In my career to date I’ve been fortunate to work with many elite, high performing teams. Over the last couple of years those have included teams of submariners. I’ve always thought they were good at what they do, but I’ve recently had the good fortune to see them in close quarters, and gain personal insights into their unique working environment.

In today’s society, where we expect instant feedback through social media, these dedicated professionals spend weeks away and have minimal communication with the outside world. As a submariner you must get used to the effects of a lack of natural sunlight, and with a bare minimum crew you’re kept very busy on regular broken shifts (six hours on, six hours off). Getting into a regular rhythm is challenging, particularly when your six hours off includes managing personal administration, getting some down-time, and most importantly getting the sleep you need to maintain your physical and mental health. All this in claustrophobic accommodation for six to nine months at a time. You may not be able to share where you’re being deployed, or what you’re doing there, leading to further stresses on your family and friends.

As I read about the future submarine project and its focus on technical systems design, as a human factors expert I am drawn to enhancing these powerful vessels’ future effectiveness: through better human performance. Beyond advances in technology, it’s my view that a human-centred approach – right from the start of the design phase – is critical to ensuring our newest submarines give us our best-possible return on investment.

Deeper thinking

Contemporary human factors tools and practices that put submariners – not submarines – at the heart of the program are fundamentally important. They can set clear benchmarks for human performance, and be set up to monitor and continue to optimise individual and team outcomes as the project evolves. Our newest submarines must not only be able to carry state-of-the-art combat systems and run more efficiently, they must be able to better manage and monitor stress, fatigue and distractions of their crews, to further enhance their crew members’ health and wellbeing.

In short, whilst new submarine combat technology is clearly important, the introduction of this technology will only be effective if we also consider the complex set of human resources and decisions required to make combat technology work.

A recent article suggested about 25 experienced Australian Navy engineers will shortly begin work on the new submarines with the French Directions des Constructions Navale Services (DCNS) and American Lockheed Martin engineering teams. While a human factors specialist is bound to be part of the team, it is critical that this role considers the broader impact that the new technologies will bring to submariners in the new vessels, and implement best practice in human factors design at an early stage.

But how would this work in reality?

Sleep and combat systems

A rising body of research

From my perspective at Human + Systems Excellence, I know of many scientifically-validated human factors programs and tools that could enhance effectiveness through a better understanding of human performance. For example:

  • Use of lights: Studies have increasingly pointed to the effect of exposure to different types of light on melatonin production, which is a key factor in determining not only how soundly we are able to sleep, but how alert we are at peak times of the day. Melatonin levels also correlate over a longer-term with the effectiveness of our immune systems, meaning these levels have an impact on whether our health improves or deteriorates over time. Blue wavelengths of light, which are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times, and mood, seem to be the most disruptive at night. Many control rooms where personnel are required to monitor and manage complex systems (e.g. nuclear powerplants) and maintain good situational awareness have utilised this science – optimising performance with exposure to blue light when required to stay awake and alert, which is removed when preparing for sleep. Submarine design could learn from this experience to improve submariner awareness during combat situations, and sleep quality during down times.Sleep monitoring device
  • Sleep monitoring devices: This one seems straightforward, but it can be surprising just how little is done to monitor simple indicators such as the quantity and quality of sleep. Advanced tools that monitor sleep such as the Resmed S+, Fatigue Science readibands or Phillips Respironics actiwatches continue to evolve and deliver better data all the time. These have been successfully utilised by many elite teams across industries, to better understand the implications of disrupted sleep. Some teams I have worked with now have the ability to automatically build fatigue risk management profiles from this information, and can determine capacity among team members based on their sleep profile. This allows teams to make better decisions about who should be performing different activities, and manage shift schedules to optimise performance and look after team members’ health and wellbeing at an individual level, which leads (potentially) to adapting watch routines to better match optimised sleep patterns.
  • Stress and distraction management: Removing distractions is critical to enabling high performance outcomes, particularly when working in time-critical, error intolerant workplaces. This is basically the workplace equivalent of ‘Sports Psychology 101’. You’re probably reading this article via LinkedIn, and you found it by actively scrolling through a feed on your tablet or mobile, and ignoring the physical environment around you. Many of us simply don’t realise how regularly we scan our devices, a practice psychologists have found is eroding human attention spans. One of the first casualties of this process is our ability to deliver high performance, and stay focused on our jobs. Elite performers such as athletes, racing car drivers, top gun fighter pilots and some surgeons are trained to remove distractions and visualise the high-pressure tasks they’re expected to perform. They’re expected to visually simulate what could go wrong and rehearse for those events. They’re also very good at consciously understanding how focused they are at any given time with the capacity to utilise techniques to re-focus their attention to the primary task at hand.

In recent times, specialised training programs have been developed that help team members stay focused and improve their conscious level of self-awareness. Some programs integrate with heart and breathing rates, others are designed to reduce stress, measured through bio-sensors. All these technologies can be used to improve performance through experimentation and iteration.

A human-centred future

When I picture future submarine capability, I see a Commander and their team with significantly enhanced human performance metrics to determine who does what and when. I see sleeping pods designed to optimise the crew’s ability to manage their fatigue, and systems that help optimise the alignment of individuals and teams to tasks. Not only does a human-centred approach improve the tactical, day-to-day application of tasks, but it provides a future foundation for better team culture and a more inclusive crew.

The mindset of a future submariner should reflect a growing respect for the team’s health and wellbeing to enable high performance outcomes in critical combat situations. The future submarine project has every opportunity to develop this culture, where human performance is truly understood to be the future of capability.

As always, I’d love to hear from you with your take on the future submarines project, or about how you believe a human-centred approach could be used in your industry.

Get in touch with me to discuss or leave a comment below.

Ben