In December 2013, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman released the Executive Plan, his guidance and direction to the Royal Canadian Navy for the next several years. Like most plans, it’s a temporary marker in time. The Commander says it was intended “to focus the team, to map out a series of interconnected objectives and get us going in the right direction.” But it is also a reflection of a journey the RCN has been on as it evolves through iterations of transformation and renewal and aligns its people and processes for a decade that will introduce significant new capability.

There is considerable risk during this bridge period. Existing fleets of frigates and coastal defence vessels are being modernized and upgraded to carry the load between now and when new Joint Support Ships (JSS), Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) and Canadian Surface Combatants (CSC) are delivered in the early 2020s. Slippage in schedules on any one front could have ripple effects across the navy, the military and the government. So the plan also reflects a hard look internally, at the organization and the business processes that will be required to deliver what Norman calls “an incredible opportunity” to recapitalize the navy. He recently spoke with editor Chris Thatcher about the plan and some of its implications.

In the plan you define an organizing concept of “One Navy.” Are there specific drivers that prompted you to frame it this way?

The biggest driver is culture. The great strength of the navy is its people, and people are what ultimately define your culture, and your culture defines how your people behave. The notion of one navy was to get us away from where we were, where you had an East Coast approach to things, a West Coast approach, a Reserve approach, and then the headquarters in Ottawa approach. You had four different organizations, all under the flag of the navy, arguing over the stuff that was in the margins of where we needed to go – if you had 80 percent agreement, you were arguing over the 20 percent in the margins. That was a real distraction and it was causing an awful lot of the attention and energy of the senior leadership to deal with these unnecessary frictions. The idea of One Navy was to say, we’re all on the same team, let’s focus on this.

The biggest thing to really shake things up was to make people responsible for things that were outside their traditional geographic or organizational responsibilities. For example, all the individual training will be managed and executed by the commander of Maritime Forces Pacific, irrespective of where the schoolhouses are; and all of the collective and operational training elements of force generation, as well as force employment elements of operational planning, fleet readiness and warfare policy will be managed by the commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic. That may not sound like a particularly innovative approach to things, but it’s a pretty good example of how you can start to break down some cultural barriers. That is driven in part by the need to align things under single accountabilities for efficiency purposes, but we are also doing it do drive the cultural and behavioural change associated with the fact that we are one navy. If you are a tradesman, a hull tech, serving on the west coast, does it really matter who is running your training? No. But it matters that everything is the same. We’ve tried to insulate the frontend of the business from all of the churn that is going on at the backend. The folks in the middle? Well, there are a lot of moving parts, and they are carrying a lot of the burden. But we are making really good progress.

This is being done in the context of Navy Renewal, which is itself part of a larger transformation effort. Since much of the low hanging fruit has likely all ready been picked with respect to more efficient business process, what are you looking for?

We are looking for more objective measures of innovation, efficiency and improvement. This is all about being smarter, faster and more agile. Yes, we are looking for efficiencies in the traditional sense of efficiencies. The simple way to measure that is dollars or people, and those currencies are important. But there are other ways: How many times does someone have to be involved in something for it to happen? Using our simulators more frequently. I use the analogy of hospitals being smarter about their imaging, running their imaging systems so you can now get an appointment on a Sunday or at night, and that’s a non-traditional approach. We’ve got the same kind of opportunities: How are we making use of the capacity in our schoolhouses, in our maintenance facilities? At some point those will result in doing things more efficiently, but the focus right now is producing a better output with inputs that we have available.

In the plan, you advocate for an enterprise model. Do you have the necessary metrics at this point to fully capitalize on that?

We are in the early stages. We’re breaking a few eggs here and that’s OK; we’ve got great support inside the broader enterprise. One of the challenges is, we want to make sure that whatever we are doing is nested not only within the broader initiatives of defence renewal writ large, but that the mechanisms, tools and processes we develop are completely compatible. There is no point in us building a perfect mouse trap to run our little part of the business, only to find our mouse trap can’t talk to anybody else’s mouse trap. So we are being asked in a couple of areas to be a bit of a “beta tester” of how we are going to do things.

Like a lot of large organizations, we are swimming in data. The challenge is how you extract information out of that data so you are actually measuring the right things. Ultimately, it is about using that information to make the right decisions. That is one of the conversations the Naval Board is having. But we are transitioning from having the ability to mine and collate the data to turning it into information. We are actually starting to shape a lot of what we are looking at, and tying it to initiatives that are going on in the broader departmental sense.

You are also seeking to deliver a Corporate Capability Risk Matrix. Is that in part about better understanding your data?

Partly. It is also about our ability to actually assess risk to make smarter decisions. There is operational risk, which we understand intuitively and we teach our folks to deal with, but then there are the more corporate and strategic risks. Systemically, we are not as skilled at linking risk assessment and decision-making as we should be. The risk matrix is an attempt to identify and measure the right risks in order to inform the right decisions, and then measure whether you are mitigating the risk the way you thought you would or whether that risk wasn’t affecting what you were trying to achieve the way you thought it was. There are a lot of people in defence working on this very issue; the Deputy Minister and the Chief of the Defence Staff are seized with this.

The plan speaks to the importance of institutional credibility, especially around shipbuilding. Much of that seems to hinge on timelines that aren’t necessarily in your control. Can you mitigate against that risk?

I don’t think a lot of people appreciate the degree to which I have limited influence in terms of the whole shipbuilding business across government. We talk of “down and in” and “up and out”: inside the guardrails of the navy – those things that we actually control – and outside the navy, those things that we can influence. Shipbuilding is a great example. The inside-the-guardrails activities come back to the previous question around how we manage our business, how we improve our processes, how we account for the money we are given, how we demonstrate that we are doing a better job of delivering what we need to deliver with the inputs that we have. That all speaks to institutional credibility of the RCN as a business. And that all feeds into how we can then help broader departmental efforts and also how we can use the credibility we have earned to try and convince people that we know what we are doing, and when we raise concerns about things it shouldn’t be seen as us just playing “chicken little.”

Shipbuilding fits nicely in the context of “down and in” and “up and out.” There are a whole bunch of things that we need to do as a navy, down and in, to prepare for the delivery of the ships. That covers a full spectrum of continuing to work with the material folks, the government agencies involved, and the shipyards on defining the requirement, which then shapes how the process goes forward. There is also a lot that has to do with backend-of-the-business things, such as how we prepare our people or how we set up scheduling.

From an “Up and Out” perspective, the RCN sees part of its credibility being tied to this massive investment called the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. We are a big part of this, clearly; but it’s not the Naval Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. I have characterized our part as “the best supporting actor in a shipbuilding role”. In the end, the navy will operate the fleet that is produced by NSPS. But there is a lot of work that has to go on between now and then, and much of that is not in the Navy’s guardrails. We will master and own those things that are inside our guardrails.

Outside our guardrails there are a range of challenges on a number of fronts, but the key issue, from my perspective, is schedule. If we don’t meet the milestones that the government has laid out, then there are going to be a lot of second and third order impacts. There will be a lack of confidence within industry with respect to our collective ability to do what we said we were going to do. There will be downstream impacts in terms of delivering the capability itself. There will be huge cost implications. And then these legitimate concerns of Canadians around our ability to deliver complex programs will become self-perpetuating. There is a lot risk, and it is a matter of balancing the risk to Canadians in terms of cost, etc, with the risk of not actually delivering.

You’ve spoken about having to accept tradeoffs. At the recent Navy Outlook, you asked for industry input into these tradeoffs. What are you looking for from industry in that respect?

We want this to be a shared, developmental process. We don’t pretend for a minute to have the solutions to all the questions we are asking. We are describing what we’d like the ship to be able to do: in our professional judgement, we believe the ship should be able to do X, Y and Z. We’re not trying to be prescriptive in terms of how we deliver X, Y and Z. And we want to hear industry’s ideas on first, does X, Y and Z make sense? Can you have all three at the same time? And how do you deliver them? There are lots of really good ideas out there, so it’s a matter of trying to figure out how to put it all together. But you start by having the conversation.

Given that most allies face a similar challenge, are you having conversations about sharing the impact of tradeoffs? About balancing or sharing capability?

There are two layers to that. There’s a layer in terms of developing capability amongst key allies and there is the actual, what do we want to lean into ourselves. There are some high value, productive structures and organizations amongst the key allies that allow us to make small contributions into a larger pot, not just in money but in people and time, and from that extract enormous benefit. Those cross a whole series of traditional and emerging warfare areas.

What you’re asking, though, is can we and are we developing the capability to share responsibility, operationally and tactically, for something? And share responsibility for the development. The short answer is yes and it is happening every day to varying degrees in different domains. At the tactical level, it happens more seamlessly because folks are used to it. You bring a bag of tools, somebody else brings a bag of tools, some are the same, some are different, you figure it out and it works. But in terms of development and design, there are some interesting national sovereignty issues that military planners are scratching on that are sort of outside our lane. You are talking about national capability. What are you prepared not to do? It’s a complicated question because it spans the spectrum from literally plugging in kit at the unit level, right up to the grand strategic level of government decision making with respect to what capabilities we should or shouldn’t be able to field as a nation.

As it relates to a specific ship and whether you want to have a platform that can do a little bit of most things or some things better than others, those are the very conversations we are having around the surface combatant.

The plan calls for a requirement to respond to contingencies. How difficult is that going to be for the next few years given the number of frigates going through the Halifax-class modernization program and recent events with the AORs and Tribal-class destroyer?

It’s tough. Some of it we were well aware of. We knew the degree to which the Halifax-class were going to be taken out of service to be modernized and that program is going exactly as planned. The issue is right now we have more ships out of service than we have in service, so the next 12 months or so will be the toughest period. But we’re seeing great progress and positive indicators in terms of getting lead ships of that program back into the operational fleet. They are undergoing trials and all the things you would expect with the introduction of new systems. However, to say we can employ them operationally, that is another level.

Now, that was the plan. On the other side of the coin are the realities of keeping the legacy fleet going. And we’ve had some challenges. We had planned to lean on legacy platforms while we are going through this period. But when you are dealing with older systems, things happen and, in some cases, the ships are starting to talk to us. The Tribal-class and AORs are getting to a point where we need to make sensible decisions about what we do with them.

The key is that we are sticking to the principles of our priorities, which are to put our effort into those capabilities which will get us to the future fleet. From a platform perspective, the modernized Halifax-class, Victoria-class submarines and coastal defence vessels are the bridge to the future. We are going to run the coastal defence vessels very hard over the next while, so we have brought a bunch of them back up to operational status this year and that will give us some flexibility in the continental sense. And we are maintaining just enough flexibility to continue delivering on the international requirement. You saw that with the NATO reassurance decision by government, which is a positive indication of the flexibility of the platform.

You are about to enter a period where you will have modernized submarines, frigates and maritime patrol aircraft, with unprecedented Canadian ISR and networked capability. What options do these provide?

It’s the ability to provide a far more sophisticated and integrated picture. The individual capabilities in some cases are absolutely staggering. And the net effect will be, if you had those three platforms in a particular circumstance, they will be able to deliver an effect that is so much greater than the sum of the parts. The Aurora, for example, will be able to see things that it couldn’t before, to process and analyze the information to a degree that it never could before, to make independent, real time assessments that were unimaginable with earlier technology. You can make the same kind of observations about the frigates. And it’s not just the kit, it’s the ability to bring those bits of kit together. We’re excited about RIMPAC because it is the first time on the schedule where we can put a Victoria-class and a modernized Aurora and a modernized Halifax-class in that simulated battle space and allow those systems to start working together, to actually test and trial the very point that you are making. The platforms are the platforms but now you are taking your game to an exponentially higher quality of capability.

The plan notes the need to improve your capacity to conduct and support humanitarian operations “from the sea.” Is the JSS sufficient or do you need something more?

The JSS is part of the answer. JSS is going to give us a degree of flexibility that we don’t have in the current AORs. But it is not just about the kit. It will be a limited improvement in the overall capability, but that’s a piece. When you look at sea-based response as compared to an air response, it is typically going to be an integrated response. So the JSS becomes a complementary capability. From a design capability perspective, we are also looking at integrating some of the flexibility we need in AOPS as well, and we’re taking a really hard look at the surface combatant.

The idea is, in the absence of a monolithic approach, we are going to take an incremental and measured approach and every little piece we bring will be an improvement. It’s not unlike the airlift analogy of longer range C-130s and C-17s, which have become significant game changers in terms of how you can do it. When you put it all together, again you have something which is greater than the sum of the parts. We are learning from other navies’ experiences, because you can do some really innovative things: you can go with a purpose-built capability or a commercial modification. We are watching all of these very carefully. If the environment is such that people want to have that conversation, then we’re happy to have it. But in the interim we are going to deliver those enhancements where we can – that’s JSS, a little bit in AOPS and CSC.

Lastly, the plan speaks about brand, communication, increasing stakeholders and empowering sailors to tell the RCN story. Is it your sense that the navy lacks a narrative within Canada?

I think that is a fair statement. I think we have a narrative, the challenge is perhaps that our narrative is not resonating in the way we might want. We are, in the traditional military context, a continental nation surrounded on three sides by water, but we have a population most of which sees water through lakes and rivers, not through the oceans. And the bulk of our activity in recent history has been North-South as opposed to the broader East-West. When you look at the world from the maritime perspective, it’s a different world. We want to help Canadians understand their role as a maritime nation in a world that is increasingly looking to the world’s oceans as potential trouble areas and potential areas of opportunity. You don’t have to look far; the North is a perfect example. Ninety percent of trade in goods are moved by water, 60 percent of the world’s oil moves by water, 95 percent of the world’s telecommunications move under the water. What happens on the world’s oceans half a world away might not necessarily be newsworthy in a Canadian context, but it is important to Canadians. We have a national retailer that reminds us that 30 percent of its inventory is at sea on any given day. So we have to reach out to Canadians in a way that is positive and constructive and not in a way where the narrative just doesn’t resonate. We want Canadians to see the connection between the world’s oceans and their security and prosperity and opportunity

This is also about recruitment: Do you have a challenge now?

Recruiting is a really important part of any organization and we want to attract the best and brightest. The nature of the demographics of Canada are changing and we need to reach into that to attract the next generation.

We put a real push on a few years ago and the good news is we filled a lot of what were previously vacant positions, so on a numbers by numbers basis we are doing ok. The issue continues to be, across the Army and Air Force as well, the high demand, low density trades, particularly some of the technical ones. You bring people in, give them world-class training and education, give them a few years of hands-on experience, and the private sector beckons. In some cases it is more of a retention issue than it is a recruiting issue.

We also have a challenge with capacity. Our ships are also our training platforms. We use simulation, we use the schoolhouse, we use a lot of modern mechanisms, but at the end of the day you have got to get sailors to sea and the only simulator for a ship at sea is a ship at sea. As we’re bringing in an irregularly large number of new folks, we just happen to be doing it at a time that we’re taking a lot of ships out of service to modernize them, which increases the level of difficulty.

But part of the plan was to change the way we do our business internally and that is not just about money, it’s not just about process, it’s also about how we train our people. The historical approach was that you went to a ship, and a ship would go through a program. At the moment, because of the number of ships available to us, we don’t have that luxury. So we are taking a far more focused, personal approach – you are now tracked as an individual sailor. We are looking at what your trade requires and making sure you acquire those skills. The pros are that we are getting the experience we need for those people; the con is that they don’t have the traditional continuity of being in a ship, staying in a ship and building that team cohesion. So that puts an onus on leadership to adapt the way they lead.