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Pat on the Back for Commissary Process Action Team

By Bonnie Powell
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT LEE, Va., Aug. 16, 1996 – Employees often deserve a "pat on the back." Just ask Bill Johnson, commissary officer at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. A process action team of employees at his commissary attacked loss problems in the grocery department and found solutions to local issues.

As one of eight federal nominees for performance-based organization status, the Defense Commissary Agency aspires to adopt characteristics of private companies that will help it operate more efficiently. Getting employees actively involved in saving money for customers and taxpayers is a major goal.

Process action teams are a way the agency strives for quality performance -- more than 100 of the 311 stores operated by the agency have quality management boards. These boards sometimes establish employee teams to delve into particular store problems.

"Sometimes management can't see the forest for the trees," said Johnson. "Sometimes store personnel know what's wrong, but nobody asks them." He gave the team free rein, adding, "I just made sure they were able to do their job."

"The job" in this case was to reduce losses in Lackland's grocery department. As Sandy Langos, Lackland's commissary accounting technician, explained, "There is an established tolerance for gain or loss in each department. If you vary from an acceptable level, you have to try to find out why."

The Lackland quality management board felt establishing a process action team to look at the problem would pay off. With permission from the Lackland board, Langos led the team on a fact-finding mission. They explored employee theft, damage losses, shoplifting, accounting, receiving, retail pricing and salvage-- all possible problem areas.

The six-member team was composed of representatives from all facets of commissary operations. They spent a month observing the day-to-day business and found a lot of little things that added up to one big thing -- preventable losses.

"Even 1 percent of unnecessary loss of inventory in a store this size is a lot of money," Langos said. "A lot of it was just being observant during receiving." During the month, the team noted $11,000 in what it called avoidable losses, ranging from receivers not counting merchandise to stockers stacking glass items too near the edge of shelves.

The team spent three days analyzing their observations and making recommendations. The Lackland quality board adopted all of them.

"On the next inventory, we were within tolerance," said Langos. "Most of what we identified was fairly easy to fix." Langos said a major part of the solution was simply education of employees and customers. "You just have to make sure established policy and rules are followed."

Ann Brown, the commissary agency's Midwest region quality program coordinator, said all her stores are receiving quality management awareness training. She said each store establishes its own board of supervisors and management and sets quality goals for the store. "The PAT [process action team] concept gets store employees involved in finding the problems and coming up with solutions," said Brown.

"The key is management support. Our own office told us not to pull any punches," Langos said. "We are still looking at areas of highest concern -- if you don't follow up, problems will continue."

(Bonnie Powell writes for the Defense Commissary Agency at Fort Lee, Va.)

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