The Air Force Academy Gets Lean

I can always tell when one of my students has been in the military. They’re focused, they’re world-wise past their years, and they don’t break a sweat in the fast pace and chaotic nature of the class and entrepreneurship. Todd Branchflower took my Lean LaunchPad class having been entrepreneurial enough to convince the Air Force send him to Stanford to get his graduate engineering degree.

In class I teased Todd that while the Navy had me present my Secret History of Silicon Valley talk in front of 4,000 cadets at the Naval Post Graduate School, I had yet to hear from the Air Force Academy.  He promised that one day he would fix that.

True to his word, fast-forward three years and Todd is now Captain Todd Branchflower, teaching computer engineering at the Air Force Academy.  He extended an invitation to me to come out to the Air Force Academy to address the cadets and meet the faculty. Besides the talk I brainstormed with Todd and other faculty on how to integrate the Lean LaunchPad into the Air Force Academy Capstone engineering class (a Capstone class puts together all the pieces that a students has learned in his or her major.)

Here’s Todd’s story of how we got there and progress to date.


Not That Long Ago
In 2007, I graduated United States Air Force Academy as a computer engineer and entered the Air Force’s acquisition corps, excited and confident about my ability to bring technology to bear for our airmen.

Graduation day with classmate Joseph Helton (right), killed in action in Iraq in 2009

Graduation day with classmate Joseph Helton (right), killed in action in Iraq in 2009

And I couldn’t have been put in a better place: testing the Air Force’s newest network security acquisitions. I was their technical man on the inside – making sure big defense contractors delivered on their promises. We were modernizing datacenters, buying vulnerability-scanning software, and adding intrusion detection appliances – all things typical of anyone running an enterprise-scale network..46th test sqd

I was in the thick of it – chairing telecons, tracking action items, and drafting test plans. I could recite requirements and concepts of operations from memory. I was jetsetting to team meetings and conferences across the country. I was busy.

Sure, I wasn’t working very closely with the airmen who were going to use the equipment.  But they called into the weekly telecons, right? And they were the ones who had given the program office the requirements from the outset. (Well, their bosses had.) And I’d distilled those requirements into system characteristics we could measure. Well, more measurable versions of the original requirements. And meeting the requirements was the most important thing, right?

Doing it Wrong
Here’s what I learned: I was doing it wrong. The way our process worked, customers were just a stakeholder that provided input – not drivers of the process. That meant that program offices were only accountable to a list of requirements, which were locked early. Success only consisted of passing tests against these requirements, not delighting our airmen. I began to wonder – how could we learn about user needs earlier?  How could we deliver them solutions more quickly?  More cheaply?

It was only after returning to Stanford and taking the Lean Launchpad class that I became convinced that a radically different, customer-centric approach was the solution. I returned to the Air Force Academy as an instructor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, intent on spreading the gospel of Customer Development and ee

Our existing Capstone senior engineering design course followed the defense acquisition process; the focus of defense acquisition is to “nail down requirements” early and manage customer expectations to “avoid requirements creep”. I saw this as counter to the joint, iterative discovery process between entrepreneurs and customers I had experienced on my Lean Launchpad team.

I kept in touch with Steve as I started teaching. We discussed how the Lean Launchpad approach might find a place in our curriculum, and how it might be adapted to fit the unique Air Force Academy / military environment. We grew excited about how showing success here might prove a good model for how it could be done in the broader Air Force; how exposing future officers to the Lean philosophy might bring about change from within.

So when I invited Steve out to the Air Force Academy to speak last spring, there was more at stake than the talk.  We set up a meeting with our department head, Col Jeff Butler, and Capstone course director, LtCol Charlie Gaona, to pitch the idea.  They shared our enthusiasm about the impact it could have on our future design projects and how it might bring a change in perspective to our acquisition corps. They gave the go-ahead to send a pilot team through the program in the Fall semester, with the potential for it to be applied across the entire course if we delivered results.

I found a willing co-conspirator in Capt Ryan Silva, a star instructor who mentors a project named Neumimic, using technology to aid in the rehabilitation of patients with chronic loss of limb motion.  In the first year, they had developed a proof of concept around the Xbox Kinect – and Ryan had high hopes for the future. But he found some elements of the traditional systems engineering process cumbersome and frustrating to cadets. Ryan signed on to lead our test class.

V-Model of Systems Engineering
The current Capstone class follows the V-Model of Systems Engineering, with teams creating a detailed system design throughout the Fall semester and building their design in the Spring.


There are a series of formal reviews throughout the two semesters, in line with the Air Force acquisitions process.  Requirements and a concept of operations are presented at the first, the System Requirements Review.  Cadets receive instruction on the process in about a quarter of the course lessons.

What we decided to do instead was have semi-weekly informal reviews Lean Launchpad style, focusing on product hypotheses, customer interactions, learning, and validation / refinement.  We emphasize customer interaction via “getting out of the building” and rapid iteration through “cheap hacks”.  We’ve removed most of the structure and firm requirements from the original course in favor of a “whatever it takes” philosophy.  Instruction is presented in tandem with the reviews, focusing on areas we see as problematic.

Last year’s team meeting with Dr. Glen House at Penrose-St. Francis Hospital

Last year’s team meeting with Dr. Glen House at Penrose-St. Francis Hospital

Back to the Present
We’re about a quarter of the way through the fall semester. Team Neumimic consists of nine sharp cadets across multiple academic disciplines. Based on initial customer interactions, they divided themselves into two complementary but standalone teams. One will focus on design, execution, and measurement of therapy sessions – building on the original Xbox Kinect work.  The other will work on adjustable restriction of patient motion – forcing patients to use the proper muscles for each movement.

Here’s Ryan on the impact of the process change:

“Last year the team found themselves handcuffed to a process that required a 100% design solution on paper before we could even think about touching hardware…crazy right?! We spent the entire first semester nailing down requirements for a system that was supposed to meet the needs of stroke and traumatic brain injury patients as prescribed by their occupational therapists. For five months we slogged our way through the process emerged with a complete design for our system, custom-built to meet the needs of patients and doctors alike. Our design was flawless. We had nuts-and-bolts details all the way down to the schematic level. We were ready to build! The fact that we had yet to even see a patient or spend any real time with an occupational therapist had not even registered to us as a problem, until we were invited to watch a therapy session.

Our entire team walked out of the hospital ashen-faced and silent. We knew we had just wasted half the course designing a system that wouldn’t work. We were back to square one. The remainder of the course was spent in a frenzy of phone calls with doctors and therapists paired with many design reviews, but this time with our customers in the room. We were able to iterate a few solutions before we ran out of time, but the customers were thrilled with what they saw. I could only imagine what we could have accomplished if we didn’t waste the first half of the course on a solution that ultimately wasn’t what the customers wanted. I was fired up when Todd approached me with his idea to fundamentally change the way we did business.

So far the results have been incredible compared to last year. The team has learned more about the problem in a month than last year’s team learned in an entire semester. I’m not saying this year’s cadets are any more capable than last year’s; just that I believe this year’s team has been given a better chance to succeed.  They’re freed of a lot of stifling overhead and are embracing a process where requirements are derived from those who will actually use the system…imagine that! I’m excited to see what the team does with their remaining eight months.”

Current team members observing Dr. House conduct a therapy session

Current team members observing Dr. House conduct a therapy session

But we have experienced challenges in implementing this approach. Here’s what we’ve noticed so far:

In typical Lean Launchpad classes, students apply as teams with their own idea.  There’s also the potential for teams to pursue the opportunity beyond the class if they’re successful. In our Capstone, projects are predetermined and cadets are assigned based on preference and skill set.  Cadets will graduate and be commissioned as officers, doing various jobs throughout the Air Force. It’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to continue their project. These factors might make the initial motivation of our team less than that of other Lean Launchpad teams.  We found that early interactions with customers excited about their work went a long way to remedy this.

We’re offering cadets much less structure than they’re used to. Some cadets are uncomfortable with the ambiguity of the requirements (“What are you looking for?  What do I have to do to get an A?”).  I’d imagine this is typical of most high-performing students.

We’re trusting cadets with more freedom and less oversight than they’re used to.  There’s the potential for our trust to be abused.  I’m hopeful that our cadets rise to this challenge.  I think they’ll feel ownership of the project and empowerment, rather than see an opportunity to shirk responsibilities.

Since this course is a senior design experience, cadets expect to be “using their major”.  There’s the tendency for some to sit on the sideline if the pressing work isn’t directly related to their area of expertise.  It has taken some prodding for cadets to embrace the “hustler” mindset – to take any job necessary to move the team forward.

These are challenges we can overcome.  I know we’re moving in the right direction.  I know we have the right team and project to be successful.  I know our cadets will make us proud.

Up the hill!

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9 Responses

  1. What a great story and so happy to see that the curriculum is adapting to include techniques that are successful in the “Civilian World”. It will go a long way when these officers are leading projects for the Air Force. I was the Course Director at USAFA for this same Capstone course in the 80’s and it sure would have been nice to see more finished projects delivered to the customers, or in a state where they could have been easily taken to completion because they were headed in the right direction. Thank you, Steve. Thank you Todd.

  2. Here are a couple of Jeff Bezos sayings about customers

    12. “We innovate by starting with the customer and working backwards. That becomes the touchstone for how we invent.”

    13. “When [competitors are] in the shower in the morning, they’re thinking about how they’re going to get ahead of one of their top competitors. Here in the shower, we’re thinking about how we are going to invent something on behalf of a customer.”

    taken from

  3. Bill is taking Captain Branchflower’s Embedded Computer Systems class. I sat in on it when I visited for Parents Weekend. It’s a great class, and I was very impressed.

  4. Steve and Capt. Branchflower,

    Glad to hear the USAF is looking at BMG. However, as a former USAF officer ending my service after the first Gulf War, I can tell you that I was on the “leading edge” of making changes in the USAF at my level, at the time it was called TQM (Total Quality Management). During that time I was on a mission reading anything and everything to see what I could learn and apply to improve performance. I STILL apply some of the principles I learned, although doing LEAN is the better route to take.

    At Wurtsmith AFB, MI my Deputy Command for Maintenance (Col. Walthers?), who later went on to become the Vice Wing Commander of the 379th Bomb Wing, gave me a story that shows how some see change in the USAF. After getting a book “Enlightened Leadership” and meeting the author here in Denver, I was half way finished with the book when my DCM, who now was the Vice Wing Commander, came into my office and asked what he could do to get the Wing motivated around changing and improving the Wing. I handed my still unfinished book to him and said, “Read it and then apply it.”

    Move forward, a month of two later, the Vice Wing Commander came back into my office and gave my book back to me. But before he left, he told me this story. The Vice Wing Commander said he had not finished the book but thought it was so good that he had to give it to the Wing Commander, Col. Campbell. He went into the Col. Campbell’s office and asked him if he had seen the book. Col. Campbell reached into his desk and pulled out the same book. He asked how he got it and Col. Campbell said he had attended the 8th AF Commanders Conference and the General handed about copies of the book to ALL Wing Commanders. Needless to say, my credibility with the senior leadership went up from there. But cultures are hard to change.

    I wrote about how the military can learn more from business in my book, “How to Start a Business: Mac Version” (page 238-239) and when I came across a Lt. Col. who taught at the USAFA a few years back about what I wrote, he proceeded to blow off my comments as he wanted a “safe” career in the USAF as change was too risky and he didn’t want to threaten his career.

    As a postscript, Doug Krug, who was coauthor of the book “Enlightened Leadership” found that CEOs and senior leaders were not reading his book, but mid level managers that wanted to get ahead. Seems that once senior leaders had “arrived,” they slowed their learning and performing.

    So, it’s not just engineering, but the WHOLE USAF that needs it. Press on with pride, Capt. Branchflower, you’re the new generation.

  5. I am a retired electrical engineer who spent the final years of his career working as a systems engineer in the defense industry. I am concerned that your approach just won’t work when you are dealing with major systems that are acquired from a defense contractor. A few decades ago I observed one major system acquired where there were only loose requirements when the acquisition contract was awarded, and the requirements evolved over the course of the program. That program had a 100% cost overrun. Because of programs like that, the Government now requires firm requirements before a contract for implementation is awarded, and every effort needs to be made to track those requirements and make sure they are being satisfied. That does mean that the Government has to make an extra effort to make sure that the requirements established at the start of the contract do meet the needs of the eventual users of the system. I hope your cadets understand all of that.

    • Thomas,

      I couldn’t disagree more with your statement, “That does mean that the Government has to make an extra effort to make sure that the requirements established at the start of the contract do meet the needs of the eventual users of the system.” Honestly your comment is why almost every system spec’d that way ends up with cost overruns and/or delivering products that customers find unusable or incomplete. I would have thought after 50 years of defense acquisition with that mindset someone would have said, “perhaps this isn’t working.”

      Lean is not about “loose requirements” or a giant focus group collecting every possible customer feature request. Instead it’s a disciplined process driven by a very specific set of hypotheses about features/costs/problems to be solved. It’s driven by a single manager with a specific charter of finding product/market fit. And if the hypotheses (about user needs, costs, timing, etc.) turn out to be incorrect they can iterate/pivot the Minimum Viable Product to find the best fit for budget/time/features. This is akin to Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works process not the Defense Acquisition Guidebook.

      I’m hoping the cadets understand that.


  6. After 2.5 decades developing systems for large organizations, my rule of thumb has evolved to “more unknowns means use more iterations”.

    Developing a new system with a new team with new capabilities that requires researching many alternatives? Lots of iterations will prevent unpleasant surprises.

    Developing the 101st line-of-business application in a mature organization with an experienced team with lots of legacy and lots of regulations that extends a current business process? Plain old waterfall might be the best approach.

  7. Gentlemen

    Great article – love to see the innovative thinking and ability to discard traditional approaches for those more beneficial to the needs of todays operators.

    I am the Acquisition Executive at USSOCOM, responsible for all science and technology, acquisition, and sustainment for all SOF. Our entire acquisition process (science and technology, development, procurement, improvement, through life support) is geared towards rapid, focused, highly iterative processes with direct interaction in all phases with our special operators.

    Of particular interest, we are currently executing a program called TALOS (tactical light assault operator suit) which is pushing even our boundaries on rapid application of technology and collaboration to enhance the capabilities for our operators – some liken it to an ironman suit – it is much more, Included in our activity is collaboration with the VA for wounded warrior rehabilitation and support through innovative technology.

    The attached video may be of interest

    A major component of our effort is collaboration with non-traditional partners, as well as academic institutions. We have several universities executing capstone projects in support of this effort If you are interested in this activity, please contact me at

    James F. Geurts
    Acquisition Executive
    United States Special Operations Command

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