The Iwo Experience: Investigating LHD-7’s Nuanced Approach for its Successful 16-Months in the Yards
15 February 2023
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. --
While Navy Times’ bread is not buttered going to press with good news stories, occasionally they go out of their way to give credit when due. Such an occasion took place June 10, when the outlet published an article about the USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) celebrating the hard work of its crew by buying out a local movie theater and taking the entire crew to a private, opening day showing of Top Gun: Maverick, complete with popcorn and soda.
The article highlights only one portion of the “IWO Experience” - a dynamic, multi-faceted, innovative framework to thank Sailors for their hard work, build community on the ship, and keep spirits high while in the shipyard.
Many Sailors will all agree that the shipyard is one of the worst times in their careers. Iwo Jima charted an intentional course to flip the script in an attempt to make the maintenance phase one of the best times in their Sailors’ careers. Iwo Jima was scheduled for an extended drydocking at General Dynamics – NASSCO Norfolk for approximately 16 months.
To investigate the success made by the Iwo Jima crew during its maintenance phase, consider the following four tenets where the captain at that time, Capt. Judd Krier, said rubber and road collided.
1. Maintain Connection with the crew
Following their seven-month 2021 underway, Iwo Jima leadership focused on establishing personal connections between Sailors across the ranks and outside the workplace. Rather than simply putting their noses to the grind and enduring the Spartan conditions, Iwo leaders made sure opportunities were readily available to take Sailors from the yards into the community. This was achieved various ways. Religious Ministries interfaced with the local populace to create community relations events. In 2022, the crew partnered with 12 local organizations and had 500 Sailors invest over 2,100 hours in the local community, which led to invitations to other local events. MWR hosted many command sports competitions and outings such as deep-sea fishing, bowling nights, axe throwing, and Busch Gardens Hallowscream, to name a few.
Creating connective tissue amongst crew members was not limited to command activities outside the skin of the ship. Accountability measures, such as establishing the BlackBerry AtHoc system streamlined critical command communications – much like a school app parents, teachers, and school administrators exchange information with – by alerting Sailors of emergencies as well as significant changes to the ship schedule or configurations.
Additionally, all events and recognitions were posted to command social media accounts, a cohesive means to celebrate one another and keep family and friends apprised of their Sailors' accomplishments.
Finally, All Hands Calls, Captain’s Calls, and Safety Stand Downs were held at off-site locations to facilitate bigger groups and encourage more open participation outside an industrial setting. The first CO’s Call in March 2022, for example, was accompanied with food, a DJ, prize giveaway, tee-shirts, and a guest speaker. Iwo Jima planners contrived these unorthodox gatherings as fun and energetic ways to espouse crew cohesion in order to give confidence and a greater voice to those who may have otherwise been unwilling to share their thoughts during the more traditional, staid formations where a good idea or observation might go by the wayside for fear of speaking up.
2. Sailor recognition and rewards
The ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ movie outing was not the first time Iwo Jima leaders were featured in the news for lifting shipboard morale. Earlier that spring, The Daily Press ran a story chronicling the crew’s hard work in bringing aboard four well-known World Wrestling Entertainment wrestlers who spent a day mingling with the crew and signing autographs as the ship lay in the yards. Later that evening, nearly 300 Iwo Jima Sailors received free WWE tickets to attend Monday Night Raw at the Norfolk Scope Arena.
Iwo Jima leaders planned these types of events quarterly and similar in name to the overall approach called them “Iwo Jima Experiences.” Other examples included a family outing to a Norfolk Tides baseball game and the command holiday party, another innovative idea led by the ship’s MWR who bought out the 85,000 square foot Apex Entertainment warehouse in downtown Virginia Beach, a huge hit with Iwo Jima Sailors
In addition to the scheduled quarterly, rewards and recognition came out of nowhere – the ship’s “Surprise and Delight” events - and included spontaneous ice cream days, command tumbler giveaways, and the ‘Pause for Paws’ event where two Navy service dogs came aboard every other month to bolster spirits. The Captain would even send personalized Navy anniversary emails to each Sailor on the date they entered the Navy.
The team also created a ‘Warrior of the Week’ as well as five ‘Core Values Champions’ each month – programs reinforcing (rather than simply paying lip service to) what Navy ideals and hard work in the shipyards looks like. Atop the public attaboy, the Core Values Champions received parking passes for the shipyard and a coin from the CO. The Warrior of the Week received a parking pass and a NEX gift card, courtesy of the Navy League.
3. Innovative Workdays
From the outset of the yard period, the triad supported command physical fitness (PT) hours (delegated to the Department Head level) in which specific departments had designated afternoon times for its Sailors to focus on fitness and wellness, thus enabling departments to pursue the physical readiness portion of the mission, efforts that paid off with a noted drop in crew members having to take part in the mandatory Fitness Enhancement Program throughout 2022.
Additionally, the command encouraged professional development hours where departments could assign readings, projects, and other assignments to improve Sailor knowledge. It was also time set aside to allow Iwo Jima Sailors to study for advancement exams and major qualifications. Due to limited numbers of computer assets and workout equipment on the barge, workdays were developed by problem solving teams – a cross section of ranks who together helped establish PT hours and professional development hours that were key in allowing personnel the access needed to achieve Navy workplace goals.
Overall, USS Iwo Jima’s success during their yard and maintenance period could be attributed to leadership connecting and engaging with their Sailors. Atop all the nuanced methods introduced to inspire the crew, they also stayed with a basic, time-honored principle – do what you can to make your Sailors feel valued individually and in their occupations.
After the last couple of years, especially post-pandemic, leadership needs to motivate its crew to ensure we’re cultivating the best talent by enriching an atmosphere that develops and retains its people by engaging both hearts and minds. To meet this end, outlining and magnifying individual, work center, and unit roles are absolutely critical. This is true in the Navy and all organizations. A recent study published by Harvard Business Review found when companies provided a clearly-defined understanding of their value within the organization, they had better growth as compared with companies that failed to develop or leverage their purpose. Specifically, 52% of purpose-driven companies experienced 10% or greater growth, while just 42% of non-purpose-driven companies realized similar gains.
Purpose also delivers benefits in terms of the work experience. Research by the University of Sussex found leaders who delivered on purpose via three main things – a clear vision, commitment to stakeholders, and strong morals – became companies or organizations in which its people were happier and more productive.
For Navy commands, this translates to better occupational satisfaction that ultimately improves retention. Since going up on blocks in early 2022, USS Iwo Jima can articulate its success through several official Navy accolades and awards as many commands often do. The Green Safety Award, the Black E, the Golden Anchor and other awards that help a unit qualify for the Battle “E” are all excellent awards. Perhaps most telling for the LHD-7 team however, is the fact that Iwo Jima had the highest Zone A and Zone B retention of all east coast LHDs while also having the lowest Zone A attrition.
The real work began early on when, rather than a command philosophy, the triad established Learn, Improve, Wellness, Ownership, and Safety as Iwo Jima’s core values. A companion article discusses how these core values drove the IWO Experience.
Iwo Jima’s 16 months in the yards were marked by a ship that got out of the yards on schedule with a crew now ready to get through basic phase, across the horizon, and back into the fight.
This may have been best said by Commander, Unites States Fleet Forces, Adm. Daryl Caudle, during January’s Surface Navy Association Symposium, who singled out Iwo Jima Sailors for their incredible accomplishments in the most austere confines.
“[IWO JIMA is] absolutely owning maintenance as a mission,” Caudle said. “Their team is striking the right balance of effort between Sailor readiness and mission readiness through things like setting up a private screening of Top Gun: Maverick in a local theater, mental health maintenance days, recognition of Core Value Champions, and more. They are absolutely killing it during the toughest environment we face - the shipyard.”
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