Excellence through accountability
By Brig. Gen. Susan Helms, 45th SW commander
/ Published June 20, 2008
PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The mission of the 45 Space Wing is a complicated one that depends on thousands of Airmen, civil servants, and contractors doing very detailed work in a tightly coordinated manner. The slightest error at any point in the process can mean disastrous results, from a rocket failing to launch, to a satellite failing to reach its right orbit or not working properly once it is there.
Our nation entrusts us, the United States Air Force, to maintain our mission for 'Assured Access To Space', and there is a comprehensive strategy whereby we train space professionals to use checklists, procedures, and attention to detail to ensure that space capabilities are delivered 'on target' for our warfighters. Every precaution is taken by our Airmen to mitigate the risk of a launch failure, because we all intuitively recognize how one small error in the preparation process can lead to a catastrophe just days, weeks, months or even years down the road. 'Perfection' is the standard when you process space hardware for a launch.
In every corner of the Air Force, Airmen are working at a level of perfection just like our launch team. There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of men and women in the Air Force exercise their duties with diligence, professionalism and a culture of safety, just like our launch team here at Cape Canaveral.
Most Air Force responsibilities rely on 'checklists' to ensure that Airmen are performing work at a consistent level of excellence and effectiveness, and although some work areas are not nearly as visible and glamorous as the launch business, every single part of what you do is an extremely valued mission element that ensures the overall success of this Wing and this Air Force. You have training to enable you to perform in an excellent manner, and you have Wingmen in your work environment to help you do your job most effectively.
There is another critical attribute, though, that can make all the difference between mission success and mission failure - your attitude toward 'checklist discipline'.
The recent events that involved a breakdown of nuclear security are difficult to comprehend. What happened there? Surely the Airmen involved were appropriately trained. Surely the Airmen were working as a team in the accomplishment of their critical mission. And surely none of them willfully decided to deliberately undermine the absolutely essential need to protect and defend the nuclear inventory that is entrusted to our Air Force.
So what happened? It seems that what their checklists told them to do and what was actually accomplished were two different action plans. In other words, 'perfection' was NOT their standard, and that attitude prevailed among not just in one Airman, not two, but many Airmen who were links in the chain of a critical process. This is the extreme example of what can happen when you have a breakdown in 'checklist discipline'.
Though we don't have a nuclear mission here at Patrick AFB, we do have countless duties that, if not performed as expected, can have consequences that can lead to serious issues in the performance of our overall mission. We are expected to maintain a standard of good order and discipline across the entire spectrum of operational and support roles that we execute as an installation. Sometimes it can be difficult to understand the role you play in the 'bigger picture', but if you diligently follow the processes and procedures that are part of your duties, you will rarely, if ever, have a negative impact on our overall mission accomplishment.
Whether you are a spacecraft processing expert, a law enforcement professional, a financial cost manager, or any other 'duty code', the expected standard for the execution of your responsibilities is 'perfection'. That is the Air Force standard, my standard, and the standard of your chain of command - be sure to embrace it as your standard if you have not already done so. Have an attitude toward 'checklist discipline' such that you will never cut corners, willfully skip steps, become lazy about coordination with your Wingmen, or in any other way undermine the effective accomplishment of our installation mission.
One final note - the Airmen of this Air Force are truly our most outstanding resources, and I know that no Airmen would willfully intend to undermine the credibility of our reputation as the trusted defenders of our nation. But 'complacency' will always be your greatest enemy, no matter where you are. Think about what happened at Minot AFB - a process breakdown leading to accidents, suffering and tragedy will almost always have its roots in a chain of very small mistakes among several people.
This is how it usually happens - each individual doesn't see the criticality of their role as part of a larger picture, and when complacency sets in, they lose their vigilance to maintain the standard of perfection. Our best deterrent to prevent any and all incidents that undermine our overall mission accomplishment is YOU and your approach to your duties! And don't forget to help your Wingmen along the way.
Enforcing standards and holding yourself and those around you accountable to them ensures that the core values of the Air Force remain sound. Following the checklist or correct procedure ensures that you are first operating with Integrity. Having the courage to speak up when those around you may have missed a crucial step or are not doing something right ensures that you are truly putting service before self. Doing these two things leads to our third core value, Excellence in All We Do.
As the summer continues, take some time to relax in a responsible manner before a busy launch season this fall. And when you are at work, continue to do what you have done to make the 45th Space Wing the premier wing of AFSPC. Go Sharks!