By Master Sgt. Melissa Phillips , 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 18, 2006
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- The Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st century basic course here starts out like any other typical class. What is atypical about the AFSO 21 class here are the toys.
What seems like millions of building blocks are scattered across the classroom waiting to be assembled. Playing with toys never seemed so tough. Silence fills the room, as the instructor picks up a detailed, tiny jet fighter and lifts it high in the air to explain that constructing and selling jets to pretend customers is the top order of business that day.
What does building a miniature jet have to do with AFSO 21?
For one man, it's pretty simple. First, it's fun. Second, the exercise demonstrates the practical applications of the AFSO 21 tool called Lean, which helps workers chart, document and find waste in their processes.
"We are implementing Lean in the middle of a war with a high operations tempo; it's not easy," said retired Chief Master Sgt. Joe Harrison of the 436th Maintenance Operations Squadron and an AFSO 21 basic instructor.
AFSO 21 is part of a broader Air Force transformation strategy to recapitalize and replace aging weapon systems to better support the warfighter in an increasingly, technically advanced environment. Senior leaders are encouraging Airmen to charge ahead with the program and use it as a tool to fill the gap left behind after the Air Force slims down by eliminating approximately 35,000 active duty slots by 2011.
AFSO 21 is a set of tools and a system of looking at each process from beginning to end.
"(AFSO 21) doesn't just look at how we can do each task better, but asks the tougher and more important question: Why are we doing it this way? Is each of the tasks relevant, productive and value added?' In other words, is it necessary at all," wrote Michael W. Wynne, the secretary of the Air Force in a "Letter to Airmen" March 8.
"For example, why does an (enlisted performance report) take 21 days at some bases to process, and only eight at another? We must do better across the entire Air Force, and no process is immune from this critical review," Secretary Wynne said.
Upholding the mantra "no process is immune," not even a pretend one, Chief Harrison assigned students to fulfill different roles in a jet assembly line: worker bee, manager and expediter.
Teams are tasked to build X amount of jets within a certain timeframe. There is no time to compensate for a learning curve and students must navigate through the unknown in minutes.
When questioned about the validity of expecting people to assemble such a complicated toy without the know-how or resources, he asked the students, "How many times have one of you been given a task that seemed unmanageable at first?"
On the first go-around, not one of the three teams actually builds a jet.
After the first exercise in futility, classroom instruction starts on team building 101, brainstorming and AFSO 21 tools. That's where Lean, Six Sigma and the Theory of Constraints come into play. Each are tried-and-true methods.
"AFSO 21 is built on successful principles from the corporate world, and has already yielded results in the Air Force," said Secretary Wynne.
At Dover AFB, Lean helped the maintenance group save thousands and cut work processes significantly. Maintainers reaped huge results after a Lean event, when they transformed what was a three-day process into a 30-minute job.
The 436th Aeromedical Dental Squadron bioenvironmental engineering flight chief and his co-workers cut a 21-day internal EPR suspense down to a more manageable 14.
After classroom instruction, students were given the opportunity to meet with each other and brainstorm a course of action to meet the customers' requirements -- fully assembled jets.
To do that in the fast-paced classroom environment, each teammate intuitively leveraged resources, sought out expertise within the team, strove for consensus decision-making and reassessed the situation as needed.
"Lean is a common sense system applied by people," said Col. Vic Sowers, 436th Mission Support Group commander, who recently attended the class.
The class is a way for instructors to visually knit together people's natural problem-solving abilities and serves to spark ideas on methods to document and refine work processes by introducing new tools.
Chief Harrison said he's a firm believer in Lean and AFSO 21 principles because he's seen them in practice. During the class, students get several opportunities to refine their jet assembly process; however, Chief Harrison is quick to point out the Air Force never gets a second chance to support the warfighter -- failure is never an option.
For Chief Harrison, AFSO 21 isn't one more program to burden Airmen's already jammed-packed work week - it's a resource to help them. For Colonel Sowers, the program isn't just a tool reserved for leaders; he encourages all Airmen to learn all they can about AFSO 21.
"It's always painful to take folks from their mission for training," said Colonel Sowers. "However, we have got to do this now.
"We can't wait until the reduction takes place," Colonel Sowers said. "It will be too late then. We have to think beyond today, and think about the long term."
"One of the reasons I became an (AFSO 21) instructor is because I believe the best way to show support for the program is to get involved," said Chief Master Sgt. John Scinto Jr., 436th Maintenance Group superintendent, who teaches Airmen and civilians from every unit here, as well as visitors from other bases.
During the class, he charted the progress of classmates who split up into teams to form a toy jet assembly line. The jets are a learning prop to show students how to increase work production, profit margin and customer satisfaction by using the AFSO 21 tools of Lean, Six Sigma and The Theory of Constraints.
So far he and 18 other AFSO 21 instructors here have taught more than 1,700 people since the class' inception in April.
"We have reduced travel times on work processes where Airmen move back and forth between different work stations to complete a job, revised and streamlined floor space and eliminated repetitive work to such an extent that we were able to re-deploy our technicians throughout the Maintenance Group to help areas hard hit in the recent maintenance manpower draw down here," Chief Scinto said.
Adding to the fever to understand and use the program to its full advantage is the fact that within the next five years the Air Force will eliminate up to 40,000 manning slots. The resulting projected loss has leadership Air Force-wide concerned and aggressively seeking solutions.
The first order of business is to educate the force about AFSO 21.
"We offer generic awareness training slides that can be tailored to any base," said Maj. Joe Heilhecker, chief of the AFSO 21 training branch from Headquarters Air Force in Washington, D.C. "Often times, people think AFSO 21 only applies to manufacturing or aircraft maintenance. The familiarization training is generic and instructors can tie it into performance reporting, the budgeting process or many different office practices."
By early 2007, several hours of AFSO 21 awareness training will be taught at select locations for all levels of professional military education. However, this doesn't mean Air Force leaders expect Airmen to go out and lead an event tomorrow.
Only 1 percent of Airmen are projected to be trained as AFSO 21 facilitators; however, many others may participate in finding solutions and achieving results. Leaders are also asking for Airmen's patience throughout the learning process and to help identify future improvement opportunities to their leadership and headquarters staff.
As the lead AFSO 21 trainer, Major Heilhecker doesn't want Airmen to hastily rush into implementing the program. For now, leaders want Airmen to concentrate on cultivating a continual mindset to target waste, embrace core concepts, and familiarize themselves on AFSO 21 tools and methods.
He's not alone.
"Ninety percent of companies who take on Lean fail," said Chief Harrison, who has logged 31 years in the maintenance career field. "Not because the tools are hard; it's because the employees never embraced the culture.
"What matters is changing the culture," he said. "The AFSO 21 basic class won't make you a Lean expert in a day. It provides a foundation and understanding of the basic tools. The rest is up to you."
Chief Harrison said most people show up with an open-mind, or at least a strong curiosity from all the hype they hear about the program.
"It was informative to hear about the fact we are losing people soon, but we (still) have to do more," said Airman 1st Class Ronald Davis, 9th Airlift Squadron loadmaster, who attended the class in October. "This class helps us maximize the efficiency we do have."
With less than two years in the military, Airman Davis and others like him are given the power to help shape and continually refine the Air Force of tomorrow by using the arsenal of tools in the AFSO 21 tool box.
"Young Airmen are making a difference in their shops, along with the seasoned NCOs and civilians by getting involved at the grass roots and affecting change," said Chief Scinto. "(With AFSO 21), we see contributions from every facet of our workforce, to include reservists, (Department of Defense) civilians, contractors and Airmen."