NORFOLK NAVAL SHIPYARD, Portsmouth, Va. –
You stand, sit, squat, or lay in a confined area. In your hand is a tool that can easily reach 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Your body is covered in pounds of safety gear to help protect you. Sweat drips off your brow and down your back. The job in front of you is both highly difficult and dangerous. Your success is vital to Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY), fulfilling its mission of delivering service to the Fleet.
This is the challenge that members of NNSY’s Welding Shop (Code 926) face every day when they come to work. Yet, despite the circumstances, Code 926 has achieved excellence. Since Dec. 2017, Code 926 has held a 0% reject Radiography Tests (RT) rate on its welds on the non-nuclear side. Code 926's Training Director James Anderson remarked, "It is outstanding and unheard of, to have this kind of success with the volume of RT welds and challenges we experience. We couldn’t be more proud of this team!"
But Code 926's success is not isolated just to the non-nuclear side. The code currently has a 2.22% reject rate for its nuclear welds in 2019. Code 926's Nuclear Director Matt Myers reflected on the success: "We base all of our data on that from across the corporation with all other shipyards. Where we currently sit, with a reject rate of 2.22%, is probably 3% lower than any other shipyard in the corporation."
Code 926's leadership team credits five crucial factors for the code's success: taking and implementing feedback from successful members at every level; an innovative and personalized training program; an interactive coach-style leadership method; clear communication and goal-setting; and a team of welders who are enthusiastic about their work.
The code has been working on revamping its training program for the last year and a half. One of the first steps in doing so was sitting down with employees at every level to hear their feedback and suggestions. Anderson said, "We got some successful members from the nuclear and non-nuclear side, and we put them all in a room. We had welders of all ranks in the meetings. They helped to develop the minimum competencies to ensure a consistent training plan for the welding school. Instead of senior leadership or the welding school management dictating everything that is done and learned, we included the feedback of people who weld successfully every day. It was a team effort that helped us ensure that the pipe welders are deckplate ready for the challenge they will soon encounter." Anderson said that the think tank meetings gave members of Code 926 ownership in their program, implementing one of NNSY's four C.O.R.E. values.
The feedback from the think tank meetings was used to revamp and improve the code’s training program. One of the cornerstones of Anderson's revitalized training program is personalization. He said, "The 926 training group updated the program to be both a proficiency-based program and a program of overall welder development. We're trying to develop the welders at an advanced level. We do this through engagement with the students, flexibility, and tailoring our training plans as needed." In addition, the training program places a new emphasis on making sure that its graduates are ready to face real-world welding conditions. Anderson said, "We have an area where we are building mockups that are more realistic to the ship. They're going to learn to mirror-weld. They're going to learn how to weld with their non-dominant hand and weld in tighter restrictions. They're going to learn how to weld in someplace that is not comfortable, a place that is not the welding school."
Anderson's teammates praise his work and firmly believe that the new training program is helping the code to achieve success. Myers stated, "All of the new training products, the vision that Jimmy has, the way he lays that out and formulates a plan individually to develop these people and then get them to us. Once they get into our program and into execution, we take over and have a plan and process that we roll out. It is an overall process that we've incorporated and follow consistently. This process has made us highly successful." Anderson himself emphasized, "Even though this model improves with runtime, we now recognize the direct correlation between the training that rolls over to production"
But the revamped training program is not the only reason for the code's success. "We've been working on revamping the training for a year and a half, but the non-nuclear success goes back to 2017. Jeremy Clark and his team have done things to make us successful on the deckplate." Code 926's Trades Manager Jeremy Clark nodded along to Anderson's statement. He added, "My job is relieving any pressure I can from the person doing the job. If they're thinking about something else while they're welding, they're probably going to make a mistake."
Clark's coaching method is directly connected the code's overall effort to communicate clearly keeping their workforce focused on their primary goal. Myers said, "I think that is important, getting everyone to move in one direction with the same goal and same focus in mind. It makes it a lot easier when everyone understands the goal, has the same focus, and is driving to the same place. With the reject rate being as low as it is, I bring that to the forefront of my people's minds daily."
The team agreed the most critical component for Code 926’s success are the welders themselves. "My mechanics are responsible for the success. They're my people. They are hardworking, motivated, self-starters," said Clark.
On a personal level, Anderson, Clark, and Myers all agree that they come to work every day because they love what they do. Anderson noted, "I love welding, and I enjoy training. I think you have to enjoy your job to give you the motivation to want to be here early in the morning and to be here late at night. Sometimes, that's what it takes. It takes a lot of hours, a lot of effort, a lot of time, and a lot of input." Myers agreed, saying, "I love my job. I'm a welder through and through. With welding, you have to be somewhat of an artist. It's artistry. You go down there, and it's you, a welding rod or a torch, and a piece of pipe. There is nothing between you and the canvas."
With the many new initiatives Code 926 has a new training program rooted in its employee’s feedback, supportive coaching-style leadership, and possibly an all-time low reject rate - Code 926's future is bright, and the team has big plans for it. One goal is to bring more innovative equipment to the shipyard. Anderson said, "I think bringing innovative solutions into the code is going to be a good thing for the type of workforce we have today. We have welders now that have an electronic and innovative mindset, and they can run equipment, so I think we've got to start focusing on developing programmers and operators to start automating some of the work."
Meanwhile, the biggest goal for Code 926 is constant, and it is one they are already achieving: a zero percent RT reject rate. Anderson stressed, "We live and die by the reject rate. When the numbers are low, it is a good day. Right now, life is good."