By Susan A. Romano, AFTAC Public Affairs
/ Published September 17, 2018
PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company and captain of industry once said, “Failure is the only opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.”
One Air Force organization is taking Ford’s words to heart. The Air Force Technical Applications Center, the sole agency within the Department of Defense tasked with monitoring nuclear treaties and nuclear detonations around the world, is emphasizing to its workforce the importance of learning through failure.
In 2013, AFTAC formed an Innovation Lab to find ways to improve and accomplish their mission by developing concepts and technologies faster and cheaper. But the number one reason for establishing the lab was to enable innovators within the center to take calculated risks and evolve from failure to achieve success. From that concept grew the center’s “eFAILution” wall – a prominent centerpiece of projects displayed on the wall that didn’t quite make the grade. It’s what lab personnel describe as “…a lineage of success born of failure…” and their central message is simple: continue to learn and evolve from your mistakes.
“AFTAC has some of the most incredibly talented people in the Air Force,” said Col. Chad Hartman, AFTAC commander, “but our most powerful attribute is this organization’s long-standing culture of continuous learning. We are not simply ‘celebrating failure’ at AFTAC; what we are celebrating is a willingness to take risks and fail forward in order to learn.”
While Webster’s defines failure as the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective, the team of AFTAC’s premier enablers of innovation looks at failure as a means to achieve a better, more productive outcome, with an aim at unleashing a innovation mindset.
“When people come to the lab with a concept, we don’t want them to feel discouraged if their design doesn’t work the first time,” said Master Sgt. Nathan Shaw, lab superintendent. “The whole idea is to cultivate and capitalize on the talent of the workers here at AFTAC and encourage them to take their concepts and make them a reality, all while operating in a positive learning environment.”
The lab’s wall has about a dozen projects ranging in scope from a cooked Raspberry Pi (a tiny single-board computer) to an entirely 3-D printed programmable rover that can be operated remotely or autonomously. The lessons gained from these failures have energized the lab team and AFTAC’s 1,000+ strong workforce to rethink solutions to problems.
“There has been a lot of discussion at all levels in the Air Force recently about failure,” said 1st Lt. Drew Belk, Innovation Lab flight commander. “The Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff have been stressing the importance of ‘shaping our competitive edge’ through innovation, which includes learning from failure, even if it means accepting more risk.”
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson recently spoke at a conference in Montgomery, Ala., where she said, “It doesn’t matter to me if (Airmen) get it right the first time. It matters to all of us that we keep innovating constantly, rather than sitting back and analyzing people for failure.”
Belk is encouraged by Wilson’s leadership and views on the importance of failing in the name of mission accomplishment. “I believe the key thing to remember is failure is only fatal if it is final. Failure provides us the opportunity to learn and make the next iteration better,” he said.
Any successful inventor will tell you that virtually nothing ever works on the first try. That’s why AFTAC’s senior leaders realize one of the key ingredients to the lab’s success comes down to one word: persistence.
“Typically, high-speed thinkers are full of ideas and work hard to transfer their ideas from thought-to-product,” said Dr. Dan DeForest, AFTAC’s Director of Strategic Integration. “Sometimes, however, their ideas simply don’t come to fruition, whether that’s due to a design flaw, engineering obstacle, or even a lack of resources. But they don’t give up – they continue to persist and seek out workable solutions. It’s senior leadership’s job to clear the path to allow this persistence.”
Couple that persistence with failure and learning, and you have a recipe for success. “The value of learning from failure cannot be overstated,” said Hartman.
The Innovation Lab has grown exponentially since its inception and has been benchmarked by other organizations throughout the Air Force. The team of AFTAC Airmen who make up the Innovation Lab possess a diverse set of skills: electrical, chemical and mechanical engineers; computer scientists and programmers; technical applications specialists; and machinists, just to name a few. Each Airman has demonstrated a persistent desire to excel while applying their vast knowledge and abilities.
“One of the more enjoyable challenges in the lab is thinking of ways to improve things that already work,” said Tech. Sgt. Collin J. Pesicka, noncommissioned officer-in-charge of rapid development. “When you spend time fixing things that are broken, you can’t help but wonder about complacency. That’s why we began saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, make it better.’ It’s important to investigate all potential opportunities to fail during the continuous improvement process. And sometimes that includes reinventing the wheel.”
For example, lab personnel learned the hard way when they engineered a device to capture debris from a routing table by attaching a vacuum. They wanted to create a solution to reduce airborne effluents. However, after debris failed to get sucked up into the vacuum, they realized there was a huge bottleneck near the attachment.
“The initial design contained an unforeseen choke point, which failed to allow for effective dust extraction,” said Belk. “Through ‘eFAILution’ we prevailed and developed a better design that continues to suck to this day, which in this case is a good thing!”
With the requirement to develop more high-power computing capabilities and technologies, the potential for this kind of innovation is a game-changer.
“Failure in the U.S. Air Force has historically been a word whispered behind closed doors and swept under the rug as much as possible,” said Capt Barron Stone, 709th Support Squadron director of operations and former officer-in-charge of the Innovation Lab. “It’s encouraging to be a part of the culture change that highlights failure as a means of getting to a better final product. Grass-roots innovation and engineering efforts often require assumptions to expedite progress or save money. With these assumptions, failure is inevitable, but it allows us to learn quickly and make adjustments to get a successful prototype. It’s been extremely refreshing and rewarding to be a part of this team.”
Today, Air Force leadership at the highest levels have challenged its officers and senior enlisted advisors to create a culture where Airmen can and should put innovation at the forefront of their daily actions and encourage them to step outside their comfort zone to kick-start innovation while trying out new ideas.
AFTAC has proven it’s an organization that’s capitalizing on that challenge.
“Our National Defense Strategy recognizes that we have to be agile enough to deliver performance at the speed of relevance because the complexity and pace of change we face in the world today is only increasing,” said Hartman. “AFTAC’s mindset of iterative learning from failure is key to enabling the organizational agility we require to be successful. I’m extremely proud of our men and women’s ingenuity.”
Belk and his team are encouraging their co-workers to come to the lab with project ideas. “If the concept works, we’ll celebrate. If the concept doesn’t work, we’ll still celebrate and encourage them to go back to the drawing board to apply the lessons we’ve learned to make the next generation prototype a success.”