Swimming with the Sharks

three men standing with one woman sitting

By Wendy Siamon

The floors gleam and lighting is bright in the upgraded Warner Robins, Georgia, repair and manufacturing facility. Rows of workbenches on wheels face each other beneath a banner honoring every employee who has served in the military. Green lights near the ceiling indicate that temperature and humidity controls are within acceptable limits for the facility’s primary purpose: electronic warfare equipment repair and manufacturing.

The entire space was designed for rapid modification to meet changing production needs, every detail stemming from a continual improvement mindset that asks, “What can we do better?”

Often, it’s the people closest to the work who can best answer that question.

Northrop Grumman electronics technician Vernon and assembler Adrienne are members of the team responsible for testing an electronic countermeasures system integrated on the U.S. Air Force’s B-1B bomber planes. They sit at two of the facing workbenches — Vernon troubleshoots issues, then passes material across to Adrienne for repair. One row away, Luke and Caleb form a similar technician-assembler work cell. Always in close collaboration, these teammates found an opportunity to innovate on their part of the testing process.

“I saw a way to take the guesswork out,” said Vernon, a 20-year Air Force veteran who has been at Northrop Grumman since 2018. “By using a new X-ray machine at the start of our process, we were able to pinpoint areas on the product that needed a closer look and additional testing. That got me wondering how we could use this idea on a regular basis, and I turned to Luke because I knew if it benefitted me, it would also benefit him.”

Improved Precision, Big Savings

The team’s idea represents a “95% savings on time, resources and dollars,” said Adrienne — whose four years at Northrop Grumman overlapped one year with her dad before his retirement after 33 years with the company. Troubleshooting, resolution and repair are possible in a fraction of the time needed previously, and the team has plans for further improvements that will bring additional savings.

“Participating in Shark Tank, they’d be able to share their plans and request for support directly with leaders, without anyone in the middle.

— Steve, Manager

Their manager, Steve, excitedly shared the team’s initiative with his leadership, who encouraged them to present at an upcoming internal Shark Tank event. Based on the television show of the same name, Shark Tank is one of many opportunities available for Northrop Grumman employees to present innovative ideas to leaders. Acting as investors — “Sharks” — Northrop Grumman leaders ask about the innovation’s benefits, alternatives and timing, then determine if they will allocate funding.

“Their idea had real merit,” said Steve. “Participating in Shark Tank, they’d be able to share their plans and request for support directly with leaders, without anyone in the middle.”

The opportunity to advance their idea came thanks to Northrop Grumman’s culture of innovation and commitment to living its values, said Luke, who joined the company in April 2019. He explained that those were also two of the reasons he was persistent about finding a role at Northrop Grumman.

Time to Face the Sharks

Just like in the television show, Shark Tank presenters must make a compelling case for why their innovation should be pursued as a technology and business investment.

The Warner Robins team — the first team of non-engineers and non-executives to ever present — felt the pressure of the moment, but the warm greeting they received from the Sharks put them at ease right away.

The team’s preparation paid off and they were ready for every question. In fact, the team said they found the Shark Tank experience to be fun and comfortable. The Sharks were thrilled, and investment was approved on the spot.

“It felt surreal to walk into the room,” said Adrienne who, afterward, said she wondered, “Did that really just happen?”

Today, the Warner Robins team is rolling up their sleeves to research the best equipment for an investment that will bring the next phase of their plan to life.

“It’s time to make something happen,” said Vernon. “Now it seems like the briefing was the easy part!”

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