Force reductions streamline process improvement

  • Published
  • By Col. John P. Harris
  • 18th Maintenance Group commander
It's a turbulent time to be in the Air Force. We're expeditionary and fighting a Global War on Terrorism.

Anyone wearing a uniform is in harm's way, not just our traditional warfighters like aircrew members, tactical air control parties and security forces. We're bringing on new weapons systems and downsizing at the same time. Eleven percent of the maintenance group is going away. Eight of 40 officers are vulnerable to reduction in force or Force Shaping initiatives. Another eight section commanders and executives, and even one commander have been eliminated. But the mission remains the same.

Also, virtually none of the ways we do business in maintenance have changed. Sure, spreadsheets have replaced grease boards and the Internet and e-mail have allowed us to do more in less time, but essentially, we're doing the same processes.

These pressures on our manpower have forced us to look at the way we do business. Air Force leadership acknowledges this and encourages us to get creative, question the way we do things and see if we can do the job more efficiently.

This is big because it's the first time that I can recall where we are really serious about change. This is not like my experience in the Quality Air Force days of the '90s. Then, I attended strategic planning meetings for a year and a half and only had some generally worded goals to show for my time. Now, it's about Airmen and NCOs, the real experts, evaluating the things they do and figuring out how to eliminate the waste, the waiting and the walking back and forth for tools, parts and appointments.

In the maintenance group, we have been forced to re-evaluate many processes because of manning cuts. When we lost 30 percent of our personnelists and all of our section commanders we found ourselves unable to sustain the commanders support staffs in six of our squadrons. So we consolidated what was left into an 18th Maintenance Group Support Staff. It's not perfect but it keeps critically important personnel functions closer to the wrench-turners. When we lost 50 percent of our schedulers, we consolidated them as well. Likewise, our munitions squadron combined their line delivery and precision-guided munitions shops in order to survive in the wake of the loss of 34 percent of their manpower. This is just the beginning. I can foresee more consolidations in other hard-hit areas.

But consolidation only goes so far. We have also challenged some heretofore untouchable sacred cows. Processes governed by AFIs and technical data require higher headquarters approval to change but we have had success there, too. We have gained Pacific Air Forces and Air Staff approval to reduce aircraft acceptance inspections from five days to half a day. I expect we'll be addressing many other processes in the near future.

I know these changes are not fluff because they come from the people actually doing the work. Rapid improvement events employ the experts (you) to analyze the "value stream" (the thing you're doing) and identify stuff that you really don't have to do and "dead time" (waste). Then, you get rid of them. I have seen rapid improvement events trim the time it takes to build aircraft wheels, refurbish guns, fix jet engines, improve aircraft inspections and shorten the time it takes to check out tools.

If you're wondering how your shop is going to survive with reduced manning start looking at your tasks with a critical eye. Experience has taught me that you know how to do the job better, faster, smarter. We're looking to you for the answers.