Feature Story

Innovation Is for Everyone

2022 Operations and Business Innovation (OBI) Accelerator and Awards Program winners. Clockwise from top left:

  1. Procurement Tracker team members: Margaret Dolly, Eric Kessler, Manju Ganapathi, Deb Wilhelm, Caitlin Bender and Valeree Combs. Not pictured: Suzanne Jones
  2. Supplier Compliance Verification Portal (SCVP) team members: Matthew Jones, Lindsay Watkins and Hilton Hall
  3. Space Exploration Sector Production Forecasting Report (SPFR) team members: Kyle Weber, Ryan Smith and George Gillem. Not pictured: Andy Soukup, Kieran Hegarty, Jason Griffith, Chris DeBoy, Danielle Hilliard and Joseph Ramsburg
  4. Procedure Implementation Catalog (EPIC) team members: Mike Ruffolo, Heather Curtis, Kelly Fox and Donovan van der Gracht. Not pictured: Randy Schlotterbeck, David Myers and Justin Hahn

The Laboratory has a storied history of bold and game-changing technical innovations, but behind these forward-thinking developments are hundreds of operations and business staff members who make it all possible. In a quieter but no less significant way, they are constantly innovating and growing APL’s processes and workflows to enable the Lab’s critical contributions to critical challenges.

In 2022, APL’s Enterprise Business Committee launched the Operations and Business Innovation (OBI) Accelerator and Awards Program to acknowledge and reward these efforts across the APL community.

“Considering that almost a quarter of APL’s staff is operationally aligned, we wanted to develop a mechanism to cultivate an operations community culture that embraces impact and innovation just as APL has done in the technical community,” said Chris Becraft, who leads the Research and Exploratory Development Department’s Business Operations Group and is a member of the Enterprise Business Committee. “With OBI, we hope to provide an enduring platform for collaboration and networking among operations professionals, leading to new partnerships and a strong enterprise mindset as we tackle current and future operational challenges.”

Early in the program’s development, the committee asked Jessica Chase, a communications and training specialist in the Business, Construction and Facilities Department (BCFD), and Angalene Sutton, an executive assistant in REDD, to lead the effort.

OBI Awards program managers: Angie Sutton and Jessica Chase

OBI Awards program managers: Angie Sutton and Jessica Chase

“Recognizing innovation in the business and operations community was one of the committee’s execution priorities for 2021, so it was very important to the team’s overall strategy,” Chase said. “We came up with several ideas, and we started with the awards program in 2022 to begin familiarizing the Laboratory with the initiative.”

Getting the awards program up and running was a team effort across the Laboratory. Chase and Sutton tapped into the expertise of APL’s Innovation Program, which provides a number of grant opportunities for technical staff across the Lab. The Innovation Program helped them set up a platform to collect submissions to the awards program.

They also worked with the Laboratory’s Communications Department to develop a catchy name, logo and branding for the program.

With a firm foundation laid, in May 2022, the team sent out a call for “everyday” operations and business innovations that had been implemented in the past two years. But they knew more than a call for submissions was needed to spread the word.

“We really took a boots-on-the-ground approach to outreach,” Chase said. “We’ve done briefing after briefing and gone to department meetings, group meetings and team meetings. We wanted to make sure that operations and business staff members in every area are aware and know that we’re listening and providing opportunities for them.”

The hard work paid off. Over the course of about a month, more than 45 innovations were submitted to the awards program.

Chase and Sutton were surprised and delighted to see that a number of staff members in technical positions — not just those in operationally focused positions — also submitted their efforts.

“OBI is all about inclusiveness,” Sutton said. “Good ideas can come from anywhere, and we want to recognize that. The obstacles we face every day can be turned into innovative solutions.”

Laboratory team members had the opportunity to vote on the best and most impactful submissions. Then, from a pool of eight peer-selected finalists, the Enterprise Business Committee selected four winners based on the idea’s impact and the initiative staff members took to develop and implement the innovative solution. These winners received a special achievement award from the Laboratory, including a monetary reward.

“We hope that this program encourages innovation in nontechnical business areas and team members,” Chase said. “You do not have to be working for a sponsor project to come up with a creative idea that would improve the way APL does business.”

“Any obstacle in your work can be turned into an innovation,” Sutton added. “When you run into challenges, it gets your mind creatively thinking, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

The program has been a hit among staff members, as demonstrated by the high number of submissions.

“It’s nice to know that you don’t have to be an engineer or a technical staff member to be recognized for improving systems and workflows,” said Lindsay Watkins, APL’s purchasing card program administrator and lead of one of the 2022 winning projects. “The operations and business communities are often behind the scenes, but we’re developing tools to help make it easier for the rest of the Lab to continue to do what they do.”

Ryan Smith, a planning and scheduling expert in the Space Exploration Sector and co-principal investigator of another 2022 winning project, said, “I’m a big fan of the OBI Challenge. I’m a business professional by background, and it’s very enjoyable to be part of a challenge that incorporates so many different disciplines — business, technical and programmatic — and allows experts from each to present their ideas to stakeholders, especially in such a technologically advanced and innovative organization.”

With continued sponsorship from the Enterprise Business Committee and a new partnership with APL’s Experience Team, the OBI program will continue in future years, with a focus on finding and encouraging new innovative ideas in the operations and business community. The principal investigators of the winning ideas will then receive funding to bring their innovations to life.

“To stay ahead of the game in this era, you’ve got to continually innovate at all times,” Sutton said. “We want to encourage innovation in spheres across the Lab that staff members might not automatically associate with innovation. Innovation is for everyone.”