CPI3 Program

CPI3 Program Overview            

The Continuous Process Improvement and Innovation Internship or CPI3 Program provides Airmen a 1–2-week internship opportunity away from their work center. They receive specialized coaching while working on projects approved by their Flight Chief and the organization’s Senior Enlisted Leader (SEL). Projects center on the build-test-learn cycle by defining a problem statement before ideating possible solutions and minimally viable products to build and test throughout the internship. Furthermore, interns are exposed to the installation Spark Cell and provided academics on third-party programs and resources such as AFWERX, the GAIN and VISION platforms, and Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) grants. The internship experience culminates in a project showcase where they share their hard work, what they learned, and make formal requests to stakeholders. To consistently provide internship opportunities, 2-3 CPI3 Coaches are recommended per organization to sustain two projects per month or 24 innovation projects per year. CPI3 Coaching requires approximately 12 cumulative hours per two-week project, along with one coach filling a Program Manager role requiring an additional six hours per month. Ultimately, the coaching and program cost for two innovation projects per month is 30 hours shared by two coaches and one Program Manager along with 80 hours per intern.

Section 1: Program Introduction & Intent

            The Problem: Accelerate Change or Lose was General Brown’s directive across the force to speed up the rate and velocity of Airmen-driven innovation regardless of level within their organization. However, Air University’s Project Mercury Cohort 5 found that 72% of past and current Squadron Commanders who responded to their survey were not comfortable letting Airmen assigned to their unit work on innovation projects for ten or more hours per week for a total of two weeks (2021). Additionally, 66% of surveyed Senior Noncommissioned Officers (SNCO) provided the same response when asked the same question. Even more discouraging, 64% of surveyed Commanders responded that they would not support a fellow Squadron Commander even if asked for help and “top performers [within their units] would need to stay with the mission.” While Airmen across the Air Force hear that their innovative ideas are essential, they have not systemically received adequate time away from their primary duties or adequate resources to test out or enact their ideas. This contradiction between senior leader messaging and lack of Squadron Commander and SNCO support has, in part, led to the disenfranchisement of the word innovation and its purpose within our force; ultimately, inhibiting our ability to accelerate change at the frontline.

            The Solution: Breaking an Air Force wide cultural problem is not the focus of this program, but rather to align individual unit priorities with General Brown’s vision. The CPI3 Program is a 1–2-week internship where airmen can step away from their work center to focus on either a unit-identified or self-identified problem-set or challenge. These projects gear towards adding value back into the organization or Air Force at large. Throughout the 1–2-week period, the intern(s) receive coaching from individuals specializing in Design Thinking and Agile Project Management frameworks. Emphasis is on developing minimally viable products (MVP) using project sprints to speed up the build-test-learn cycle. Furthermore, interns will be connected with the installation’s Spark Cell and familiarized with third-party partners and resources such as AFWERX, the GAIN and VISION platforms, and the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. While not every airman can step away from their work center for 1–2-weeks, the CPI3 Program provides a deliberate effort for organizations to elevate their culture of innovation by prioritizing Airmen-driven process improvement. 

            End Goal: Not every project needs to result in a new policy written, a new SOP added, or the standing up of a new program. The simple act of empowering Airmen with the time and resources to run through the build-test-learn loop consistently and deliberately is a success. It is an essential step towards building a lasting culture of innovation. Furthermore, establishing a coaching program where Airmen gain experience guiding folks through the build-test-learn cycle is an impactful developmental opportunity for Staff Sergeants and Technical Sergeants. The coaching experience develops Noncommissioned Officers (NCO) into more effective mentors and leaders who can help drive impactful change within their organizations. Lastly, the CPI3 Program sets the stage for General Brown’s vision for innovation to become more than just empty buzzwords by establishing a culture of change and process improvement through action.

Section 2: Coaching Requirements & Training

            Coaches are essential to helping interns define and focus on the right problem statements while helping build testable MVPs to fail ideas faster; ultimately, expediting the learning cycle to improve end-result quality. Without coaching and mentorship, our Airmen, regardless of technical aptitude, would be ill-equipped to deliver quality solutions consistently (Barbato L. & Harrell M., 2018). For this reason, it’s essential to define CPI3 coaching requirements and expectations along with training requirements.

CPI3 Coaching Requirements

            Time Allocation (~12 hours total over two weeks per project):  Coaching within the CPI3 Program cannot become a full-time job. Therefore, coaches are only required to allocate time towards the following minimum commitments:

  • Daily Check-Ins: 1 hour total for all 2–3-minute check-ins (daily)
  • Problem Statement Development Coaching Session: 2 hours (day 1)
  • Spark Cell Tour: 1 hour (Day 1)
  • Third-Party Programs & Resources Academics: 1 hour (day 1)
  • Possible Solution & MVP Coaching Session: 2 hours (day 2)
  • Mid-Project Coaching Sessions: at least two cumulative hours (flexible time-period)
  • Pre-Project Showcase Review: 30-minutes (late week 2)
  • Project Showcase: 1 hour (Thursday or Friday week 2)

            Daily Check-Ins: CPI3 Coaches are NCOs with specialized training and skillsets to help guide, mentor, and develop Airmen throughout their projects to help increase the chances of producing value-adding solutions. Coaches are not babysitters. To ensure interns are safe and accounted for throughout their CPI3 project, interns will sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) once their project is approved by their Flight Chief and Squadron Chief and before the beginning of their initial coaching session. This MOU will outline daily check-in expectations for both the coach and the intern. During the initial coaching meeting, coaches will work with the intern to establish a reoccurring time and communication method for which the intern will check in daily throughout the internship. If the intern fails to follow through with the mutually agreed upon daily check-in, the coach will give them only one courtesy call. Suppose five minutes elapse after the mutually agreed upon check-in time without any intern check-ins. In that case, the coach will contact the intern’s supervisor via in-person conversation (if able), Mattermost message, or work number. Suppose no valid alibis exist for missing the mutually agreed upon check-in. In that case, the coach will write a memorandum for record (MFR) for the first offense and email it to the intern’s supervisor and Flight Chief. After the second offense with no valid alibi, the intern will be removed from the Program—no MFR required, just an email to the intern’s supervisor and Flight Chief.

            Problem Statement Development Coaching Session (Day 1): The purpose of the initial coaching session is for the coach and intern to get to know each other and discuss what problem the intern is looking to solve without getting into solutions. The only deliverables for the initial coaching session are to (1) build a ‘How Might We’ problem statement that the intern will focus on solving during their internship and (2) identify key stakeholders needed to approve any requests or validate if future solutions resolve the problem statement. Note: after the initial project discussion is complete, it’s perfectly normal and generally encouraged for the intern to revisit, update, or even change their problem statement as they learn new information or gain new insights or perspectives. However, the coach should deliberate in directing the conversation away from possible solutions by keeping it centered on validating if the intern focused on the right problem with the right problem statement—estimated commitment: 2 hours.

            Spark Cell Tour & Third-Party Programs / Resources (Day 1): The United States Air Force (USAF) has allocated a significant number of resources towards innovation that many Airmen do not know about or would benefit from additional exposure. After the intern develops an initial problem statement, the coach will take them on a pre-coordinated tour of the installation’s Spark Cell. This tour intends to expose what the Spark Cell does and get to know the folks working there. It’s also an excellent opportunity for the intern to share their problem statement with the Spark Cell folks to gain additional perspectives into possible blind spots or possible solutions. After the tour is complete, either the coach or the Spark Cell experts will provide the intern academics on third-party innovation programs and resources such as AFWERX, the GAIN & VISION platforms, and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants. Estimated commitment: 2 hours.

            Possible Solution & MVP Coaching Session (Day 2): Armed with a problem statement and exposed to third-party innovation programs and resources, the coach and intern will use Design Thinking. Techniques include divergent thinking to identify possible solutions before pivoting to convergent thinking to narrow in on the top 2-3 solutions. With the top possible solutions in hand, the coach will help the intern develop MVPs to validate if the solution is on-track and effective. Finally, the intern will select the solution and MVP they feel has the best likelihood of resolving the problem statement and can be tested within the internship period. For the remainder of the internship, the intern will then begin working on their solution and MVP with the target goal of presenting their results and findings at the Project Showcase. Generally, more labor-intensive CPI3 projects will focus on testing MVPs and will require subsequent internships or extensions to complete the project. The 1–2-week project goal is to use MVPs to validate very quickly if the proposed solution is effective or not before the stakeholder(s) commit more time and resources—estimated commitment: 2 hours.

            Mid-Project Coaching Sessions: For the remainder of the internship, the coach may request updates from the intern during the daily check-ins to stay updated, provide additional insights, and schedule follow-up coaching sessions to deliver more formal mentorship. These follow-up coaching sessions do not have to last for any time or frequency but should shoot for a total cumulative time allocation of around 2 hours. For instance, the coach and intern could meet up on the 2nd week for only one 2-hour coaching session, do two 1-hour coaching sessions, or do 20-minute daily coaching sessions. The intent is to keep the coach engaged with their intern to receive appropriate guidance throughout the project—estimated commitment: 2 hours.

            Pre-Project Showcase Review: Towards the end of the internship, the intern will present their Project Showcase to the coach for feedback and edits. This review intends to ensure the intern is set up for success when presenting their Project Showcase to the organization’s leadership. Showcases do not have to follow any format but should include at least one visualization and last a minimum of three minutes–estimated commitment: 30 minutes.

            Project Showcase: This is when the intern will showcase the results of their hard work, walk through the processes and methodologies used, and what ideas and perceptions failed or changed during the project. Additionally, this is when the intern will formally request stakeholder approval for any solutions developed or for extensions or authorization to continue their work later in another CPI3 if the solution isn’t complete. While the showcase itself runs the risk of being perceived as ‘innovation theater,’ it plays an essential role in getting others within the organization excited for participating in future CPI3 projects and demonstrating leadership buy-in—estimated commitment: 1 hour.

CPI3 Coach Training

            Projects that run for only 1-2-weeks do not have a lot of time for Airmen to define what problem(s) they are trying to solve, build testable solutions, and make impactful insights. Therefore, coaches must receive adequate training on the methodologies and frameworks necessary for increasing the chances of success while imparting those skills onto interns so that they too can help others successfully lead successful continuous process improvement (CPI) or innovation projects. For in-depth, comprehensive training, prospective coaches are highly encouraged to participate in Air University’s Project Mercury program and earn a Certified Professional Innovator certification through the University of Michigan. However, if unable to participate or complete Air University’s innovation coaching program, below are alternative paths to meeting the CPI3 Program’s training requirements for coaches. Note: formal certification is a great way to prove demonstrated experience and aptitude; however, solely focusing on certifications and training can arbitrarily limit otherwise capable candidates. It is of the opinion of the author of this project outline to not artificially limit prospective coaches based solely on seemingly lacking credentials—reading books and gaining self-driven experience can go a long way and should be considered.

            Design Thinking: “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation—anchored in understanding customer’s needs, rapid prototyping, and generating creative ideas” (“Design Thinking, n.d.). The entire Design Thinking Lifecycle includes empathizing with your customer or target audience, defining the problem, ideating possible solutions, prototyping the solutions, and testing the solution’s effectiveness (Dam R. & Siang T., 2021). Here are some free and non-free course recommendations:

            Agile Project Management: “is an iterative approach to project management that focuses on breaking down large projects into more manageable tasks, which are completed in short iterations throughout the project life cycle” (“What is Agile Project Management,” n.d.). Popular frameworks include Scrum, Kanban, and Extreme Coding. Here are some free and non-free course recommendations:

Recommended Books:

  • The Lean Startup by Eric Ries for MVP development
  • Doing Agile Right by Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk, & Steve Berez for agile project management
  • Creative Confidence by Tom Kelley & David Kelley (IDEO founder) for design thinking
  • Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore for marketing and customer selection
  • Measure What Matters by John Doerr for goal setting
  • Game Storming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo for design thinking

Recommended Websites:

Section 3: CPI3 Program Manager Requirements

            The program manager (PM) role, filled by one of the organization’s CPI3 coaches, only includes a few additional requirements. These requirements culminate in approximately six extra commitment hours per month, including:        

            CPI3 Training: Candidates for the CPI3 Coaching role may lack the necessary training outlined in the previous section. Likewise, the CPI3 PM may find it advantageous to offer training to their members within their organization proactively. Either way, it’s recommended to keep in-house academic training to around 1-4 hours per month. Training topics could include building problem statements or SBIR requests, overviews of AFWERX and the GAIN and VISION platforms, design thinking and Game Storming exercises, and agile project management frameworks such as Scrum or Kanban. Additionally, it’s recommended for PMs to have new coaches shadow at least one internship before running solo.

            Organization-Driven Project Identification: It’s the responsibility of the PM to reach out to the organization’s Senior Enlisted Leader (SEL) and Senior Noncommissioned Officers (SNCO) to solicit possible CPI3 projects ordered by priority if possible. The intent is to (1) provide an organizational-level perspective on areas needing improvement while helping ensure (2) CPI3 projects align with organizational priorities—estimated monthly commitment: 1 hour.

            Advertise CPI3 Opportunities: On a bi-monthly periodicity, PMs should advertise the CPI3 Program to solicit new interns. These advertisements should include the list of organization-driven prioritized projects while still articulating the prospective intern’s ability to purpose their CPI3 project to champion. Moreover, internships may be team events (projects with more than one person). Lastly, the advertisement should include a standardized application template along with the intern MOU (please see “CPI3 Program MOU” and “CPI3 Program Application” attachments). Estimated monthly commitment: 2 hours.

            Interview Prospective Interns: Individual project interviews, led by the PM, should last no longer than 30-minutes with the option for additional coaches to participate when able. The primary drivers behind the interview(s) are to (1) determine if the project proposal is appropriate for the CPI3 Program, (2) prioritize current intern project proposals for pairing with coaches, and (3) determine potential project start and end dates. Project proposals deemed appropriate and paired with a coach with established start and end dates are sent to the prospective intern(s) Flight Chief(s) and the organization’s SEL for final approval. Estimated monthly commitment: 2 hours.

Section 4: Project Nomination & Approval

            The CPI3 Program consists of two types of projects; The first type includes projects identified or vetted by the organization’s SEL. The second type comprises projects purposed by prospective interns within the organization. The CPI3 Program deliberately does not include project proposals by folks other than the SEL who do not intend to participate in the CPI3 Program. This decision is because most folks have problems they wish to see resolved, but very few folks take the time to develop innovative solutions, and even fewer have the drive to action said solutions. Folks who have problem-sets but lack time to develop solutions or act are encouraged to either reach out to any of the CPI3 Coaches or reach out to a member who may take on the problem-set in a CPI3 internship.

            Application Process: To nominate a project proposal, prospective interns need to fill out a CPI3 Project Nomination Form (please see “CPI3 Project Application” attachment) identifying what project they’d like to champion—either from the SEL’s vetted list or a self-purposed project. Additionally, the prospective intern must turn in a signed CPI3 Project Intern MOU (please see “CPI3 Project MOU” attachment). Next, the CPI3 PM will schedule an interview. Once the interview is complete, the PM will determine if the CPI3 Program can support the project proposal and submit the application, along with their recommendation, the intern’s Flight Chief, and SEL. Afterward, the PM will contact the prospective intern to let them know if their project proposal was approved or not.

Section 5: Intern Requirements & Expectations

            Allowing members to step away from the mission for 1–2-weeks is a significant cost that most Squadron Commanders and SNCOs are not comfortable taking. Therefore, when leaders accept the operational risk and strain, opportunities must be taken seriously. CPI3 Program prospective interns must sign an MOU to make expectations clear and concise.

Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)

            Before interviewing, each prospective CPI3 Program intern must review and sign the CPI3 Program MOU (see attached “CPI3 Program MOU”). The intent is to make expectations clear so that each CPI3 project runs smoothly and allows an appropriate amount of time and effort. The reality is that most CPI and innovation projects fail but play as valuable learning opportunities. However, failure should not result from inquinate time or effort placed into the project. Here are some of the requirements specified within the MOU. Time Commitment: The CPI3 Program is a full-time internship; therefore, interns will contribute no less than 7-hours towards their project every duty day until after the pre-determined project termination date passes. Note: teleworking or alternative duty locations are authorized if the assigned CPI3 coach clears them. Leave Policy: member(s) agree not to take leave during approved CPI3 project dates unless for an unforeseen and significantly impacting circumstance unless approved by their assigned CPI3 coach. Note: leave must still route through the intern’s assigned chain of command. Appointment Policy: member(s) agree not to have any appointments scheduled and will not schedule any new appointments during approved CPI3 project dates unless for an unforeseen and significantly impacting circumstance unless approved by their assigned CPI3 coach. Daily Check-In Policy: member(s) agree to check in with their assigned CPI3 coach daily at the mutually agreed time using the agreed-upon communication medium with their assigned CPI3 coach throughout the entirety of the approved CPI3 project dates. Note: daily check-ins will consist of the following minimum requirements: member checking in before the agreed-upon deadline, goal(s) for the day, and duty location(s). Coaching Appointments: member(s) agree to be on time for all scheduled coaching appointments throughout the entirety of the approved CPI3 project dates. Project Showcase: member(s) understand that at the end of their internship, they are responsible for developing a presentation showcasing what they built, tested, and learned during their CPI3 Project. Note: the only formal requirement for the showcase is to include at least one visualization and last for no less than 3 minutes.

            Failure to Comply with MOU: if for any reason a CPI3 Project intern fails to comply with any component within the MOU without a valid alibi, the following progressive actions will be taken. The assigned CPI3 coach will write up an MFR documenting the situation and submit a copy to the intern(s) supervisor for first offenses without a reasonable alibi. For second offenses without a valid alibi, the intern will be removed from the CPI3 Program, and their supervisor and Flight Chief will be notified. Note: If an intern fails to comply with the MOU but does have a valid alibi for each offense, they may still be removed from the Program if the combined number of offenses totals in three instances. This decision is due to the additional time commitment on the CPI3 coach, and the amount of time pulled away from the CPI3 project.

Section 6: Project Showcase

            The Project Showcase is the opportunity for the intern(s) to share their hard work with stakeholders and other members within the organization. Coordinating and scheduling the Project Showcase is a combined effort for the intern(s) and assigned CPI3 coach. Collaboratively during the Mid-Project Coaching Sessions, the two should determine who should attend, venue location, and who will run the logistics. Ultimately, the Project Showcase allows the intern the opportunity to directly ask the stakeholders for approval to implement a new policy or procedure, request a project extension, request for additional support, or share what they learned regarding a tough problem-set. When the exception of the last category, the Project Showcase should include some ask.

Project Extensions

            Every CPI3 Project should run through the build-test-learn cycle. This cycle focuses on learning and not on building wildly successful solutions in such a short time. Therefore, it will be widespread for CPI3 projects to only focus on MVP testing and will require subsequent CPI3 projects to produce complete solutions addressing the proposed problem statement. For example, the Project Showcase could be the actual MVP test where the intern demonstrates a prototype that the stakeholder(s) within the audience may not feel addresses their concerns. After receiving stakeholder feedback, the intern can leverage those new insights to determine if they wish to continue their project. Note: project extensions do not necessarily mean immediately continuing onto another 1-2-week internship period but could mean scheduling the 1-2-week project continuation for a future time. Likewise, project extensions do not have to be only requested during the Project Showcase but can also be requested using the same CPI3 application process. Regardless, the approval authorities for project extensions are the intern’s Flight Chief and SEL-provided CPI3 coach availability.


  • Project Mercury Cohort 5. (2021). Innovation with Industry, Air University