AFRL program aims to improve efficiency in processes, teach communication skills

Sue Atwood, Air Force Research Laboratory senior development planner for Space Vehicles and Directed Energy directorates, is heading up a program to help teach scientists and engineers how to better communicate and smooth out administrative procedures. (Photo by Bud Cordova)

Sue Atwood, Air Force Research Laboratory senior development planner for Space Vehicles and Directed Energy directorates, is heading up a program to help teach scientists and engineers how to better communicate and smooth out administrative procedures. (Photo by Bud Cordova)

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

A program to change the culture, teach scientists and engineers how to better communicate and smooth out administrative procedures is underway at the Air Force Research Laboratory here.

“We have the tactical skill and knowledge to develop our products — the advanced technologies for our space and directed energy missions,” said Sue Atwood, AFRL senior development planner for Space Vehicles and Directed Energy directorates. “Now we need to look strategically at the processes and the people; not just now, but five or 10 years down the road.”

Atwood has been with AFRL since 1984 and has worked in five of the seven technical divisions within the two AFRL directorates at Kirtland Air Force Base, as well as being the former deputy director for the Space Vehicles Directorate.

She gave the analogy of a shiny bus as the product and tactical ability of AFRL, and the people and processes are the engine and tires, respectively. Occasionally processes become a spike strip or personnel need new tools or skills to operate efficiently.

“We assess the ‘bureaucracy,’ and look at what we can do to remove the spike strips to perform the mission better,” Atwood said.

She is working to change the AFRL culture. One avenue is to address processes. To do so, she has technical and functional staff come together with ideas on how to improve processes.

They write the process on a white board and brainstorm, asking, “Why is it done this way? How can we improve this process?” As an example of success, teams have reduced the hiring process by 30 days.

She said changing an organization’s culture could take three to five years. Her program is in its third year here.

Atwood also has AFRL staff attend classes on communication, accountability and trust to help with teamwork, cohesion and organizational performance.

“Our technical and functional staffs can pass a theory class with flying colors. But sometimes to have them put the class’s content into practice is a little harder,” she said.

To help implement classes, coaches work with staff members on practical applications.

For example, TEDxABQ, an affiliate of TED Talks, worked with AFRL staff members on briefing skills, including how to connect with audiences and tell their important story.

Scientists gave TEDx-style briefs on their research, and presentations were recorded. Atwood said many AFRL employees have never seen themselves brief. When people can see their foot twitching or themselves reading slides, they see how to improve presentations.

Staff for the briefings came from various divisions and offices. In time, some presentations will be publicly available.

“Change and improvement takes time,” Atwood said. “People, processes and products all are important aspects to any organization …We are working on peeling back the layers a little at a time to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our workforce and processes to meet our missions.”