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Sharing best practices at Enablement Days

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Members of Program Executive Office Digital are working to share their knowledge of rapid acquisition, and a recent “Enablement Day” here was one of the initial steps.

During the training, Lt. Col. Jeremiah Sanders, deputy commander of Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Detachment 12, Kessel Run, spoke to approximately 60 personnel about how to incorporate agile practices in their work.

“Rather than starting with hundreds, or even thousands of requirements, personnel start with solving a single high-priority problem and create warfighter value quickly, one prioritized problem, or pain point, at a time,” he said.

Sanders spoke about how the Air Force had previously been developing and acquiring software through the more traditional ‘waterfall’ approach in which each phase must be completed before the next can begin. He gave the example of his own prior program, the Air Operations Center Weapon System 10.2, which had numerous legacy applications, and where despite many years and millions of dollars, upgrades never reached fruition.

Around the same time in 2017, the Air Force began working with organizations such as the Defense Innovation Board, Defense Digital Service and Defense Innovation Unit, which laid the foundation for what is now Kessel Run. Sanders relayed the story of the innovative approach taken on the tanker planning tool. The new method eliminated pen-and-paper and whiteboard planning processes and, through a minimum viable product with continuous updates, saved the Air Force significant time, money and human resources.

“This started to change my mind for thinking about AOCs,” he said. “We needed to stop thinking about a big replacement as a whole.”

Sanders met with industry personnel from Silicon Valley, originally thinking he’d be taught techniques to help get him through the engineering, manufacturing and development phase. Instead he learned industry best practices, such as lean startup management frameworks and user-centered design.

He said these processes can have a broad impact on all facets of the acquisition process to enable continuous delivery of warfighting capability without serialized decision hierarchies.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” Sanders said. “I didn’t comprehend [at the time] that our acquisition process was not optimized for the way we need to build software.

“Our heritage requirements and acquisition processes are single-pass systems optimized for certainty that we know what we need to build and stability in the world around us,” he added. “Neither of those conditions are true on the user-facing end of software capabilities, so we need entirely new management constructs and engineering practices that optimize for change and uncertainty.”

By reworking the way it was doing business, Kessel Run led the way in delivering capabilities for the AOC, and is now delivering new capabilities into operations approximately every 12 hours.

“Continuous delivery underpins everything,” Sanders said, adding that the three key steps are building, measuring and learning in a highly-repeatable manner.

“It’s about finding opportunities for optimization,”  he said. “Something we can bring about that would have significant warfighter impact.”

Sanders said there must be a malleable, evolutionary baseline and “consistency with quality.”

At the latest Enablement Day, not only did personnel from the other acquisition and functional directorates here at Hanscom attend, but also Air Force personnel from other major commands.

Capt. Christen Smith, Mobility Air Force Command and Control Requirements manager for Headquarters, Air Mobility Command, appreciated the chance to learn from Sanders.

“This training was enlightening,” she said. “As an acquisitions officer, I am familiar with the overall DOD acquisitions framework, but the majority of DOD personnel do not understand or have the opportunity to learn about commercial IT methodology.”

Smith, who told a story during the training about having a project where at the end they realized they didn’t have the full requirements at the start, said HQ AMC is actively trying to incorporate Kessel Run’s methods.

Personnel from Hanscom also thought the training was beneficial.

The source selection advisor for the Acquisition Center of Excellence for operating location-Hanscom said she found the training “interesting and helpful.”

“At the ACE, our mission is to provide expert advice and hands-on assistance to the acquisition workforce and leadership to instill credibility, excellence and innovation in the Air Force acquisition and sustainment process,” Alison Whitney said. “Learning best practices from Lt. Col. Sanders will allow me to better advise teams in the future.”

Within the past 18 months, more than 2,000 people from across the defense and intelligence communities have attended Sanders’ Enablement Day training at the Kessel Run Experimentation Lab in Boston. This was the second iteration of the training on base, with about 140 personnel attending the previous session.

Smith said she’d highly recommend that personnel from major commands or program offices that deal with software production and management attend, while Whitney encouraged all acquisition personnel to attend.

Future sessions are tentatively scheduled at Hanscom for Oct. 15, Nov. 12 and Dec. 9. Capt. Amanda Rebhi, organizer for the event at Hanscom, will send registration information two weeks prior to the events. Sessions are provided on a first-come basis and participants are able to receive continuous learning points for their attendance.