Tool time

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- I was crawling around the sidewalk under a streetlight the other night when someone stopped and asked if she could help me.

I answered, "I'm looking for a quarter I dropped." She asked if I dropped it right there. "No," I responded, "I dropped it in that dark alley way over there, but the light is much better here."

OK, that didn't really happen, but I have fallen into similar traps when I didn't have the right tools for the task at hand. A flashlight would have been the right tool for finding the quarter in the joke. I've also had less than stellar experiences when I tried to solve problems on my own, without seeking other people's ideas. The passerby in the joke drives home the fact that two heads are smarter than one.

Several years ago, the Air Force gave us a whole set of tools to help us team up and operate smarter. By now, most of us have at least heard of Lean events, Six Sigma, and the many other tools in our Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century toolbox.

Ever since the Air Force introduced AFSO21, skeptics have expressed concerns:

First, if you were around the Air Force in the 1990s or heard much about it, you probably thought this was just Total Quality Management mrising back up from the dead. We killed TQM because it brought much more work than it got rid of. After getting to use AFSO21 for a couple of years now, my favorite difference is that I think AFSO21 gets rid of much more work than it brings.

Next, AFSO21 happened to be announced around the same time as an initiative to cut over 40,000 people, so a lot of us thought AFSO21 was a part of that same program.

Actually, for five years Air Force leaders watched the Air Force Materiel Command achieve success after success with Lean tools.

These leaders decided it was time to share this toolbox with rest of the force, in time to improve support to the War On Terror. Although manning cuts were halted recently, AFSO21 continues to build momentum.

Finally, some folks still view AFSO21 as a "corporate" influence that makes the Air Force less "military." After all, businesses use these tools to save money, increase customer satisfaction, and boost market share... to maximize profits, right? But the military uses these tools to eliminate unnecessary steps, so we can use that time and money accomplishing tasks that enhance our mission, tied to strategy maps...to maximize combat capability. That sounds pretty military to me. How about you?

I overcame my doubts after using AFSO21 in two recent desert tours and in the Pentagon. Here are just a few quick examples: We used it to achieve an overnight 600-percent reduction in the time our people were stuck at off-base accident scenes, awaiting release by host nation police. We also used it to break a multi-year legal stalemate that risked international relations and made much of our leased vehicle fleet illegal to drive; we saved $30,000+ per month on that one. We used Lean events to reorganize several Air Staff directorates and to streamline many day-to-day staff procedures. We used "6S" to optimize our office space, minimize paper files, and quickly organize terabytes of electronic files, so we didn't have to waste time searching for information anymore.

AFSO21 is also successful in Air Education and Training Command and at Goodfellow Air Force Base. The 17th Medical Group reduced wait time for prescriptions 300 percent (from 15 minutes down to 5 minutes). They are continuously achieving even more improvements and capabilities with equipment they used AFSO21 to justify buying. Many more events involving stakeholders from across the Wing are coming up on the Goodfellow docket. You can learn more about AFSO21 results around the Air Force at the SAF/SO - Air Force Smart Ops for the 21st Century home page on the Air Force Portal.

You probably know a way to do the mission smarter, safer, cheaper, or faster. So talk with your supervisor, your commander, or your unit AFSO21 representative--don't wait for someone else to improve your processes.

For those who serve in formal leadership positions, I encourage you to seek out opportunities to schedule your best and brightest to participate in Lean events. AFSO21 gives you the power to gather the stakeholders together to find a better way. It gives you the flashlight to shine where the real problems are instead of where you would just be wasting your efforts. And it gets senior leadership on board to so they can support you forging your team's ideas into a lasting reality.

These tools are nothing, though, until you decide it is time to team up and do your part putting the "smart" into AFSO21.