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ASK OCE — September 20, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 14


Few, if any, leaders have had a greater influence on the management of high-reliability technical organizations than the late Admiral Hyman Rickover. The so-called “father of the nuclear Navy” had a management philosophy that emphasized high standards, excellent people, and personal accountability.

The core of Rickover’s approach was his recognition that people at all levels of an organization need both authority and accountability. “Human experience shows that people, not organizations or management systems, get things done. For this reason, subordinates must be given authority and responsibility early in their careers,” he told a group at Columbia University in 1982. “In this way they develop quickly and can help the manager do his work.”

Rickover practiced and advocated a detail-oriented management style, and he was frank about the level of effort it demanded. “Most managers would rather focus on lofty policy matters,” he said. “But when the details are ignored, the project fails. No infusion of policy or lofty ideals can then correct the situation.”

When problems arose, he insisted on directly receiving detailed jargon-free reports from his key people:

“This provides them unlimited flexibility in subject matter — something that often is not accommodated in highly structured management systems — and a way to communicate their problems and recommendations to me without having them filtered through others.”

He believed that the writing process was an essential part of clear thinking. “Nothing so sharpens the thought process as writing down one’s arguments. Weaknesses overlooked in oral discussion become painfully obvious on the written page,” he said.

Noting that it was “human inclination to hope things will work out,” he cautioned managers to resist the temptation to ignore evidence. “It is not a pleasant task, but one must be brutally objective in his work,” he said.

Read the full text of Admiral Rickovers 1982 speech at Columbia University.

In This Issue

Message from the Chief Engineer

Leadership Corner: Rickover on Doing a Job

This Week in NASA History: JFK Challenges U.S. to Reach Moon by Decade’s End

First-Person Perspective: NASA History

Reaching for the APEX at Ames

Government Brief: FAA Publishes New Commercial Space Safety Standards

Copy That: Progress in Rapid Prototyping

A View from Outside: Russia and China to Collaborate on Mars Mission

Archimedes Archive: The Turtle

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