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Leaders Focus on Smart Ops at Symposium

The glowing endorsement of Air Force Smart Ops 21 was cited by Air Force Materiel Command Commander Gen. Bruce Carlson June 21 at the 27th Annual Focus on Defense Symposium.

By G. A. Volb / Ogden Air Logistic Center Public Affairs

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah, June 28, 2006 – I’ve been working at Hill for 26 years and I’ve never enjoyed coming to work as much as I do now,” exclaimed one civilian maintainer here recently.

The glowing endorsement of Lean and Continuous Process Improvement initiatives, better known as Air Force Smart Ops 21, was cited by Air Force Materiel Command Commander Gen. Bruce Carlson June 21 at the 27th Annual Focus on Defense Symposium held in Layton, Utah.

The symposium was co-sponsored by the Ogden Air Logistics Center and three Utah chapters of the Air Force Association.

More than 350 Defense Department employees and aviation-related industry represented gathered here to learn from some of the leading experts who emphasized the benefits that can and have been realized by those who apply an Air Force Smart Ops 21-mindset or by using similar process improvement tools.

"Air Force Smart Operations 21 is about a cultural shift, focusing on the results of combat capability. It’s where everyone shows up every day asking themselves, ‘What can I do to improve this process?"

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III

Air Force Smart Ops 21 is gaining major ground toward acceptance Air Force-wide based on similar feedback across the work force.

Not long ago, however, such high praise might have been impossible to come by. For many who remembered the Air Force’s foray into Total Quality Management and similar process improvement programs of the early ‘90s, sentiments were less than positive at best and programs soon waned.

Over the past half-decade, the Air Force has captured enough success stories though – especially at Air Force Materiel Command’s three Air Logistics Centers – to make many unbelievers chase down the improvements band wagon and want to hop on.

If the average worker can see the benefits via quality increases, flow time cuts, and cost savings, those same hardliners who once put up such a fight are now becoming the loudest advocates – and the result is a shift in the cultural mindset.

“Air Force Smart Operations 21 is about a cultural shift, focusing on the results of combat capability,” said Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III, director of Air Force Smart Operations 21. “It’s where everyone shows up every day asking themselves, ‘What can I do to improve this process?’”

Gilbert said the Air Force is essentially standing on a burning platform. “We can’t continue to stand where we are now. Either we move forward or we fall through as it collapses underneath us. With improved processes comes cost savings that can be recapitalized and used to benefit other mission demands.”

“This is not the best of times for defense reform,” Carlson said. “Despite the war, at a cost of $318 million a day, we are still expected to maintain superiority.”

“We simply can’t fight and win the next war with an aging fleet,” he noted. “We have to make force reductions, retire older systems and lean out our processes, and Air Force Smart Operations 21 gives us the tools we need to meet those challenges – smartly change how we do things and measure the results.”

In fact, the Air Force is facing significant issues that demand attention and have been driving Lean initiatives.

According to Carlson, they include a logistics and transportation system grounded in 40-year-old organizations and processes; a personnel system so arcane that no one outside the department understands it; an annual budget process so elaborate and cumbersome that it consumes thousands of man years in its preparation and produces only minor changes year to year; and an elaborate acquisition process that makes the development and production of new systems even slower and more expensive.

“Air Force Smart Operations 21 takes tools and processes successful in the civilian sector and implements them in the Air Force,” said Lt. Gen. Donald Wetekam, deputy chief of staff for logistics, installations and mission support for the Air Force.

“There is risk involved, but even more in not doing anything,” he said. “I think companies that understand process improvement, who have adopted the principles of Lean and other tools have a competitive advantage.”

Initially, even Wetekam was somewhat skeptical of the new initiative.

“I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of Lean, but gave it a fair shake,” he said. “And within six months, I was committed to using it as a centerpiece to our process improvement efforts – that was nearly four years ago. It will work in the Air Force; the Ogden Air Logistics Center is proving that right now.”

Specifically, he noted some 146 demands Air Force-wide that couldn’t be met just a year ago that are being met today because of Lean.

“The way we’ve done that is by improving the efficiency in shops,” Wetekam said. “Products are available to the warfighter today, not sitting on a shelf at Hill waiting to be repaired.”

“You take this analytical approach and it not only applies to cost efficiency, but to how much more effective you are in a combat role,” he explained. “If we can free up investment dollars by the things we do back at Ogden … then we have resources that we can apply towards equipment and other supplies to better support the warfighter directly.”

Air Force Smart Operations 21 is in its infancy, the general cautioned, so there will be plenty of skeptics.

“I think that skepticism is fueled by the fact that we have played with the idea of process improvement in the past, and we were not wholly successful,” Wetekam noted. “We took some good things away from those attempts in the past, but there were flaws in the approach we took that we’ve corrected.

“The perception of Air Force Materiel Command has changed dramatically,” he continued. “The command was a very large, cumbersome organization that consumed a tremendous amount of Air Force resources.”

“And the return on that investment wasn’t what is should have been. It’s still not what it could be or needs to be, but we’ve come a long way in the last four to five years,” Wetekam emphasized. “We’re now creating a surplus, and money is being free up to support other accounts … including investing in Air Force Materiel Command improvements.”

“It’s a direct result of increased efficiency and meeting financial targets,” he said. “In previous years we were coming up short and having to divert money from other accounts to prop up Air Force Materiel Command.”

“It’s a huge factor in the change in perception of the command,” Wetekam concluded. “For example, in 2001 our aircraft production rate was at 64 percent – last year it was over 99 percent on time. Those are the types of things that change perception in how we do business.”

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Sep. 02, 2014
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