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AFSO21 Leans out uniform development

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Aug. 15, 2006) -- In January, a limited number of the new Air Force utility uniforms will roll off production lines. Their arrival will mark the end of a nearly five-year development cycle.

Lessons learned from development of the Airman Battle Uniform will be applied to the Air Force's next uniform project, the "Heritage Coat," a potential replacement for the current service dress coat.

In just the last six months of ABU development, the Air Force began applying principles of Air Force Smart Operations 21 to the uniform development process. The process -- from the time the chief of staff of the Air Force decides there needs to be a new uniform to the moment it is available to an Airman -- was ripe for the kind of optimization AFSO21 can provide, said Col. Paul Price, of the Air Force Uniform Board.

"The uniform process is definitely an enterprise system, and by that I mean there are multiple players who participate in the uniform process," he said. "The reason it is a good AFSO21 candidate is because of the synchronization and interaction between the players and their roles and responsibilities. AFSO21 can identify the processes and then allow you to streamline them to increase efficiency."

In April 2006, Air Force officials conducted a rapid improvement event, or RIE, that looked at the entire uniform development process. An RIE, also known as a "Lean" event or "Kaizen" event, is the foundation of Lean process improvement and is a critical part of AFSO21. An RIE focuses on eliminating waste from a process while improving its productivity.

Members of Air Force Manpower and Personnel, or A1; the Army and Air Force Exchange Service; Air Force Office of Financial Management; Defense Logistics Agency; and the Aeronautical Systems Center, including the Air Force Clothing Office, all key in development and distribution of uniforms, gathered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to participate in the event.

"During that enterprise look, we developed a schedule to drill down into the different pieces of the uniform process," Colonel Price said.

The team also mapped out the current uniform development process, he said.

The RIE team identified four interdependent processes in the uniform acquisition enterprise that would need individual RIEs. Those areas included requirements and funding, uniform research and development, issue item procurement and optional item procurement. The first of those RIEs, concerning funding and requirements, was held June 26 to 30.

"What I found with the uniform process," Colonel Price said, "is that it was very splintered. There were redundancies and gaps. Uniform requirements were not well defined, documented or stable."

Without defined requirements, what was needed was always changing, Colonel Price said. And that uncertainty increases cost and the time it takes to complete a uniform.

Another discovery was the lack of continuity between uniform boards and the data they create.

"We've had uniform boards in the past, but the results of those boards are all kept in file cabinets in notebooks," he said. "So we identified a big need for creating an electronic automated repository for past uniform board decisions."

The members of the June RIE determined such a repository would facilitate managing the data that would be maintained and archived for future boards. Part of that system would allow uniform board members to log in to an automated "virtual board" to participate electronically. The virtual board also would allow Airmen in the field to provide input to the uniform board, without having to wait for major commands to ask for their input, and without having to go through the Innovative Development through Employee Awareness, or IDEA program.

Colonel Price also said he noticed the uniform process did not have a single program element manager to oversee the money aspects of developing a new uniform.

"Depending on the type of uniform item, who is going to be issued it, and how they were going to be issued it, determines what pot of money it will come out of," he said. "That process is very splintered right now."

Two of the largest developments of the June RIE include the creation of the Uniform Enterprise Working Group, or UEWG, and a change in the scope of the Air Force Uniform Board.

According to Colonel Price, the RIE team proposed reducing the scope of the AFUB such that it addresses only wear policy issues, and then streamline it by conducting meetings electronically on a quarterly basis, versus meeting annually.

The UEWG, staffed by members of all key organizations in uniform development, will meet at least monthly to ensure money is being spent correctly, goals are prioritized and that uniform development is on track.

The Air Force will hold an additional three RIEs to further investigate the uniform development process. Those RIEs will focus on research and development, DLA issue procurement, and AAFES optional procurement. Colonel Price said he expects those RIEs to be completed by the summer of 2007.

Even with the completion of those final events, the uniform development process will not be completely "optimized." Part of AFSO21 is "continual process improvement." That means there always will be a need to look deeper into a process to eliminate more waste and inefficiency.

But with completion of the first application of AFSO21 to the uniform process, Colonel Price believes the Air Force already will gain a better process.

"You will see a faster process, and you will also see more efficiencies in the system," he said. "Senior leaders are going to have the ability to make better decisions, and I think there's going to be much more deliberate decision making, very specific decision making. There also will be a much more defined, codified, documented process that will allow us to make better and more timely decisions."