News: 308th BSB NCO uses ingenuity to solve problems, encourage creativity
Story by Spc. Nathan Goodall
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – Behind the heavy, vault-like metal door protecting the 308th Brigade Support Battalion, 17th Fires Brigade’s, electronics maintenance shop, is a cramped and lackluster room.
Faint, unnatural light drools down from the ceiling where industrial lamps hang from wire cages, the artificial glow softened through the translucent plastic of milky-white diffuser panels.
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a place of inspiration.
It isn’t as glamorous as a top-tier art studio is to a painter, nor as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon might be for a photographer.
However, for Sgt. 1st Class Eric D. Allen, the workshop became a place of innovation and creativity.
This is because Allen doesn’t let his surroundings define his work environment. He said he relies on creating a positive climate between his team and instills his own style of resilience into the workplace.
Allen, who wanted to make one more lasting impact on the Army, is preparing to retire. Last year, when he was working as the electronics maintenance team chief with 308th BSB, he encountered a problem that couldn’t be solved by conventional means.
The section he was in charge of was responsible for fixing broken communications and electronics equipment for the entire brigade, and in April 2012, his section faced the problem of fixing four AM-7239D vehicular amplifier adapters.
The adapters are mounts used to fasten tactical radio systems inside military vehicles. Allen noticed the locking bar that secures the radio system in place kept breaking.
The reason the repair was difficult stems from the AM-7239D model construction, which is designed so the locking bar is actually part of the chassis. Replacing the locking bar meant replacing the entire chassis, a part that costs almost $2,700 per unit.
With lack of funding, the repairs were impossible to make from a conventional standpoint. Fortunately, Allen doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking inside the box. He spearheaded a plan with his team, with help from the battalion service and repair shop warrant officer, to fix the adapters.
“We looked at the newer [adapter] models that had detachable locking bars," Allen said. “We decided that we could just drill and tap [the chassis] and put a screw-set in it, and cut the new-model locking bars down to size to where they thread into place properly.”
His section wasn’t required to invent a new way to fix the adapters. In fact, they weren’t required to do anything but report to their command that the issue couldn’t be fixed due to the budget. However, Allen’s resilience – the ability to endure and overcome problems - drove him to find a solution.
“I’m the kind of person that, when something comes into the shop and it’s broken, I have to fix it,” he said. “If I don’t know how to, I’ll figure it out. If I don’t have the materials to fix it, I’ll look around.”
The cost for a locking bar from a newer model adapter is less than $8. In addition, modifying the locking bar and the adapter to fit together takes approximately an hour, which saves time compared to uninstalling the old chassis and reinstalling a new one (approximately an eight-hour process).
Of course, the fix had never been done before, and something new and unique had to be approved before being applied.
Allen presented the idea to his command, which was given the green light to be submitted through the U.S. Army Suggestion Program. The Department of the Army approved it as an official way to repair the AM-7239D adapter models, which the 308th BSB has been doing ever since.
Allen said the problem, like any he’s encountered, was solved through everyone’s ability to remain open and flexible while valuing ingenuity, teamwork and not letting stress get out of control.
Allen said ingenuity is something he learned early on from his father, who also served in the military.
“My father was a sheet metal mechanic, and I did a lot of auto body repair when I was young and growing up,” he said, adding that while he was rebuilding cars as a child, he learned, “if you don’t have it, try to make it, try to find a way to build something.”
He’s lived on that thought his entire career. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Allen helped modify the night vision goggles his unit was using with sturdier parts. Those modifications were eventually passed on to the manufacturer, who recognized the significance of the improvements and started implementing those modifications during production.
While thinking outside the box is a large part of what helps Allen solve his problems, it’s only part of his resiliency. Staying calm is what allows Allen and his team to continue to think clearly and solve problems in innovative ways.
“[Any problem] can be a stressful situation, but there’s no need to get heated about it … if you let it stress you out, you’re going to create a hostile work environment,” he said.
Allen believes creating a positive climate and not letting tensions rise between teammates gives them confidence and keeps them comfortable with asking for help or bringing up new ideas to make things easier.
“You’ll hear that from me a lot - don’t do stuff the hard way. Try to find a reasonable, easy route … ask questions and don’t be afraid to voice your opinion,” Allen said. “If you don’t like the way something is being done, and if you have an idea of how to do it differently, bring it up, because that’s what it takes half the time - one person to say, ‘hey why don’t we do it this way.’ Just being flexible and being able to adapt like that helps with resilience.”
Giving soldiers the freedom to openly voice their thoughts helps develop them as a team and individuals, he added.
“I try to build their creativity, get their minds going. If I’m working on a project and I can’t quite figure it out, I’ll get them involved and ask what they think would be the best way of doing it,” Allen said. “You don’t want to be hardheaded and stuck on your idea, you want to get other people’s input because it may make it easier.”
While Allen is preparing to retire and return to his hometown, Huntsville, Ala., he said his teammates and successors will continue to solve problems in innovative ways that will progress and improve how they work in the Army. He hopes they will remember what they accomplished as a team and take what they learned together to heart, that they won’t forget what the mission is all about.
“[The job is] not about recognition, it’s about giving the customer back a workable, complete piece of equipment,” Allen said, adding that if the answer isn’t clear at first, to always look for new ways to solve the problem.
“It goes right back to what I was saying - don’t make it hard on yourself,” he reiterated. “If you can find an easy way to do it, do it the easy way as long as it’s done right.”