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Air Force improving production with Smart Operations 21

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Jan. 09, 2006) -- The Air Force used the best parts of several civilian efficiency programs to develop an Air Force-unique process-improvement program called "Smart Operations 21," Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne said.

The program will take the Air Force forward in a journey of self-improvement, the secretary said at a conference at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. The process will help improve the Air Force’s product-development process.

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"The name came from a convocation of the senior operators in the field who thought we could continue our journey into higher quality and better performance by using a term that would relate to airfield operations, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, unmanned aerial vehicle operations or cyberspace operations," he said.

"So Air Force Smart Operations 21 is the ideal project name for this journey we are embarking on," he said.

The program is based on both Lean and Six Sigma business process improvement tools. These tools were developed chiefly in the private sector to focus on increasing value to customers, save time and money, reduce waste and improve quality.

A process is made lean by re-engineering it to eliminate steps that add no value to the end product or by combining process steps to save time. For instance, moving tools and supplies closer to a work area to reduce the number of footsteps workers must take to complete their jobs.

It is also about minimizing "batch and queue" processes. In manufacturing, a raw material may need to pass through several workstations before it becomes a final product. The initial workstation may drill a single hole or make a single cut in a batch of several thousand pieces of raw material.

The semi-finished parts then go into a queue, waiting for the next step in the process. Once the part is cut or drilled, it loses its value as raw material, but has gained no value as a final product. So, it becomes a financial liability. A leaner process would attempt to move each part through the system in one pass, if possible, to eliminate warehousing of unfinished parts.

Six Sigma deals primarily with quality control and tolerances. If one step in a manufacturing process requires a board be "cut to eight feet," an employee might spend too much time lining up raw material at a cutting station to ensure the goal is met. Six Sigma has manufacturer ask customers to be clearer about what is truly needed. If a deviation of a half-inch is acceptable to the customer, then the worker will be able to cut more boards in less time. That produces less reject boards that end up in a scrap bin. The process saves money for both the manufacturer and the customer.

Six Sigma has users look at many areas of a process to determine what a customer truly needs, and to then make determinations about when and where it is appropriate to spend more money to achieve higher levels of perfection.

Secretary Wynne said the Air Force will use Smart Operations 21 to increase the efficiency of the processes it uses to develop its own products.

In some places, Air Force people already have that mindset, he said. For years, air logistics centers have improved their workflow by employing some of the tools that make up Smart Operations 21, said Maj. Gen. Kevin J. Sullivan. He is the commander of the Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

At the conference, General Sullivan said the Ogden center has processes in place to save time and money, and to give customers what they really want -- faster turnaround on their aircraft.

The general said things are moving away from a traditional batch and queue process for aircraft repair. Optimizing workflow has helped the center decrease the time it takes to get an airplane back in the air.

By creating work cells -- where aircraft move through at a pace of one every two days -- the center eliminated having large numbers of aircraft lined up waiting for somebody to get to them to apply the next step in the process.

"What we really had going on was historic batch processing for these airplanes," General Sullivan said.

Now aircraft move quickly from cell to cell. Paying attention to individual processes optimized work within a cell. Tools and parts are made available to workers locally, so they don't have to travel to get them, he said.

"Think of your technician as a surgeon," General Sullivan said. "Give him all the tools and supplies he needs to work on the airplane so he doesn’t have to leave the airplane."

One thing the general implemented was rolling supply bins. A later improvement was the introduction of parts vending machines. They allow parts to be sold on an as-needed basis. That way, the center does not have to warehouse parts.

"We don’t pay for those parts until the worker puts in their number to get the part," he said. "Not only are we getting consumables out to the work site, but we don’t pay for that inventory."

Col. Samuel Cox, who commands the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover AFB, Del., applied similar thinking to isochronal inspections for the base’s fleet of C-5 Galaxy aircraft.

The inspection process had never really been engineered, the colonel said. Over the years, new requirements were simply tacked on to the end of the process without regard to the time needed to meet the new requirement.

If repairing one C-5 part takes 10 days, and the repair doesn't begin until the 10th day of the inspection, then the aircraft can't be back on the flightline until the 20th day, the colonel said. The isochronal inspection process was re-engineered.

"In the end we completely re-flowed the process, with the long lead items at the front end," Colonel Cox said. "The first thing that happens now is everybody in the ISO dock tears into the panels -- it’s a collective effort -- and they can identify the long lead time items."

Reducing the time it takes to fix a C-5 means it spends more time doing its job.

"We need to have those airplanes out there flying missions, not in the ISO dock," he said.

While developed mostly in the private sector, the two business process improvement tools serve as the foundation for Smart Operations 21.

Secretary Wynne said the Air Force needs a strategy to understand and optimize the basic processes around which it organizes. Smart Operations 21 will be the centerpiece of the strategy, he said.

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