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Conference paves way for efficient Air Force

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Dec. 13, 2005) -- The Air Force is looking to civilian companies to find ways to streamline itself, eliminate waste and save money in the process.

Civilian companies like General Electric and Toyota have been successfully using process improvement programs to cut waste and increase efficiency.

Now the Air Force plans to adapt some of that thinking to benefit its own activities. During a Dec. 13 to 14 conference at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Air Force leaders will plan the service's effort to become leaner.

Lean is a business process strategy that aims to eliminate waste, save time and money and refocus the Air Force's resources on its core mission, said Michael L. Dominguez, assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs.

"We have got to continue to deliver our combat capabilities every day around the globe. And they have got to be done in a standard way and have got to be done with absolute safety and precision," Mr. Dominguez said. "We are going to bring in Air Force leadership to try and build that implementation process."

Mr. Dominguez said attendees will spend the first day of the conference learning about the concept’s principles and application. The second day, they will discuss how they may apply what they have learned.

"We will do that by balancing (our) needs with the need for innovation and imagination and for streamlining processes and changing how we operate," Mr. Dominguez said. "At the same time, (we will be) inventing the governing process. That is the principal task of this gathering of Air Force leaders."

Fundamental to some of the processes is eliminating waste -- anything that does not add value to what is being produced. In the Air Force, it is anything that does not add value to the core mission or is not closely connected to the core mission.

Determining what adds value to a process is crucial to optimizing the process.

Some practitioners may make a "spaghetti diagram" of a maintenance process, or any process, and include all the steps taken to achieve the end result -- like a mission-ready B-2 Spirit, for example. They then ask what steps are actually adding value to the end result, and which steps could be removed.

"You look at the mechanic who is doing the value added work on the shop floor and you are mapping the steps they go through, including walking to tool control, getting materials, and how efficiently the work is organized," said Col. Paul Dunbar, the Air Force deputy director for innovation and transformation.

"We ask, ‘Have we done things efficiently in the way we have set that up? Are our folks who are doing the value-added work also the hunters and gatherers for tools and information and materials? Are we bringing that support to them?’" the colonel said.

Faced with those question, Colonel Dunbar said, “You can redesign a work process so an Airmen whose expertise is taking care of a B-2 can focus on the value-added work of doing that and are not standing in line for tools or filling out forms. That type of thinking results in work getting done faster, more efficiently and with less waste. And that saves money.”

The Air Force started implementing optimization practices in the late 1990s in air logistics centers and other aircraft maintenance areas. For example, at the Warner-Robins Air Logistics Center, Robins Air Force Base, Ga., it reduced the number of days to move a C-5 Galaxy through the overhaul process from 339 to 171. The time savings was realized, in part, by reducing travel time for mechanics by as much as 60 percent. That freed up one dock to overhaul additional aircraft.

There were other examples of streamlining. McChord Air Force Base, Wash., reduced cycle time in the Galaxy wheel and tire shop by 67 percent. Isochronal inspection time on the Galaxy at Dover AFB, Del., was cut from 33 to 19 days, saving about $300,000 per aircraft. And Langley AFB, Va. and Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, reduced F-15 Eagle phase inspection time by 30 percent.

To date, optimization practices have been applied mostly in the maintenance arena. But Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne wants it to spread throughout the Air Force to business, contracting, medical, personnel and other "white collar" work.

Major command vice commanders at the conference will be the front-line fighters in implementing such practices throughout the Air Force.

The Air Force will make some of the streamlining decisions. But in large part, decisions on how to apply such practices will come from major command leaders, and even individual Airmen who are actually involved in the work of the Air Force, Mr. Dominguez said.

"There is innovation at the major commands and at the wings," Mr. Dominguez said. "Those Airmen out there know where time and money is wasted and how the job could be done better."

This isn't the first time the Air Force has looked at the way it does business to find ways to streamline. In the early 1990s, the Air Force adopted Total Quality Management, sometimes referred to as "Quality Air Force." TQM and the lean processes are in some ways similar, Mr. Dominguez said.

"The goals of TQM and a lean continuous process improvement are the same in that sense," he said. "Let's remove waste. Let's remove inefficiency. Let's take steps out of the process that don't actually add value and are legacies of the past.

“The concepts are similar,” he said. “They are about being the best national security value for the dollar anywhere on the planet. The techniques or approach is going to be significantly different, however."

Mr. Dominguez said some of the TQM effects may have had the desired result, but he acknowledges that the process may have left a bad taste in the mouths of some Air Force leaders.

Instead new efficiency practices will put the mission of the Air Force at the center and will result in a leaner Air Force -- but one that makes it easier for Airmen to do their job, Mr. Dominguez said.

"Combat capability is at the heart of this," he said. "Part of that combat capability is the work life and the quality of the work life of the Airmen, military and civilian, active, National Guard and Air Force Reserve, who are doing that work. We are going to wring cost and inefficiency out of the system, but we are not going to make their lives harder. We are not going to balance the books on the backs of Airmen."

Colonel Dunbar believes the Air Force is well suited to adapt to process improvement practices. He said they are about efficiency and about setting and maintaining standards, while also keeping the primary focus on the core mission.

"This isn't just about bringing in business practices and treating the Air Force like a business," Colonel Dunbar said. "This is bringing in tools and principles of how we do work and how we eliminate waste in a way that fits our culture -- and this can fit us.”

The colonel said, “This is about standards and best practices, and we understand that because we are a culture of compliance. We understand standards and we've got a training system we can leverage.”