Let’s take a second to ignore the immediate problems with COVID-19 and FIRST Robotics. Where is your team in three years? What about six years? Team 100, like most FRC teams, is in a struggle to survive COVID-19. We are focusing all of our energy to the micro level on how to attract and train new students. While I am planning on writing about the near-term training for our team (stay tuned since we plan to make it available to all teams), I came to a realization over the past couple of weeks. Training gets us through the next five months, but a clear vision gets us through the next five years.

What is Vision

Different organizations have different definitions. Especially since FRC experiences much higher and faster turn-over than many companies, it operates differently for an FRC team than a company. However, the concept is similar:

Vision is a goal that acts as the basis for all priorities, decisions, and innovation. It aims to provide direction and unify a team.

Team 100 Has Never Had Vision

I have written extensively about some of the many problems on my FRC team. Why, after twenty five years, are we still wrestling with simple team problems? The answer is simple: we have simply existed with no direction nor drive.

The long-term survival of an FRC team depends largely on both the success the team experiences and the support from the school/school district. We have carried just enough success to not lose support from our amazingly-supportive school. To be completely honest, we would not continue to exist in most schools around the country. While we have had the occasional success, it tends to be more incidental and gets followed by a five-to-seven-year lull.

We have failed to be successful because we have failed to innovate, and our lack of innovation comes from a lack of vision. Most students and mentors could not answer the question “where are we next week” much less “where are in five years.” When you don’t have a goal, decision making is more difficult: you have no basis nor direction for which decisions should be based on. Do we care about ease to implement? Is sacrificing reliability worth it? In the upcoming years, the vision will act as a guide for all evaluation of decisions and priorities.

black and white typewriter on green textile

Controls Team’s Vision

In the 2026 competition season (five off-seasons from now), our goal is for Team 100 to never have a problem during a match that is the result of a Controls error. This sounds insane, especially given our history, but that is what we are striving for.

Breaking Down Our Vision

Why is this our goal? Well, let’s take a look at our vision statement and identify why it works for our team.

Reliability

A lack of reliability has long plagued my team, especially with our control systems. When I talked with our other controls leadership students, reliability came up as the number one aspect that needed to be resolved. Any vision that we had needed to focus on reliability.

Measurable and Relatively Near-Term

We could’ve said that our vision was to “have a reliable robot.” Why didn’t we choose that? The answer is quite simple: there was no way to evaluate that vision. Does a reliable robot mean 90% of matches go without a catastrophic failure? 50%? How about 20%? If your goal isn’t measurable, then it is likely that you will lower the bar to meet your goal rather than improve your technical skills and culture to reach the bar.

On a similar note, since there is a date set with our vision, it means that we can’t simply ignore it. On the scale of our team, five years isn’t far away. We can’t ignore this goal and leave it to another generation of students. Every single member of the Controls Team has to play their part NOW to be successful.

turned on monitoring screen

Sustainability

Five years was a very intentional deadline. Our Controls Team consists entirely of juniors and seniors (a problem that we are desperate to solve). In five years, the people currently on the team will be finishing up university. So, we turn to sustainability. An unsustainable culture is not much better than an insignificant culture, so by having an extended deadline, we have to think about the sustainability of each action.

Ambitious and Optimistic

Aiming for 50% reliability, or even 75%, would be easily within the imagination of my team, especially given our five year timeline. However, 100% is a whole different beast. Why didn’t we choose 75%? In order for people to create the changes Team 100 needs, we need to strive for perfection.

In all honesty, we will probably have problems in the 2026 season: pneumatics that aren’t fully pressurized, a weak electrical connection, or a software bug. However, by striving for 100%, any small problem that we have needs to be addressed, making our robot much more reliable. It also means that shortcuts will be less acceptable and reliability will be at the core of every decision. As cliché as it is:

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

Norman Vincent Peale
milky way on mountains

Human Error Doesn’t Exist

Human error does not exist, and it is an insufficient analysis for a failure. Instead, human error usually boils down to one of the following:

  • Lack of a procedure or standard
  • Failure within a procedure
  • Cultural failure to adhere to a procedure
  • Failure to effectively communicate

So, when there is a “human error,” dig deeper. It almost always can be fixed through procedural changes. So, when looking at a cause of a problem, we will not consider human error to be acceptable. Only once we can look past human error can we reduce risk in the future.

From my analysis in past seasons, 75% of problems that occurred had “human error” tagged as one of the causes. However, all but two of those fell into one of the categories above.

Student-Driven

Perhaps the part of this vision that I am most proud of: it was a student-driven process. I have concerns with a student run, student built culture, but this is one of the more promising results. Our mentors didn’t know about the switch to a vision-driven culture until the students produced a document explaining the switch.

At the end of the day, FRC is a student-centered program. Since students came up with this vision, it means that it is more sustainable. It also means that students are willing to do what it takes to achieve our goal. I have seen more excitement about risk-mitigation, checklists, and root-cause analyses from students in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. All of this because the vision came from the students and created optimism among the students.

Big Team Changes

Thanks to our vision, we have started to make some much-needed changes to team culture.

Restructuring

The idea of a Controls Team may be foreign to you. What is this new sub-team? Why have I never heard of it? Well, it is the first major change to support our vision.

A major source of unreliability and inefficiency on our control systems is that electronics and software have traditionally been two separate sub-teams. Each has their own interests, though they often overlap, and cross-disciplinary training is near-nonexistent.

Now, we have decided to combine both into a single sub-team with specializations. Every software-specializing student will need to be able to do basic electronics work and vice versa. This is largely unprecedented for our team, but from our experimentation last year, we think it has a lot of potential.

Why Did We Have Separate Sub-teams?

If separate sub-teams are so inefficient, why did we tolerate them for so long? Due to politics in our school district, Team 100 lost the vast majority of our team in 2015. Back when we had 90 students, having people specialize in electronics made sense, because there were so many people and the team made it a priority to get as many people as possible involved in the robot.

However, after we went from almost 100 students to under 20, we didn’t adjust. Since there was no vision for the team, things stayed the same. We maintained two sub-teams, Software and Electronics, who were both starved for students and had trouble operating simultaneously. Even worse, both had to be present for most of the robot operating cycle. Yet there was no vision, so no change occurred.

Our Hopes for the New System

Now that cross-disciplinary training is mandatory, we expect much more efficient usage of our students and time. Our electronics-specializing students will have much less time wasted before a production robot is ready. At the same time, our software-specializing students will be able to assist electrical efforts and debug our robot faster.

Understand and Mitigate Risks

I mentioned that we have a lot more excitement about risk mitigation. Our new vision has us implementing several strategies to mitigate risks and create greater reliability.

Every Problem is Logged

In order to prevent problems from occurring in the future, you need to understand what the problems are. Aside from student-specific logs of problems, Team 100 has never had a sub-team or team-wide system to log problems and failures.

We will be creating a bug-tracking database with Bugzilla to track every problem that we encounter with control systems. Based on testing with my informal database (a Microsoft Form), it takes an average of 43 seconds to add a new problem. This is so fast that we can easily afford to do it on a wide scale. If a team can’t afford one student for 43 seconds, they have much larger problems than risk mitigation.

With this database, we will have a record of what steps we need to take in order to mitigate risks in the future and a baseline to evaluate the development of procedures and checklists. Once we have information, decision-making is much easier.

Checklists

I highly recommend that you read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. It is a book that covers how checklists radically reduced problems during surgeries around the world. After a couple of students read the book and understood the power of checklists, we decided to place a greater emphasis on checklists.

Whenever a new opportunity for risk-mitigation arises, we will create a simple checklist to guide the process. Then, as we use the checklist both in controlled and production environments, the checklist will be revised. With an army of checklists, we expect a significant reduction in human error. If it worked for airlines, construction companies, and hospitals, it can work for your FRC team.

person writing bucket list on book

Procedures

When you get a surgery, the surgeon follows a set procedure. It reduces risks and creates a greater sense of trust. I would be terrified if a surgeon decided to get “creative” and “see what happens” during an open-heart surgery. So why do we repeatedly cobble together “creative” solutions, test to see what happens, and accept a high risk of failure when creating or fixing a robot?

The way that my team fixes our robot, especially in the pit, is like a surgeon performing “creative” open-heart surgery without diagnosing the patient and hoping that nothing goes wrong. Needless to say, that mentality is incompatible with our pursuit of perfect reliability. Things often go wrong and sometimes end up worse than before. So, just like a surgeon, we are going to work to establish well-understood standards and procedures for every step of the development and fixing process.

While the exact nature of these procedures is still unknown, it likely will consist of a binder with common development, diagnosis, and repair situations where by any reasonably competent Controls student could perform the procedure by following the instructions like a recipe. In addition, we want to develop these procedures when we aren’t in the heat of the moment, so that we can remain calm and collected if our robot breaks.

Development Procedures and Automation

Procedures don’t just belong in the pits. We are aiming to redefine our programming and wiring process around well-understood procedures. After creating a “robot bring-up” procedure (for the initial enable of the robot), we eliminated practically every significant risk at what used to be the riskiest time in a robot’s life-cycle.

While coding takes some in-the-moment creativity, it should be minimized as much as possible. Wiring a robot should have no in-the-moment creativity. In-the-moment creativity during wiring is what caused our 2019 robot to be plagued with wiring issues throughout the entire season, causing us to lose many matches. Once we create procedures for writing code and wiring, we expect the risk of bugs and wiring errors to be much smaller.

I saw a tweet (I can’t find it now) that basically said that you should create procedures and then automate it. We are not at the technical level to be able to do significant automation yet, but automation of our procedures will play a larger role in the future of our team. Even when you have procedures, there is a risk that someone will make a mistake. However, if the procedure is automated, the likelihood of that risk occurring plummets. So, while procedures are great, automation should be the ultimate goal, and automation is being considered as part of our redefined sub-team culture.

Your Changes Will Likely Be Different

I hope that you can see how a vision defined some of our cultural changes. If reliability is a priority for your team, I encourage you to take a look at some of our steps. However, every team is unique, and your changes will likely be different.

Even though your team may have a different vision, you still should have a vision. Even in the last couple of weeks, the excitement and drive among students on the Controls Team has been astounding when compared to a typical off-season.

Do not make changes to your team just because you saw it on Chief Delphi, Facebook, or this blog. All of these changes stemmed from our vision, and your team needs to go through the same process to address your unique situation. If you mindlessly follow all of the changes presented by other teams, your team may improve but it won’t have direction. Direction solidifies sustainability, and a lack of direction creates opportunities for a team to fail.

Small Groups are Good

I especially encourage your discussions to start in small groups (ideally within a given sub-team), since it is easier to talk openly when there is less fear of retaliation. Sub-team dynamics are complicated and fragile. I can personally attest that I am much more open when talking with my fellow members of the Controls team than I am with mentors or with other sub-teams.

If there is a quiet student, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have opinions. It more likely means that they feel that the environment isn’t one that is comfortable to express their opinions. These cultural changes started with three people in a group chat and grew. It grew once we realized that we were all on the same page, and that our grievances and annoyances were shared. It became easier to express with the rest of the team once we came to this realization. So please, start with small groups of people who are closely-connected and ideally on the same sub-team, and expand from there.

Upon the Completion of the Vision

What happens in five years? If we don’t have near-perfect reliability, then we have to continue to look into how to improve reliability. If not, and to some extent even if our reliability isn’t perfect, the team will need to figure out its next vision. Either way, I hope that the lessons we learn over the next five years will continue to inspire and improve the team.

Sustainability

I won’t be on the team to see the end of this vision. In a matter of days, I will begin my senior year, and who knows if we will actually compete this year. However, it is a good thing that I won’t see the end of this plan.

Leaders create culture, the team perpetuates it. If an aspect of culture requires a specific leader to perpetuate it, then it isn’t culture. My job, as a student leader, is to do everything in power to ensure that these changes and this vision is long-lasting and becomes ingrained in our culture. Every single student over the next years needs to understand their role and why cultural changes matter.

For the mentors that are reading this post, your job is to assist in the perpetuation of culture. This entire process is being written down, so that future students and mentors can perpetuate the changes that we are starting now. You also need to push students to not go back on the vision.

None of our current students will directly benefit from the extra work we are putting in now. Make no mistake, the extra workload now is much larger than the work in past off-seasons. However, the benefits that it will bring to future students is worth it. The idea that our future team could be in a better position than we are in now, and that the extra work created by our vision could make Woodside High School’s robotics program competitive, is worth it.