Smart ops for the 21st century

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- At Seymour Johnson Air Force Base our product is in our mission statement; "Combat Airpower" and we provide it to our ultimate customer, the American Taxpayer through 9th Air Force and Air Combat Command to the Combatant Commanders in two theaters and notionally as directed. 

Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st century ensures that our people communicate with the customer and each other to produce the product and eliminate wasted time, steps, and because of organizational lines of authority or paradigms (doing it the way we have always done it at Seymour). It puts emphasis on the product and the quality of the product in terms of the customer's value. It is not doing more with less. It really amounts to doing less with less and focuses our efforts to do only things required to produce the product. It's important for you to start thinking LEAN, (the LEAN method of Continuous Improvement Process) with a few principles and then hopefully the personal examples I provide in this story will spur you on to look at your work a little differently and work to get our mission accomplished better, stronger, faster, and costing us less money while putting less strain on our most valuable resource - our Airmen and our families! 

AFSO 21 is based on both lean and Six Sigma business process improvement tools. 

These tools were developed in the private sector to focus on increasing value to customers, saving time, money, and manpower, reducing waste, and improving quality. 

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. For this article I am not going to spend as much time on Six Sigma - our Quality Assurance folks, superintendents, and commanders help us define that. Don't forget about it though it's part of the formula. 

General Ronald Keys wrote in a June 2006 letter to Air Combat Command Airmen
"Remember, the output is mission accomplishment. 'Faster, better, cheaper' is the filter for our measures of merit. If we can accomplish the mission faster, maybe we can reduce our shift time, or maybe we will have more capability available without more equipment. If we can do it better, maybe it will last longer and we will save on repair or rework time. If we can do it cheaper, maybe we can take that money and fix something that takes money to fix. In any case, we're looking for ways to do the right things in the right way." 

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. Many times the people who can identify the opportunities for improvement are the troops on the ground or in the shops. For instance, moving tools and supplies closer to a work area to reduce the number of footsteps workers must take to complete their jobs. Leaning a process is also about minimizing "batch and queue" (I like to say get a bunch done, put them on the floor till the next guy is done with the last bunch) processes. If nothing else, time is wasted in these efforts and two people may be doing what one may be able to do more efficiently and quickly. 

James P. Womack a professor, author, and research affiliate with the Japan Program at MIT and advisor to North American firms writes; " In Japanese, the word for "waste" is "muda." Interestingly enough, muda carries a handful of business connotations. It points to human activity that burns resources without leading to any substantial value, mistakes that require someone to expend energy to fix, huge inventories that build up when supply outpaces demand, redundant or unnecessary processing steps and people waiting around for parts to finish their jobs. Waste covers all the things that happen, but shouldn't happen, in your organization: all the activities that unnecessarily spend time, money, and energy, and ruin potential. " 

Do you value your resources? Do you value your time? If so, lean thinking will help you produce Combat Airpower better and faster with less resource expenditures. You can magically transform all that muda into value for your organization and your customers. Here are some principles that Mr. Womack says will help you identify opportunities and raise the process as a candidate to be leaned out. 

Principle One: Specify Value 

If you want to help your customers, think like them. What's valuable to them? Their money, their time and the quality of the product or service that they receive. 

Principle Two: Discover the Value Stream 

You have a very important assignment. Think of yourself as a geographer in an unexplored rainforest. You've got to locate and identify the main source of water or value and remove the dams or obstacles in the flow in terms of wasted time, rework, steps. 

Principle Three: Create Flow 

Okay, you have redefined what you mean by value, and you have figured out the geography of your value stream. Look for opportunities to exercise an alternative to compartmentalized production. The alternative is working continuously on one product at a time, from start to finish, completing everything needed to make that a finished product and then going back and working on the next unfinished product. This approach has flow. It honors the product more than the organization. To improve the flow in your organization you might have to shake it up. Nothing - no job, no seniority, no company rule - can stand in its way. 

Principle Four: Use Your Pull 

As your organization begins to master the technique of flow, an interesting opportunity will arise. When you cut unneccesary steps out of your processes, you'll be producing products more quickly and cheaper than you could have imagined. This allows you to reallocate resources to other needs and to other efficiencies, provided they meet the mission - value specification criteria - Provide Combat Airpower. Something to keep in mind - what you save or decide you need to allocate resources to does not have to be a widget attached to one of the weapons stations of an F-15 E Strike Eagle to meet the mission criteria it may be anything that sustains your people and makes them more efficient and focused as part of the principles. 

Principle Five: Approach Perfection 

Once you get all these principles rolling, you're no longer competing with other organizations, you're competing with yourself. You're saving time for the customer and yourself through your efforts. Continually seek improvement, capture your changes in writing, and continually review and seek input and data that will tell you how you are doing. 

One of the best examples of AFSO 21 that I am familiar with was one that we undertook at Balad Air Base where I spent last year. It's called the "Hub and Spoke" method of intertheater airlift concept and was devised and benchmarked from organizations like Fed-Ex, UPS, and our own Aeromedical Evacuation methods. 

We saw that we were having to move huge amounts cargo for the Army, Marines, and the Air Force and that we were flying some non-effective missions (no cargo) while air suitable cargo was moving by dangerous Line Haul Road Convoys or was backlogging in other places at some of our aerial portsin Southwest Asia. We also observed that the Army was flying Sherpa Aircraft to the exact same airfields that we were and they were not always effective missions either. The cargo movement was not being controlled - it was sitting in que and "waiting for a ride" to it's destination. We used LEAN process to talk with the Director of Mobility Forces, our sister service counterparts and the Combatant Commander. We got their needs and values, analyze the flow and determine and eliminate wasted time and space. We found that we weren't using products we already had available to identify cargo destinations and formulating strategies to move that cargo quickly to where it needed to go. We were essentially wasting valuable time and lives by using Tactical Airlift to retrograde to Al Udeid and catching Strategic Airlift there. We were putting pallets on the ground and load planning aircraft in a reactionary mode based upon what showed up rather than what needed to move. We found that by stationing C-130 aircraft at Balad, bringing strategic Airlift in to Balad, and then developing the Tactical Airlift Tasking orders to begin the legs or channels from Balad and go to all of our forward operating bases we were effective the moment we went wheels up. Cargo started moving much quicker, we eliminated 1,108 line haul convoys from dangerous Iraqi Roads from January through Jul 2006, and eliminated the backlog 2 months ahead of schedule. Rather than moving cargo all over the theater and wasting time and crew rest to do retrograde by Tactical Airlift as directed in the old style by Air Mobility Division planners - we actually used our Materiel Handling Equipment to take pallets off the Strat Air and take it in many cases to a waiting C-130 to take it to it's final destination. We had already planned on it because we knew We were able to add up to 12 legs to some of our missions since many of them were under an hour and we quickly became the world's busiest Aerial Port moving 5 times as many passengers and more cargo than Dover Air Force Base! 

Another Combat related experience I am aware of is that at Al Udeid Airlift Operators increased the capacity of it's fuel pumps to refuel Strategic Air and the cumulative time (15 minutes here, 30 minutes their) they saved in refueling those Giants saved wear and tear on the fleet, allowed them to reduce the number of Air Crew members they had to have to meet the tasking orders, and essentially gave them another C-5 mission to operate. 

I can cite many other examples of ways we have leaned the process of Bringing Combat Airpower for America to bear on our operations. I like to call it "putting warheads on foreheads" but unfortunately, some of the things we are doing to increase tactical precision, reduce resource limitations, and provide the Combatant Commander a multitude of options in dealing with his battle space can't be printed in a newspaper. But, they are glorious examples of Airmen thinking outside the box and you would be proud of the efforts. The bottom line take away for our Airman Warriors at Seymour Johnson is that we owe it to our nation, our people, and our families to think of more efficient ways to do business. 

The demands of the Global War on Terror, our Mission, the shrinking of our resources in order to recapitalize and rejuvenate our fleet of aging, resource hungry Weapon Systems, along with the need to sustain our organization and opur people for the 21st Century and beyond demands it of us!