the Admiral to the Airwing commander, to the strike leader (the person briefing, flying and leading the strike) who’s in the best position at the best time to determine mission progress and success. That person is designated the “Strike leader” who leads the entire complement of men and women assigned to destroy the target or complete the mission. This important part of naval aviation culture is that all involved; the bomb droppers, the fighters, the electronic jamming aircraft, the helicopter warriors, the early warning aircraft, men and women on the aircraft carrier, the cruisers and destroyers, land and spaced based asset controllers…have equal rights when given defined “strike abort” criteria to call off the strike when that criteria is met; said differently, when “stop the job” criteria were met.

These same criteria are standard in our nuclear navy fleet.  In 1955, since our first nuclear vessel was commissioned, the U.S. Navy has NEVER had a nuclear incident. Not because we were that much better than our adversaries, but because leaders like Admiral Rickover, the father of our nuclear navy, ensured that there was a culture that anyone could speak up when there was a doubt in procedural compliance.  He created an environment for nuclear trained professionals who would live the “stop the job” mentality whether the result was saving the ship itself or merely creating time for a learning point. At the end of the day, historically, “stopping the job” for whatever reason, is always a win.

Stopping the job takes courage, confidence and most importantly an environment and culture to encourage the entire team to have a questioning attitude without retribution and to be able to be spring loaded to “stop the job” even when they’re not completely sure it’s the right thing to do. After all, how many jobs were ever stopped that prevented anyone from going home safely to their family’s at night?

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