By Air Force Staff Sgt. Jessica H. Smith, 18th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published January 13, 2021
The Innovations Office not only has the potential to impact the entire Air Force, but has shown how important it is at a Wing level. As a Wing Staff Agency, it’s opening better lines of communication – giving Airmen a voice at every level and providing the 18th Wing with input and information directly from the source. (Courtesy Photo)
As the largest U.S. installation in the Asia-Pacific region, the 18th Wing is responsible for delivering decisive air and cyberspace capabilities and relies on a multitude of aspects to accomplish the mission – one of those key aspects is innovation.
Previously, the innovation efforts at Kadena Air Base were formed on a volunteer basis. However, within the last year, the 18th Wing has established an official Innovations Office as part of the Wing Staff Agencies.
In order to create a culture of innovation, the agency encourages members to come forward with ideas no matter how simple or complex they may be and regardless of rank or position.
“We want Airmen to be able to observe problems they’re seeing in their units and have a path to resolve those problems in conjunction with their leadership, but not necessarily relying on their leadership to drive the process,” explained Maj. Aaron Bignault, chief of innovations for the 18th Wing.
Essential to solving these problems is making connections with the right people – a central role of the program.
“One of the biggest things we do is get folks together. We help link people who have ideas with people that can help them so they can collaborate together,” Bignault said. “Folks send us their ideas; we help them refine those and we link them up with experts who might be able to further refine the idea or develop it into something useful.”
The Air Force has provided a pool of funds specifically for creating innovations. The funding paths at the 18th Wing are broken down into three tiers. The first tier allots $5,000 per squadron. The second tier supports projects reviewed by the Innovations Office and concurred by the squadron’s commander requiring $35,000 or less. Finally, the third tier is for projects requiring more than $35,000, which compete at the Wing level in the Shogun Spark Tank competition.
Funding can often go quickly and may sometimes seem difficult to acquire, but the innovations team urges individuals to submit problems or ideas regardless.
“We will go out and look for additional funding; we really do try hard to make sure that if they submit something and they have really good merit, we get funding for it,” said Tech. Sgt. Tomas Landaverde, NCO in charge of innovations for the 18th Wing. “We still want everybody to send as much as they have – don’t hold anything back because we go out and look for additional money.”
While there’s no minimum of information or concepts required to submit to the program, some ideas may not be selected to move forward in the process. However, that doesn’t mean it ends there.
“At the most basic level we’ll even just accept problems and then potentially help you figure out how to come up with a solution,” Bignault explained. “If you have a basic idea but it needs some work, we’ll pair you up with somebody who’s a subject matter expert in that area and help work that problem further until you get to something you can implement.”
The relatively new program has big plans for the future with hopes of encouraging more innovative efforts and free thought. Currently, an innovations lab is being built to provide a communal place for individuals to work together and to provide resources such as programming technology, 3D printers and etchers to enable design, physical creation and testing of ideas or concepts.
Just because the program is still growing doesn’t mean the ideas coming out of Kadena are small. Every idea has the potential to be adapted by other bases or implemented at the Air Force level, much like the LodgeNET program, now known as Contingency Quarters Management Accountability Platform – a creation originating from the 18th Wing Force Support Squadron.
The Innovations Office not only has the potential to impact the entire Air Force, but has shown how important it is at a Wing level. As a Wing Staff Agency, it’s opening better lines of communication – giving Airmen a voice at every level and providing the 18th Wing with input and information directly from the source.
“I think that’s the greatest thing – that we have communication from the lowest ranking Airmen to the General, which allows us to flow information back and forth; we’re marrying whatever comes from grassroots to leadership,” Landaverde explained. “We’re here to help facilitate the innovation process – that’s what we care about.”
In Bignault’s opinion, innovation is critical to Air Force operations. He and Landaverde both plan to continue to visit units, start conversations and spark creativity amongst Team Kadena members.
“This gives us an opportunity to take ideas from the youngest Airmen and make a path to make those impactful to the Air Force on the grand scale,” Bignault said. “This gives us the knowledge to improve our mission capability and mission readiness … All those aspects can be improved through innovation – this gives us the path to do that.”