The Ghost of Admiral Rickover?


During the summer of 1989 I was asked to prepare a discussion for a paper scheduled for presentation at a National Shipbuilding Research Program (NSRP) symposium.[1]

I was especially pleased because the paper was one of a succession of such papers by naval shipyard personnel and was an account of an extraordinary application of the zone logic that I helped introduce to private and public shipyards in the United States and elsewhere. The following excerpts are from what I presented:

“…the application of zone logic described in this paper is impressive for its scope as indicated by its intense electronic nature and its requirement for twenty miles of electric cable. The entire effort, in terms of planning, material marshaling, and production, is in the order of that for building a high-tech ship of modest size.

“…the word ‘kit’ is being used as some zone-oriented shipyards use the word ‘pallet’ for the purpose of providing an information link. This extremely beneficial concept is the basis for organizing resources and for directing detail designers and material-marshaling people to work per the same sequence planned for production. First things are first! There is no counterpart concept in traditional system-by-system operations.

“Also, the challenge to do in seven months with zone logic, the same ship alteration that heretofore required fourteen months with the traditional system-by-system approach, is also impressive. The seven-months expected gain is a seven-months contribution to scheduled readiness for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

“Even if the goal was a scheduled savings of only two or three months, in the context of readiness the impact of zone logic would still be profound. Just imagine the war effort that an enemy would have to apply in order to take NIMITZ off the line for two or three months!

“I think the authors and their associate innovators deserve the highest order of commendation because theirs is a bottom-up approach stemming from a production/industrial-engineering initiative. Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS) has other bottom-up limited and successful zone-logic experiences, but they originated within the production/design sphere, e.g., a Close-In Weapons System in the aircraft carrier RANGER, a large portion of a Tomahawk Missile System in the cruiser TEXAS, and much work for extensive electronic alterations and overhaul of ballast tanks in SSN-637 Class submarines.”

Needless to say, I was surprised and concerned when it was announced at the Symposium that the excellent paper was to be presented only verbally per instructions to the authors by the naval officer commanding their shipyard. No copies would be distributed to attendees nor would the paper be published. Two-weeks later, in hopes of provoking an explanation, my 28 September 1989 letter to the PSNS commander included the substance of my discussion as quoted in the foregoing. He did not reply.

Months afterwards, during a conversation with a then recently retired naval shipyard commander, I brought up the subject. He responded, “Don’t you know what happened? Each of us received a letter signed by an admiral that ordered that such management initiatives be discontinued.”

He didn’t want to tell me more, but during a subsequent conversation with another former naval shipyard commander, I was advised that the letter was sent by “OP-08, Admiral McKee.” He added, “I know Admiral McKee. Had he been advised correctly, the Admiral would not have signed that order.”

Furthermore, I knew that Admiral Kinnaird R. McKee, who succeeded Admiral Hyman G. Rickover as Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion, inherited an organization that was described by a former Chief of Naval Operations as “…un-American and autocratic. It was, to be blunt about it, a system of spying and intimidation.”[2]


The following is a plausible account of what might have provoked OP-08’s order that stopped the application of improved naval-shipyard management methods and caused the discontinuance of writing about such methods:

Simultaneous with the use of zone logic for planning the installation of a Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) in the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier NIMITZ by PSNS, a commander of another nuclear-qualified naval shipyard was emphasizing Total Quality Management (TQM). The staff person assigned to head the effort advocated a dedicated infrastructure piled on a regular organization in the form of a special office and various committees. Barely afloat amid that promotion of TQM, was the simple truth, “quality improvement comes from process improvement.”

In addition to the way TQM was being advocated, the term “empower the workers” alarmed the on-site naval officer nuclear inspector. Per the system created by Admiral Rickover, the on-site inspector reported directly to Admiral McKee, in effect, “We cannot have that kind of liberalism in our nuclear spaces.”

Because of lack of understanding, other relatively new terms such as “product work breakdown structure” and “zone technology” were included in the complaint.

Had Admiral McKee been properly advised, he would have understood that the zonal approach yields improved management control, thus enhancing safety and productivity. Apparently, none of the naval shipyard commanders and senior officers in the Naval Sea Systems Command (NavSea), at that time and since, dared advise OP-08 of the successful zone-technology accomplishments in RANGER, CONSTELLATION, TEXAS, 637-class submarines, etc. and for the NTDS in NIMITZ.

Thus, it seems to me that the NSRP freed the genie who could grant wishes for improving productivity, and that the Commander of NavSea and all of his naval shipyard commanders did nothing when OP-08, perhaps unintentionally, slammed the genie back into the magic lamp.

The current commanders of NavSea and naval shipyards could rectify the situation by at least:

• avidly encouraging their civilian and military personnel to resume writing about shipyard managerial methods, and

• recognizing such authors whose papers are published by professional societies and insuring that pertinent notices are entered in officer fitness reports and their equivalents for civilians.

[1] Paper No. 5, NSRP Ship Production Symposium, 13-15 September 1989; Title: A Zone Outfitting Project at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard; Authors: Albert J. Caputo, Gary M. Walters and Thomas S. Luis of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, WA (presented only verbally).

[2] Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., Admiral, USN (Ret.), “On Watch,” The New York Times Book Co., new York, ISBN 0-8129-0520-2, p. 112.

One thought on “The Ghost of Admiral Rickover?

  1. Al Caputo wrote:
    First of all it is great to know that you are still actively contributing to the cause.
    Being a co-author to the paper you discussed in your article, I thought I should at least add a comment.
    The NTDS project that was discussed was a great success not only in its primary goal “Schedule” but in so many other areas of the shipyard. I think that Project help define the approach to Project Management (a team effort) that you now see going on in the shipyard.
    On a personal level.. the NTDS project was a joy because it really is rewarding being a part of doing something “The right way”.
    Take care…..
    posted at 18:49:47 on 11/21/03

    Kazimierz Staropolskich wrote:
    “The climate of intimidation and fear that Zumwalt referred to was very
    real and there was a genuine concern (on the part of Commander of the
    Naval Sea Systems Command) that when Rickover passed on there would be
    a very hostile reaction to the behavior of the 08 sycophants that would
    amount to a revolt. McKee was selected as the 08 successor because he
    was considered to be strong enough to continue where Rickover left off
    and contain the latent hostility until a gradual change could be
    affected. Therefore, no radical changes were acceptable at that time.
    Unfortunately, your attempt at progress was one of the victims.” Equally unfortunate, the climate of fear and intimidation continued for some time after McKee took over. The senior civilian managers who were trained by Rickover in the “terrorist” style of management were still in control and it can be conjectured that they managed to convince McKee that their approach did succeed in preventing the dreaded “inevitable” nuclear disaster.
    posted at 10:58:26 on 11/26/03

    Tom Swift wrote:
    I worked at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (PNSY) in the late 80’s. PSNY was under the gun to cut costs and stay competitive with Navy and commercial yards overhauling submarines. We introduced the PWBS and zone logic into planning overhaul and repair programs. The only place we were ever discouraged was in the nuclear spaces. Not sure where it went after I left, but got an recognition award for the effort.
    posted at 16:31:36 on 12/10/03

    Don Ulmer wrote:
    John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902) was a historian and moralist. He expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887:

    “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

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