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The importance of innovation

Jonathan Griffiths
Jonathan Griffiths

By Jed Griffiths, AWE Strategy Adviser

It’s a typical UK winter morning and I’m taking a short walk to assist with some thinking.

There’s plenty of fresh air and green space around me here and given the size of the estate, I could easily walk for an hour and still be ‘at work’.

Over the years, the landscape at AWE has changed significantly. I walk past my old office – it’s now a car park- and remember some good times as a fresh graduate. I stop for a quick chat to a colleague on his way to a meeting- like me, he’s been in several very different roles over the 14 years we’ve known each other. 14 years!

It seems like a long time, but every time I’ve changed roles (including some time based with the MOD, in London) it felt like a completely new career – such is the diversity of the work available at AWE.

My current role is ‘strategy adviser’ supporting the executive with corporate strategic planning. I’m walking to help with some mental scrap-booking of some ideas on an ‘innovation strategy’ –specifically, about the relationship between innovation and continuous improvement.

Innovation is a term that is used ubiquitously these days, I’m sure you’ll have heard or seen it used in articles about smart phones or augmented reality or the latest time saving app that will revolutionise our lives. There’s no standard definition of innovation and therefore it can mean different things to different people. I’m thinking about what it means to an organisation like ours; we’re not like other defence providers, so identifying the tangible drivers that make us ‘feel’ the pressure to innovate is difficult. I am leaning towards a rough definition of “doing things differently, or doing different things, to add value”. So we do innovate, all the time, across our business.


I pass by as some of our military police officers out exercising with their dogs- they’re not for petting, but an important part of our security arrangements- I wave and say hello, the MDP are a friendly bunch. Then I take a stroll down ‘Easy Street’- local legend says it’s named after one of the US airborne companies deployed from here during World War 2 on operation Market Garden- I’ve been meaning to check that with the company historian for ages. To imagine what this place must have been like as an airfield…it’s completely changed.

I pick up a Costa and on my way back to the office walk past our Orion laser facility- it’s got a really futuristic looking curve to it and some aesthetically pleasing blue cladding. A decade ago I worked as a scientist on our precursor laser, HELEN- it was in a not so modern looking building, erected before I was born. It reminds me that as a business we are improving all the time, all over the place, making things better, finding new ways of doing things.

I think we don’t always consider it innovation because we don’t talk about it that way, it’s just “continuous improvement, not innovation” I hear a voice in my head say. There’s a quote on the internet (that I can’t attribute I’m afraid), which says “The light bulb wasn’t invented by continuously improving the candle”. It’s a good quote as it makes a point of how tweaking what you’ve always done to add small increments in value, doesn’t lead to the innovative leap you might need for your application. But I think continuous improvement can be an important building block of any innovation and I think this is overlooked when trying to understand how the two concepts support each other. I say, “You don’t know you even need a light bulb, until you’ve had a play with the candle”.

I think that continuous improvement is fundamental for a business to understand its processes and functions and to identify those areas in which to invest for the future, to create the conditions to bring about the innovations it needs. This is going to be an easier process for some businesses than others but a clear strategy and vision is important.

This is evidenced by a recent PwC report on innovation which highlighted that 54% businesses struggle to bridge the gap between their business strategy and innovation strategy.

AWE Aldermaston

As I walk, I am thinking about what all this means to AWE- perhaps because our warhead programme is long-standing, some things we do as a business don’t feel like they are innovative in our minds. But the continuous improvement culture we have fostered will be a vital part of creating the innovations we need. Materials age, technology and equipment moves on, methodologies change, and we need to keep pace. But we have to do more than just continuously improve in affordability, quality and safety to stay ‘current’. We must innovate to solve the very specific and unique problems we could face in the future because we are sole custodians of the knowledge that underpins the warhead for the UK nuclear deterrent.

The fresh air definitely is helping with my ‘innovation context’ dilemma. As with most ideas- articulating them in the right way is important to bringing others with you on the journey. I’m not there yet…

Almost back to the desk, I see some people having a kick around on the playing fields. I also see some of our response vehicles passing out of the perimeter gate on exercise and I think about the time I spent with our nuclear security team. This is at the sharp end of national nuclear security and innovation in this field is also an important part of helping to keep the UK safe. With this capability, AWE leverages a broad science and engineering domain knowledge derived from our warhead programme to support the UK Government’s counter nuclear terrorism and nuclear emergency response capabilities. It is stimulating work and we are challenged to innovate to apply our expertise to support national security in a (rapidly) changing world. Yes, we do innovate.

I log-on back at my desk and write this blog.

It’s clear that innovation must always be a core value to AWE. If not innovation in the invention sense (although we’ve had some of those over the decades) then definitely in a continuous improvement sense

We are a company that places its day-to-day execution and delivery functions right alongside the incubation of innovative ideas, because we recognise we need to do both for the maintenance of the deterrent to support the defence security of the UK, and I feel proud to be part of that.