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The next big thing

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas-- -- It's the greatest weight loss product since ephedra, the best device since the iPhone, the newest revolutionary gas saver, the best home gym ever produced or the fastest production car in the last 30 years; media and advertisement abound with "the next big thing." It's all very much how western society views the environment. In a way, it's what has made us the best in what we do, always striving to be better. Teams compete for the SuperBowl, World Series titles, Commander's Cup and Unit of the Year. It's part of our nature.

However, the next big thing mentality can pose a road block for improvement, especially organizational (USAF) quality improvement.

Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, Lean and AFSO21are all buzzwords of the quality movement and if you've been in the Air Force for any time, they are all initiatives you've gone through. Improvement isn't anything new. The names have changed and the structuring has improved but it's all the same product.

The quality movement is generally considered to have been started by W. Edwards Deming in the 40s and 50s. In fact, he greatly influenced Japanese industry after World War II. His ideas of Statistical Process Control and Total Quality Management initiated the move towards quality products from Japan. Today, we see the results of his influence. Japanese products are generally regarded as some of the best quality in the industry. Part of that success is a result of improvement at every level. Even the smallest improvements are considered important to the organization. The concept of improvement, sometimes referred to as Kaizen, has been standard practice and even part of their duties. Efforts are viewed in the same light as results and awarded equally. The Japanese aren't focused on "the next big thing." Instead, they are focused on a series of small improvements across the organization that results in savings over time.

Unfortunately, western culture hasn't captured the spirit of quality improvement. We are still impressed and enamored with the next big thing and we sometimes fail to see the importance of and acknowledge small improvements.

Even our performance reports are geared towards impressive numbers and results. We all want to read about spectacular, outstanding, stellar actions, impacts and results. Who wants to hear about the 200 little changes that were made along the way? But quality improvement isn't always about direct bottom line savings ... dollars, man hours, etc. It's more about a journey of small improvements that when viewed together, make a difference. Keep in mind that innovations come along very rarely and while they are usually significant and important, we must not allow ourselves to become fixated on looking for them at the expense of improvement.

Air Force quality improvement initiatives, TQM, Lean, AFSO21, can be overwhelming and potentially intimidating because we are required to look for a "project" and we immediately start imagining some monumental savings or improvement and then when nothing earth shattering comes along, we give up on quality. Only when we understand that these initiatives are tools for problem solving or process improvement do we understand their purpose. Use the quality tools for what they are--tools. Not every problem requires the same tools. Sometimes you may use AFSO21 or Six Sigma or Lean or no defined tool at all except meeting to discuss an issue and propose a solution.

So don't fall into the trap of looking for the next big idea ... the revolutionary process that changes the entire environment. Start by looking at the processes you control. You'll find opportunities are everywhere and they don't always require a Customer Output Input Supplier, Pareto Charts, or calculations out to the 6th standard deviation. Use your squadron mission and more importantly the vision to identify opportunities to help achieve what your squadron is trying to do or trying to become. Ask, "What is organizationally important and how can I improve my efforts to meet the intent of the unit vision?"

In our business, we must continually strive to be the best, for failure is not an option. We must be the best Air Power on the planet and therefore we must continually strive for improvement. If we choose not to seek continuous improvement, we will not be able to compete with those who do.