23 A. Quality the ‘Rickoverian Core’: a Tribute to Admiral Hyman G Rickover

Quality the ‘Rickoverian Core’: a Tribute to Admiral Hyman G Rickover80GK18497


              The first submarine of the Trident class, the Ohio, was launched on April 7, 1979, but two more years elapsed before she could set sail in Long Island sound for sea trials amidst raging controversy.  Demonstrators protested against the deployment of the submarine at the Electric Boat Ship Yard.  Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the atomic reactor that powered the submarine had to sneak into the facility and hide behind a mattress when he boarded the ship to avoid the reporters.  The Ohio stopped soon after it made head way in the sound as a mechanic had forgotten to install a crucial component for its engine.  The trials could resume only after several hours when the missing part was installed.

             Part of the delay was due to the fact that much of the initial work on the submarine had to be redone as thousand of welds had been improperly carried out and had to be re-welded and hundreds of pipes and valves were in wrong place.

             The fact that, very strict quality control and inspection form the very basis of effective modern technology had been accepted.  The untiring efforts of Adm. Rickover had finally succeeded in anchoring the thought of Quality in the American industry associated with the Nuclear Submarine production.  In this artilce an attempt has been made to trace the transition of Rickover from an engineer to a Quality Guru whose success lay in disciplining technology to meet US Navy’s requirements.

 Rickover the Inspector

             Admiral Hyman G. Rickover had acquired his masters in electrical engineering and belonged to an era where inspection by use of specifications was well established.  The methods to control variation included both specifications and control charts and the workers were no longer concerned about the form, function or fit of the final piece.  Their job was to make it to the specification and leave it to the inspector to segregate the out of specification products.

             However, as products and processes became more and more complex the need to contain variation, which seemed insignificant before, became a critical necessity.  The American nuclear submarine program envisaged emphasis on all aspects of precision engineering and the technological demands saw Rickover expand his vision in the field of inspection and quality.

             Rickover had spent two years (mid 1933 onwards) assigned to the office of the Inspector of Naval Material.  While at Philadelphia his job was to make sure that the material manufactured for the US Navy met both specification and schedules.  This tenure of his yielded rich dividends later,  when he encountered problems pertaining to standards of workmanship and material specification.  This is well illustrated by the following episodes on “Welding” in the nuclear submarine projects.

             Improper Welds.       One particular nuclear plant steam system had ninety-nine carbon-steel welds.  The manufacturer stated that the welds had been radio graphed and met specifications.  But an investigation using correct procedures and proper X-ray sensitivity showed that only 10 percent met standards set by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; 35 percent had defects in excess of the standards; and 55 percent had such rough external surfaces that interpretation was uncertain.  The poor workmanship was detected on time and remedied, only because Rickover insisted that manufacturers meet the standards that they themselves had accepted in the contract.

             Welding Electrodes.                        The nuclear welding was stopped in the Mare Stand Naval Shipyard because it was observed that the welding electrodes were made of stellite instead of stainless steel.  The yard personnel started radio graphing cans of stainless steel electrodes and found to their dismay that several cans had a few electrodes of the wrong material.  The electrodes were being supplied by five different electrode manufacturers.  Rickover realised that he had no choice but to delve into the material control aspects of the entire welding industry.  He had to introduce contract clauses whereby electrodes for Naval Reactors would be manufactured in such a way as to avoid this problem.

             Material Mismatch.               In the salt water piping system of a submarine stainless steel fitting had been welded into a nickel copper alloy piping.  This fitting had been certified as nickel copper and the same had been etched on it.  Rickover appreciated that had the steel fitting been cleared for use it would have corroded away and a serious accident could have occurred.  Remedial measures included instituting inspection procedures from the point of material procurement to final supply.

             Engineering Ethics.                        Adm. RIckover has said “Since engineering is a profession which affects the material basis of everyone’s life there is almost always an unconsulted third party involved in any contract between the engineer and those who employ him and that is the country, the people as a whole.  Engineering ethics ought therefore to safeguard their interests most carefully”.  His commitment to this ideology is best illustrated in the incident of the bursting of a small steam line in the engine room at Electric Boat.  Piping in the engine room was a routine, non nuclear matter, but Rickover was concerned about the implications of the accident.  After a thorough two week investigation it came to light that the pipe was not a seamless pipe as it should have been.   It was a rolled and welded pipe, normally used for stanchions, hand rails etc. and not for carrying high pressure steam.  There was no way to be completely sure of which type of piping had been used throughout the engine room, there were thousands of feet of it already installed and insulated.  Such a failure at sea could have meant the loss of a ship.

             Rickover did not take long to decide “Rip it all out and replace it.  Every damn inch”.  He was told that this would mean a massive delay in the sea date, but he just said, “Replace it as fast as you can, but it’s got to be absolutely right, however long it takes.  We are not going to sea with faulty piping”.  He further said “We’ve got to find out how this sort of mistake was made and how it got through the inspection system.  I want to look back on this as a red letter day, the day we straightened out the quality control system on piping”.

             Casual Approach to Specification & Standards.                        In all the above examples it will be seen that poor workmanship was part of the cause, but the basic problem was the failure of management to enforce standards.  The fault also lay directly with the technical associations who established the standards and with customers who accepted inferior work.

             The underlying reason for the malady was the thought that specifications were considered as desirable goal rather than a firm requirement.  Further, the spirit behind the specification was not appreciated and hence the importance of adhering to them got diluted.  To his dismay Rickover found that manufacturers changed the specifications on their own or disregarded and bypassed them, without intimating the customer.   Needless to say that monetary considerations and lure of profits were also prime movers in supplying sub standard items.

             The demands of the technology of a very stringent inspection from source to the supply were not being met, had there been any other person these would have escaped attention and ruthless corrective measures to steer the Nuke programme to a triumph would not have been instituted.  Rickover firmly believed in the philosophy that the standards set were the barest minimum to be met and that efforts that came close to the standards were simply not good enough.

             Personal Involvement.        Rickover elevated inspection to a level of philosophy when he propounded that the ship yards had to accept the fact that management systems did not answer and could not answer problems of modern technology.  Knowledge of the job i.e. competence was essential and competence could not be achieved without continuity.  However neither competence nor continuity in themselves were sufficient, inspection was an essential ingredient.  The yard staff had to get personally involved on the ship floor and not bide their time in their offices.

             The inspector in Rickover had become his guiding philosopher.

  Quality Assurance/ Control

             Loss of the Thresher.          The Thresher was lost on 10th April 1963.  She began her final dive at 0747 hrs.  From 0909 to 0911 the ship might have blown its ballast tanks, at 0922 the propulsion plant might have stopped or shifted to a lower speed.  At about 0913 the ship reported it was experiencing minor difficulty and was attempting to blow its ballast tanks.  From 0913 to 0914 the ship might have blown its ballast tanks again, and at 0918 came sounds that the navigator of the Skylark identified as those of a ship breaking up.

             In the court’s opinion, the underlying cause of the disaster was the rapid change in material requirements called for by the accelerated pace of submarine technical developments.  The ramifications of the disaster were greater than the tragic loss of Thresher.  The Navy had to adapt to the technological demands being placed upon it by improving drastically the practices of both the government and private shipyards.  It had to upgrade the design activities, fabrication techniques, and inspection methods.

             Rickover said “I believe the loss of the Thresher should not be viewed solely as the result of failure of a specific braze, weld system, or component, but rather should be considered  a consequence of philosophy of design, construction and inspection that has been permitted in our naval ship building program.  I think it is important that we re-evaluate our present practices where, in the desire to make advancements, we may have forsaken the fundamentals of good engineering”.  The loss of Thresher catapulted Rickover from the realm of good engineering and stringent inspection to the plane of quality control and quality assurance.

             A brief look at the definitions (collated from various documents like the BS4778) of Inspection, Quality Control and Assurance at this stage would be relevant for appreciating the transition of Rickover from an engineer to an inspector and finally to a Quality Guru.

             Inspection.    It involves activities such as measuring, examining, testing, gauging, one or more characteristics of a product or service and comparing these with specified requirements to determine conformity.

             QC.     Quality control, contrary to the general belief that it is the recycled good old inspection, encompasses the operational techniques and activities that are used to fulfil requirement for quality.  QC has a wider role to play and requires commitment from the manufacturers.

             QA.     Quality Assurance is all those planned and systematic actions necessary to provide adequate confidence that a product or service will satisfy given requirements for quality.  For Quality Assurance to be effective, it requires a continuous evaluation of factors that affect the adequacy of the design or specification for intended applications, as well as verification and audits of production, installation and inspection operations.

 Rickover and Quality Control

             Rickover’s effort to upgrade quality of small components – valves, switchgear, control equipment etc had been difficult but reasonably successful.  His requirements of quality control met with the arguments that it could not be done and that the standards should be relaxed and products accepted.   However, in one case, the Germans came to his rescue indirectly, they refused to accept that company’s quality control procedures could not be changed.  The company finally agreed to provide special procedures and controls.

             Rickover decided to develop his own quality control programs for required hardware, this represented a fundamental change in the basic philosophy of the Reactor program by introducing tremendous responsibility along with breadth of technical coverage.    The consequences to the American industry were noteworthy as they got taste of the ‘Rickoverian’ concept of quality.  These programs were brilliantly accomplished and ultimately led to development of a competitive commercial industry.

             Rickover spent lot of time and effort at upgrading American industry, preaching the need of “Zero Defects” and “quality first”.  The industries first reaction was to hire a quality control expert, to bestow titles on promising executives, and to compose advertisements and slogans.  The next step was to publish QC manuals and voluminous procedures which were largely impractical.  Quality circles, seminars and training programs became the order of the day and the actual up gradation of the product quality was lost in the background.

 Rickover and Quality Assurance

             Rickover felt that key ingredient in assuring quality lay not in physical manifestation but in a frame of mind, a point of view.  That he succeeded in forcing the industry to think about quality and professionalism is evident from the success of his nuclear submarine program.

             The transition of Rickover from an engineer to a Quality Guru was completed when he expanded his vision to philosophies that quality can only be assured by personal involvement at each level. Implying thereby that quality has to be ingrained into a person’s work ethics irrespective of the job he may actually be carrying out. Rickover propounded the concept of ‘one’s country being the invisible third party’. Hence implying that personal involvement and commitment to quality,  is a service to the nation and is patriotic in substance. A person defaulting on quality intentionally or due to lack of knowledge or hard work, would have to answer to the nation. He was convinced that quality had to be placed before self and lent it a patriotic fervour. He had found his mantra to unprecedented technological success.

             Rickover’s definition of quality merits consideration alongside the definition given by Dr. Genichi Taguchi who says that, “ Quality is  a loss function, a loss to the society”. Dr. Taguchi has in a way put a loss value to quality and highlighted the economic ramification of the same to society as a whole.

            The interpretations given to quality by these two giants have enormous relevance to emerging technologies in countries like India and China. Nations which are on the tarmac of rapid industrialisation need to heed to the ‘Rickoverian’ concept for personal involvement as well as Dr. Taguchi’s concern for loss to the society. This then would form an ideal platform for Quality experts in marshalling out a clear quality concept  at national level suitable to a country’s thinking and character.  It may be interesting to note that Dr. Taguchi had propagated his thoughts after a long stay in India, that he was impressed by Indian culture and the thinking process.

             The Price.      Quality has to be a Navy’s sheet anchor if it has to continue to perform at peak levels with indigenous spares and armament.  The Naval deployment environment being harsh, in fact merciless, the penalty to be paid in war for poor quality armament and ships would be tremendous.  The need of the day is to strengthen the foundations of quality by upgrading inspection methods, quality control techniques and instituting practical quality assurance procedures.  The emphasis has to shift from “Why the procedure should be followed” to “How it can be followed”.  A sense of national pride should prevent a manufacturer (at least those involved with defence products) to ask for concessions on accepted specifications, in fact his product should be better than the standard.

             Finally, the quality man too is a professional and would be a valuable asset to the society.  In Rickover’s words “The role of the professional in society is to lead by his special knowledge, his well trained intellect and his dispassionate habit of visualizing problems in terms of fundamental principles to whatever specific task is entrusted to him”.

It is only due to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s relentless pursuit and embedding of quality in the US Navy’s nuclear submarine programme that the US Navy today proudly sails a formidable fleet of nuclear submarines.


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