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Smart Operations 21 office formed at Pentagon

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (May 11, 2006) -- In February, Air Force leaders created a new program office at the Pentagon that will take the lead in optimizing the way the Air Force conducts its mission.

The Air Force Smart Operations 21 office, created in response to an initiative by Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne, will look at process improvement across the service.

The new office provides top-level guidance for implementing AFSO21 initiatives. These initiatives will enhance a mindset in the Air Force that is already geared toward innovation, said Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III, director of the Air Force Smart Operations 21 office.

"The Air Force has always fostered a culture of innovation," General Gilbert said. "We are trying to take that culture of innovation to the next level, where we look at all the processes involved in what we do. We look at not doing ‘more with less,’ but at being smarter about the way we are doing business -- eliminating work that is unnecessary. We have tried to capture lessons learned from industry and government agencies involved in process improvement."

Senior leaders designed the program specifically for the Air Force, and it is based on similar industry process improvement practices like Lean, Six Sigma and Theory of Constraints.

"Air Force Smart Operations 21 is a term coined by Air Force senior leadership to represent not only a program to institutionalize continuous process improvement, but also to describe a new way of thinking about the Air Force," General Gilbert said. "We want to be smart about the things we do for the future."

Process improvement involves looking at the way something is done, from beginning to end, and determining how it can be done better. By outlining a process, people can then look for redundancies and "non-value added work" to eliminate.

Non-value added work is that which adds nothing to a process. Examples could be forms that are filled out unnecessarily, or excessive travel to get replacement parts when it would be more practical to house those replacement parts at a work center, General Gilbert said.

Even after teams apply initiatives to a process and improve it, there is still more work to do, General Gilbert said. Every process can continue to be improved and more waste can always be found. Continual process improvement is the nature of AFSO21.

"This isn't about a one-time pass and you’re done," he said. "It’s a continual process. After you go through once, you then examine the same process again and again. Generally, you find every process will require review four or five times and each time you find more to eliminate or that can be streamlined."

General Gilbert said Air Force leaders have identified 10 main processes divided into three areas: governing, core and enabling. The processes are: planning and executing strategic initiatives, managing processes and programs, developing and sustaining warfighting capability, deploying personnel and materials, conducting kinetic and related operations, conducting non-kinetic and related operations, caring for people, providing information support systems, caring for infrastructure and managing financial resources.

Each of the processes has several sub-processes. In actuality, there could be thousands or tens of thousands of actual processes used in the Air Force to accomplish specific parts of the overall mission. Each one, no matter how small or large, can be improved, General Gilbert said.

"Every process we have needs to be improved," he said. "Even in world-class organizations, you find that 60 to 70 percent of the activity in a particular process is waste -- activity that doesn't add value to the overall output."

The Air Force logistics community has been applying AFSO21-type improvements to its own processes for years now, long before the Air Force decided to initiate AFSO21. That community found great success in applying Lean practices to processes like depot maintenance and engine repair, General Gilbert said.

For instance, in KC-135 Stratotanker depot maintenance, Air Force Materiel Command returned an additional 100 aircraft to the operational fleet by applying AFSO21 practices. With C-5 Galaxy aircraft, they reduced overhaul time from 339 days to just 171 days.

At U.S. Air Forces Europe, the commander chartered a team to look at consolidated telephone operations. The command employed 77 telephone operators, including some working under a $600,000 contract at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. The team looked at the full range of processes associated with telephone operations and found ways to consolidate and streamline them.

The result was to eliminate inefficiencies through consolidation, reduce the manpower requirement to 65 operators and eliminate the need for the Incirlik contract, General Gilbert said. The process improvements will not only produce $2.4 million in savings over the next seven years, they will also generate better standardization and services across the command.

While such an improvement proves an immediate benefit to the command’s telephone operations, a larger benefit is realized when considering where those savings can be applied, General Gilbert said.

"The real benefit from changing those processes is seen when you look at what it means for USAFE operations in general," he said. "If we can cut down on the contract and operations costs in a variety of these areas, we’re talking about real savings that will translate into increased combat capability for the future."

By using AFSO21 initiatives, process times can be reduced, so work can be done more quickly. And by reducing waste in processes, resources like money, time and people can be freed up to do other work, General Gilbert said.

The AFSO21 office is in the process of creating the guidance for implementing continual process improvement across the service. In addition at each major command and Air Staff function, there is a colonel or brigadier general designated to support AFSO21 operations and initiatives.

The office will also help develop training for those who need it, as well as create ways to ensure the AFSO21 mindset is encouraged throughout the entire Air Force, he said.

General Gilbert said that while formal implementation of AFSO21 practices across the Air Force have just begun, he doesn't believe it will be short-lived or ineffective as other process improvement programs have been in the past.

"We have found that even skeptics, after they have participated in an AFSO21 event, come away convinced there is real possibility here, that there was a return on investment and that they had an impact," he said. "AFSO21 is about a mindset for the 21st century. This is not a short-term program -- it is a program to fundamentally change the culture of the Air Force for the long haul."