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AMC commander talks innovation vs. invention

  • Published
  • By Gen. Paul Selva
  • Air Mobility Command commander
This past October marked our twelfth year of sustained combat operations in Afghanistan.

During more than a decade of war, you've proven you are part of the best trained and equipped Air Force the world has ever known. You've attained that distinction by doing things right.

Doing things right includes following a disciplined approach to executing your mission such as following checklists, established procedures, policies, and guidance.

However, as your commander, I challenge you not just to do things right, but to do the right things, a more difficult, but absolutely essential element of military service. Doing the right things includes making informed, deliberate decisions as we seek ways to improve mission execution.

Put another way, I challenge you to work with your first line supervisors, non-commissioned officers, senior non-commissioned officers, and commanders to find new, better, more efficient ways to execute our mission. Accept only the risks you are empowered to accept, but work aggressively to find efficiency and eliminate inefficiency.

Earlier this fall during the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference, General Welsh asked what keeps me up at night. My answer was simple: "Invention versus Innovation."

My greatest worry is that, after 12 years of continuous combat operations, some Airmen have become accustomed to accepting invention as the approved way of doing business. Mishap investigation boards frequently cite inattention, complacency, and poor judgment as causal factors in accidents. The first two can get you into a bind; unfortunately poor judgment often follows as Airmen believe they need to create a new way out of trouble.

Ultimately, executing tasks in a non-standard fashion or executing unapproved or "on-the-fly" techniques presents a real risk to our Airmen, our resources, and our mission.
Over the course of the past year, we've had nine Class A mishaps. As a result, we've lost nine Airmen--five on-duty and four off-duty. These are men and women we will never get back.

In some of these mishaps, the Airmen involved perceived a sense of urgency not justified by the situation, incorrectly weighed risk versus reward leading to the acceptance of risk they were not empowered to accept, and ultimately made decisions characterized by development of new, untested, on-the-fly techniques with devastating consequences.

So, put simply, I am concerned that we have Airmen "inventing" new, untested procedures, placing themselves and their fellow Airmen at risk when it isn't necessary.

This year, General Welsh released our Air Force's Vision, World's Greatest Air Force - Powered by Airmen, Fueled by Innovation. In conducting your daily activities you should feel empowered to be innovators. Innovation is a deliberate process of seeking ways to do things more effectively and efficiently through informed decision making and within the margin of safety provided by Air Force policies and guidance.

We need innovators, not inventors. There is a critical difference between innovation and invention. As you might have surmised, I consider invention to be creation on-the-fly--an uninformed, last minute, hurried choice that often conflicts with or willfully violates established procedures.

We need all Airmen to critically evaluate their assigned tasks and missions and engage their leadership if they have a better way to get the job done. As with most intellectual discussions, it's useful to look to a clear example for clarification. Innovation can occur anywhere as two Airmen recently proved with the KC-135.

Staff Sergeants Alex Aguayo and Michael Rogers from the 6th Maintenance Squadron at MacDill AFB, Fla., improved an anti-corrosive paint process for KC-135 wheels. Until now, KC-135 wheels were painted and cured one side at a time--a process requiring 26 hours.

Confident there was a better way, these aircraft metal technicians designed and built a 360-degree plane rotation turn table wheel stand that allows both sides of the wheel to be painted at the same time. Their design cuts a time-intensive painting and curing process in half!

I believe their new design will become a KC-135 fleet benchmark very soon.

These Airmen knew their jobs and guiding regulations through and through, but found a more efficient and effective way to get the work done. If Airmen can find innovations within a 57-year old airframe and established procedures, I am confident more Airmen will find innovations within everything we do.

The Air Force needs you to be innovators.

My message to you as the professional, seasoned, or aspiring experts in your craft is to always understand and adhere to Air Force instructions and technical order guidance. Speak up when you need help or see room for improvement in any process. Don't invent, innovate.

In this time of fiscal uncertainty, our Air Force must be able to provide capabilities our nation can afford. We need to continue to seek innovations and savings where feasible. You are the key to that process and to the continued success of our Air Force and our nation.

Be safe. We cannot afford to squander our most precious resource--you!