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Writing on the wall for a streamed, leaned Air Guard

During the last day of the 116th Air Control Wing Strategic Planning Event, wing leadership broke into five working groups and each created a “vivid description” of what each one of it's stakeholders (people, customers, suppliers, process information flow and enterprise leadership) would see and experience after the wing achieved it's 5-year vision. From left to right: Col. Dan Zachman, Col. Lois Stark and Chief Master Sgt. Ron Wilder review another group’s work for suggested changes or additions to the plan.

During the last day of the 116th Air Control Wing Strategic Planning Event, wing leadership broke into five working groups and each created a “vivid description” of what each one of it's stakeholders (people, customers, suppliers, process information flow and enterprise leadership) would see and experience after the wing achieved it's 5-year vision. From left to right: Col. Dan Zachman, Col. Lois Stark and Chief Master Sgt. Ron Wilder review another group’s work for suggested changes or additions to the plan.

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Improvement. For Col. Billy Asbell it often starts with a dozen or more slightly anxious Air National Guardmembers seated in their conference room. They clutch cups of coffee or water and find some comfort in the familiar walls. Before long, those walls are hidden behind layers of yellow sticky notes and white easel sheets. 

Asbell is the Air National Guard's director of Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century (AFSO21). He covers walls with information in his efforts to lean work processes and help units streamline their operations by cutting out fruitless work. 

"What are your processes, and how can you improve them?" Asbell asks. 

He repeats that question many times a year in many shops across the Air Guard. No, he is not the big bad wolf that blows shops down with outside cost-cutting agendas. Nor is he a Santa Claus bearing gifts of additional funding or manpower. 

Asbell and his six-person team from the Air National Guard Readiness Center facilitate Smart Operations. On a unit's invitation, they guide the members through heaps of data, ideas and goals to restructure processes and eliminate waste. 

Michael W. Wynne, secretary of the Air Force, introduced Smart Operations to the Air Force in March 2006. The program unites successful methods from the corporate world, including Lean and Six Sigma. Airmen apply it through rapid improvement events in administrative and logistical shops or anywhere processes need improvement.
 
The Air Guard is on pace with other Air Force major commands in applying Smart Operations, Asbell said. The first two years were spent working with the states to train nearly 50 Smart Operations experts and apply the program to the Air Guard's administrative processes and weapons systems. There are plans to train more than 250 ASFO experts by 2010. The Air Guard's readiness center even applied the program to its own processes. 

"I ask them, if you were king for a day with all resources available, what would [work] look like," said Asbell. "Obviously there would be no non-value added work ... why would you put that on yourself." 

For a week in early December, at the 179th Airlift Wing in Mansfield, Ohio, Asbell held an "event," which he has hosted many times for the Air Guard. The Ohio Airmen met him in a room and considered all of their suppliers, inputs, processes, outputs and customers.
Asbell challenged them to brainstorm big processes, categorize them, filter them down and lean out those of no value. In turn, the Airmen told him what they wanted fixed. He covered their meeting room with paper notes resembling an over-posted bulletin board, but he left them trained and empowered with a focused package of tools, information and goals. It was up to them to make the changes. 

With many, including Asbell, believing the National Guard is already intrinsically lean, Asbell says he still sees endless processes where Smart Operations could further Air Guard capabilities. 

"It works in administrative processes, it works for maintenance processes, it works anywhere there's a process," said Asbell. 

Asbell explained how the team trains and facilitates AFSO21. "We take the subject matter experts, bring them together, teach them about Lean, lead them through mapping their processes, help them identify and eliminate wasteful steps and then turn them loose to implement. We don't justify positions, we don't justify facilities and we don't eliminate jobs. We eliminate waste." 

Asbell and his team also teach participants that there are eight forms of waste using the acronym "DOWNTIME." 

DOWNTIME is an easy way to remember Defects, Overproduction, Waiting, Non-Standard work, Transportation, Injuries, Motion and Excess Inventory - all forms of waste, said Asbell. The two big forms he targets are over-processing and transportation; the O and T in DOWNTIME. "Not to slight the others," said Asbell. "I just see those as easy targets." 

The Air Force definition of waste is "something that is non-value added and does not change the form, fit or function of the product and something customers are not willing to pay for." 

While DOWNTIME highlights the categories of waste, it also sets the next step for the AFSO21 process: looking at each step and determining if it's "value added, or not, and determining if a non-value added step is required." 

If a non-value added step is required, the AFSO21 team said they will ask why and keep asking until participants can determine if it impacts their mission. 

Asbell cites the Ohio Air Guard as an example of Smart Operations' success.
The 179th held a rapid improvement event in July 2007 on the C-130H Hercules preventative maintenance process; known as Isochronal Inspection (ISO). The event brought together nearly two dozen first-line workers, supervisors, members of other C-130 units, supply NCOs and the squadron commander. 

Asbell and his team collected unit data and communicated with process owners to identify problems. Then, like an orchestra leader, he traveled to Ohio to guide the subject matter experts through nearly 200 processes to eliminate non-value added work.
The result was a 39 percent decrease in ISO workdays and an increase of 224 aircraft available-days per year. 

"The result has been fantastic," said Col. Charles Daugherty, Maintenance Group commander. 

Daugherty, who sat through the event, said its significance was that Smart Operations works. "That, itself, can improve so many processes across the Air National Guard," he said. 

Officials say giving time back to people and organizations using Smart Operations can be valuable for an Air Force that must continue to meet worldwide requirements with busy warfighters. 

Asbell focused the Smart Operations program on the Readiness Center and held 26 events there in 2007. 

"And we had some big successes," he said. 

The center, whose mission supports Air Guard field units, freed hundreds of administrative processing days by joining readiness center personnel and field personnel in process improvement events. 

"You certainly can't write a check on those days, but you can do things that could not get done before," said Asbell. 

Now, the Smart Operations team plans to conduct more than a dozen unit events in 2008 and to train and certify more Airmen in the field who can facilitate AFSO21. The team is also building bridges with the maintenance councils and joining efforts with the Army Guard's Six Sigma project to strengthen joint efforts. 

For Col. Billy Asbell, Smart Operations concepts should not create anxiety because the unit is the master of its own improvements. If his team can bring that message to all 88 Air Guard flying wings and stick the ideas of Lean on the walls, it will, he said. 

"So far," Asbell said, "I am comfortable with what we have achieved and that we are right on target."

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