Commentary Search

Nuclear Airmen … Just Keep Laying Bricks

  • Published
  • By Col. Ronald Allen
  • 90th Operations Group commander
It was the summer of 1980, we were struggling through one of the hottest summers in Arkansas history. I was nine and helping on my father's construction site.

The foundation had been poured, it was level and absent cracks, so today was one of my favorite days to help. It was brick-laying time! For some reason, I always enjoyed everything about this process, from mixing the mud to stacking the bricks.

The natural rhythm resident in each and every team I witnessed accomplishing this task was simply amazing and fun to watch. But remember, I was nine, it was hot ... and I was nine.

So I very patiently and politely asked my father -- only once of course -- when we would be done so we could go home to the air conditioning. In that low, soft, yet totally exhausted father tone, "I now have a nine year old boy of my own!" he said. "Son, there's only one way to build this house -- one brick at a time."

This week I was reminded by Capt. Melissa Urbansky, our group executive officer, about this very concept --like my father, she's also a much smarter and more patient person than me.

I was in my office discussing recent questions I received and attitudes I witnessed regarding individual frustrations on how long it is taking to implement changes within our nuclear enterprise.

Outside my door, I could see Urbansky walk to the printer and grab a piece of paper. She then came into my office, quietly placed it on my desk and walked out. I continued my meeting, followed by another, then another.

At the end of the day, I was packing my nightly homework when I noticed the article she had printed for me. It was a blog by James Clear titled, "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day, But They Were Laying Bricks Every Hour."

His, and our executive officer's, message was clear: "It can be really easy to overestimate the importance of building your Roman empire and underestimate the importance of simply laying another brick ... but laying a brick every day, year after year, that's how you build an empire." 

Today is a time of unprecedented change and opportunity to build a new culture, climate and operating environment within the nuclear community. And just as Rome was not built in a day, changing the nuclear enterprise will take time, sustained effort and leadership from all levels to ultimately determine how effective and impactful our change will be.

There are numerous books, articles and classes taught on the process to affect culture change in large organizations, and many will tell you it starts with buy-in from the top.

Without support from the ultimate resource decision makers, lasting change is not possible; we have that requisite support today.

The Secretary of Defense recently echoed his continued support by declaring nuclear deterrence as "the top priority of the Defense Department" in his prepared comments to the Air Force Association.

The Secretary of the Air Force continued her demonstrated commitment by directing realignment of $500M in force improvement initiatives, securing college scholarships for future nuclear officers and incentive pay for those currently in the force; this, after already injecting much needed and immediate help in the form of money and manpower into the current fiscal year's budget.

The buy-in is not isolated to our appointed civilian leaders but is resident in our uniformed commanders as well.

The Chief of Staff, as well as our major command and numbered Air Force commanders are fully engaged studying, validating and implementing more than 350 recommended improvements. Improvements, again, focused on making a direct, positive impact on the culture, climate and operating environment of the nuclear community.

However, change driven solely from the top is not sustainable. It takes leadership at all levels. With our senior leaders fully on-board, we must do our part to ensure success of these initiatives and, ultimately, the long-term culture change desired.

So, for those of us inside the ropes, we must be present, we must be patient and we must participate.

Be present.

Being present and focused on our job, on our primary task, is absolutely critical to this change process. When we direct focus and attention on how we will operate in the future, it can be easy to lose sight of current rules, regulations and processes.

Our primary mission is to produce combat-ready forces in a safe, secure and effective manner in support the president. It is a 24/7, 365-day mission that never rests, requiring constant focus and a consistent high level of performance.

As we look forward to a brighter future, changing the tires on this moving vehicle can be a tough and distracting challenge. So now, more than ever, our daily presence, undivided focus and attention to detail while on shift, on task or on alert, is essential to the production of those required forces and the never-yielding nuclear combat capability that results.  

Be patient.

Change, especially culture change takes time. Tom Collins in his book How the Mighty Fall says, "The signature of the truly great versus the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty, but the ability to come back from setbacks ... even stronger than before."

This process is not absent challenge and frustration. Not all of the changes I asked for will be implemented and not all those you asked for will be implemented exactly as requested.

Many changes happening right now will have immediate impact on today's nuclear operations.

However, the focus cannot simply be about today and about you and me, but rather improving the collective "we."

Success and failure of this change should not be judged on single inputs or single initiatives. Each and every recommendation has multiple moving parts and layers of approval required to implement, so patience is required as the system works through these layers of approval toward implementation.

Be active.

This change does not happen without you! The unique nature of this initiative is it started with recommendations from Airmen on the ground, tasked with doing the job day-in and day-out.

Through surveys, targeted interactions and open communication, your thoughts and ideas resulted in hundreds of recommended changes. Your participation is key now in order to effectively implement these changes and provide expert feedback throughout.

Your participation is required, because the ultimate goal is not a one-time change, but rather continuous improvement. 

We are very lucky to find ourselves right here, right now, during these historic days of change within the nuclear community. I can assure you those that came before us were not afforded this same opportunity to affect positive change, and luck, as we know, is when preparation meets opportunity.

You are fully prepared, and this is our golden opportunity to affect lasting change now, as well as for those future generations of Airmen to follow. Your voice was heard and our senior leaders are on board.

Redirection of personnel, increased funding, improved facilities and innovation within our training and evaluation procedures are on the horizon.

All of us suffer from impatience from time to time, but now is not the time to get discouraged about the pace of construction, or to focus on the finished Empire. We simply need to keep laying bricks.