HomeNews & PublicationsFeatured StoriesGeneration Next: APL Steers Innovative Ideas from Workshop to Submarines in Two Years 

November 19, 2012

Generation Next: APL Steers Innovative Ideas from Workshop to Submarines in Two Years


In early November 2011, a group of 27 junior Navy submarine officers and sonar and fire control technicians gathered one morning at the Submarine Learning Center Detachment in San Diego for a brand-new workshop. Told to dress in civilian clothes, the young submariners were seated in groups and presented with neon-bright Post-Its, Popsicle sticks, and felt markers—clues that this would be anything but a standard Navy meeting.

Navy leaders were about to ask the sailors an unusual question: "What do you think?" For junior officers (lieutenant or below) and enlisted sailors (petty officer first class and below), this would be like the CEO of a Fortune 500 company asking junior executives how they thought the company could be improved.

The innovative workshop was called Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation, or TANG, and was set up by Submarine Development Squadron (SUBDEVRON) 12, staff from the Undersea Warfare (USW) Business Area in APL's Force Projection Department, and Naval Sea Systems Command's (NAVSEA's) Program Executive Office, Integrated Warfare Systems (PEO-IWS5).

TANG participants worked in teams to identify, shape, and then present the best ideas for new data analysis systems and information management procedures aboard their submarines directly to Navy leadership for review. The participants jumped in eagerly; one initial skeptic was converted so far as to tell the organizers: "This is the most fun I've had since kindergarten."

"It's an infectious process," explains Don Noyes, Operator Machine Interface (OMI) Working Group co-chair, of the Signal and System Analysis Group in the USW Business Area. "It's exciting to watch them brainstorming outside of their normal environment, without old-style critics there."

TANG began when Josh Smith, TANG forum coordinator and OMI group co-chair (and a former Navy submarine officer), voiced a simple idea: "We should try to capitalize on the ideas that junior people in the Navy have."

Simultaneously, the senior leadership of the Navy's submarine forces was openly looking for the faster adoption of information management advances. This was a perfect match with Smith's concept: Younger officers and technical experts belong to a new demographic known as "digital natives," people who have grown up with technology so interwoven into their lives that they often approach problem-solving in fundamentally different ways than previous generations.

APL approached PEO-IWS5A and SUBDEVRON 12 with the idea, which was met with near-instant enthusiasm. Jon Berry, program area manager for Anti-Submarine Warfare, funded development of a video called "A Fresh Look at Combat Control System and Sonar Interfaces," inspired by a short film made by Corning in 2011 called "A Day Made of Glass," which today has almost 20 million YouTube views. Navy submarine leadership used this APL video at the 2011 Submarine Technology Symposium to set the stage for the initiative that would become TANG, and a wide range of managers and leaders from APL and the Navy gave the project their support.

"It was almost like a series of toggle switches," says Noyes of the checklist of approvals for TANG, "and every one of them, from Navy through APL, had to go green for this to work." Fortunately for the project, "each person in the management chain saw the potential in the project," adds John Stapleton, director of technology strategy in the Anti-Submarine Warfare Program Area.

USW Business Area Executive Lisa Blodgett helped with a referral to an executive at the National Security Agency who was also a former Disney creative leader. That executive, in turn, suggested a Palo Alto, Calif.-based industrial design and consulting firm called IDEO. The TANG team took IDEO staffers on tours of submarines and introduced them to experts who taught them how the submarine force works and how it might improve; IDEO staff then helped lead the TANG workshop. The APL and Navy teams also worked over the summer to establish partnerships with Microsoft and other companies, which set up demonstrations of existing applicable technologies: When a team had an idea, members could walk over and see what off-the-shelf technologies could be used to implement it.

TANG also worked because of submarine culture: focused, agile, and willing to try new things. "The environment inspires a 'can-do' attitude, as well as creativity and the ability to find workarounds," says Noyes. "They're always problem-solving. It's the culture of the sub force to always innovate."

Ideas to Reality

The success of the workshop led the USW team to ask another bold question: How soon could these ideas become reality aboard submarines? The answer: spring 2012. Lockheed Martin funded a showcase lab (dubbed "Area 51") using the original APL video as a blueprint, and some of the ideas borne out of the workshop are being incorporated into the current Advanced Processing Build (APB13) submarine combat system upgrade, part of the APB architecture that is used to integrate powerful new technologies onto submarines at a fast pace. The APB team is using Area 51 to help sort out which ideas from TANG are ready now (the motto of Area 51 is "Why wait until the future to do what can be done today?"). This enables PEO-IWS5A's APB process to get new technologies onto Navy submarines at great speed—just two years from concept video to "at-sea" use on a submarine.

"It's about helping out without taking over," says Smith. "It's about asking, 'How can we help?' Especially in this environment, it's important that we are always proactive in helping the sponsor to identify ways to innovate, to reinvent, and rethink accepted procedures. APL is the sort of place where we can make these things happen."

TANG's success for junior officers and operators led to plans for a second workshop, to be held in February 2013, for senior officers. The Navy now plans to hold a TANG workshop each year, alternating between junior and senior officers.