by Col. Robert Novotny
Commander, 48th Fighter Wing
11/25/2014 - ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England -- "Throughout
history, people with new ideas - who think differently and try to
change things - have always been called troublemakers." -Richelle Mead,
The Air Force is pushing hard for us to innovate. You hear it when our
senior leaders give speeches or post articles imploring us to improve.
Examples include the AFSO21 process, or the new Airmen Powered by
Innovation program launched in April. All of that is great, except for
the fact that over the last 30 years, we've created an organization that
is resistant to failure.
When was the last time you heard someone say, "It's okay to not spend
all of your money at the end of the fiscal year," or, "Getting a three
on your EPR [enlisted performance report] is awesome!" Never, right?
Clearly we have a problem. Innovation and fear of failure are
incompatible. Like oil and water, a culture afraid to take risk is
inherently unable to explore the sometimes-ugly world of innovation.
Here's some good news. Since the birth of the airplane, Airmen have
always been innovative. Innovation is resident in our DNA - just maybe a
bit dormant right now.
A pair of brave, "troublemaker" bicycle mechanics took flight at Kitty
Hawk, Doolittle's courageous "troublemakers" launched B-25 bombers off
of the USS Hornet, and a fearless "troublemaker" named Chuck Yeager are
all legacy examples showcasing the rich history of risk-taking Airmen.
If you've ever been to Edwards Air Force Base in California, you know
that nearly every street is named for an innovative Airman who gave his
or her life pushing the envelope - failing while innovating. Given that
innovation is part of our culture, how can we create an environment at
Royal Air Force Lakenheath where our Airmen are willing to innovate
without fear of failure?
First, I think we need to agree that we have to be better than we are -
with our precious time, our tremendous Airmen and our finite resources.
In the past several months, the Air Force released more Airmen in an
attempt to meet Congressionally-mandated end strengths. This reduction
in manpower is stressing the team more than ever. Furthermore, our team
is now in a period of mission-growth that I can't remember in recent
We all thought that the drawdown in Afghanistan would bring relief, but
the new fight in Iraq and Syria, a pandemic virus coupled with declining
security in Africa, and other resurgent threats, demand improvements in
the way we accomplish our mission. It is only appropriate that an old
English proverb stated, "Necessity is the mother of invention." I think
that applies to us right now.
Second, and most important, we have to foster a culture that is willing
to experiment and fail during discovery. I have a big role in this
culture, but I am convinced our first and second-level supervisors will
make or break this effort. Every time I meet with the first-term Airmen,
I am reminded that we recruit and retain brilliant Americans, and they
have great ideas. They are also a fresh set of eyes in the organization
with a long list of questions about how we're doing business.
If you're a young supervisor, listen to your folks. Engage with them
about how to improve the organization. Our Airmen, regardless of rank or
experience, are the key to our future. You have to empower them to take
action on their ideas, and reward them when they succeed - and fail. As
soon as we admonish an Airman for trying and failing, we can be certain
they won't try again.
Without a doubt, we know there are areas where failure brings a high
price - like flight and weapons safety, and our healthcare. But there
are countless areas around this installation, to include bureaucratic
processes, communication, staffing, mission accomplishment and finances,
where we can make improvements. If in doubt, start small and build some
momentum. Every improvement, no matter how small, will make our team
I know this is easier said than done, and we can't change it overnight. I
also know that some folks won't trust me when I say it's okay to fail.
Fair enough. I can tell you we are listening to your ideas and making
improvements. Because of your ideas, we've already raised the speed
limit on the perimeter road, canceled monthly meetings, returned
promotion ceremonies to the squadrons, deleted multiple briefing
requirements, and so on. All of these improvements are incredibly simple
and small changes that make our lives better - ideas that came from our
Airmen. Those are not truly innovative ideas, but they are better ways
of doing business, and we're listening.
Together we can push the boundaries. Our youngest Airmen hold the keys
to this change. Listen to them, and take action. Don't be afraid to try
and fail. I've got your back. Don't believe your idea will survive to
implementation, but you still want to try it? Send it to me, and I'll
try it. My post box is PSC 41, Box 1. Just scribble it on a 3x5 card,
and stick it in the mail next time you're at the post office. They'll
send it to me anonymously.
We also have an active AFSO21 team that can help you get your ideas off
the ground. Have you heard about the 48th Component Maintenance
Squadron's egress team that just finished an AFSO21 project on ejection
seat inspections? To date, they have saved 21,000 man hours, $450,000,
and turned in 501 tools while increasing the quality assurance pass rate
from 67 percent to 100 percent.
That great idea was successful because the master sergeant running the
shop listened to a senior airman and a staff sergeant. Ideas like that
don't come from colonels. Those ideas come from Airmen. We're currently
working an AFSO21 project on munitions scheduling, and I just asked a
team of airmen and junior NCOs to help improve our sponsor program. They
had the ideas, not me.
Innovation will save us money - which is good - but, more importantly,
it will save us time. Time that will go back to you and your team. I
want you to keep that elusive "white space" time for yourselves. You
know best what to do with your time.
Hopefully you'll use that time to get to the gym, travel Europe, mentor a
young Airman, or experiment with ways to do our mission better. We can
innovate together if we accept the fact that it comes with a price. A
price we're willing to pay.
I like Winston Churchill quotes, so I'll leave you with this one: "No
idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered." Trust your
intuition, and let's get after this together.