AFSO21, 6S brings on new, improved U.S. Air Force

Robins Air Force Base, Ga. -- Washington, D.C. Some would argue it's the seat of power for the entire free world. As I walk the streets in D.C. this month, attending a course at George Washington University, I walk past the World Bank, stroll the halls of Congress, and gaze on the Washington Monument from my hotel room every night, and I can't help but think of LEAN, which the Air Force now calls Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century. Now before you think I've lost my mind, let me explain.

The first day I got here, we were armed with only a map and a Metro card to get to the classroom. So, off we trudged, simply trying to find our way. At lunch, we repeated the exercise, simply finding a suitable place to eat and then finding our way back to the classroom. You see, in the beginning, it was all about the very basic mission...get to class, go eat, and get back...and, of course, find the library.

As the days progressed, however, I noticed we all did something very interesting. All 48 students began finding a more expedient path to get to and from GWU. It became less an issue of getting there and more of an issue of doing so more efficiently. Lo and behold, over the next few days, we all found "new and improved" ways of LEANing this commuting process (but still passing a Starbucks along the way).

And that, really, is the point. No, not the Starbucks, but the basic human nature of wanting to keep making things better. Don't believe me? Go visit a supermarket. You can't get three feet down any aisle before you see a product that is "new and improved" (and even better if it's low fat). And we buy it, even though we think the "old and unimproved" product was pretty darn good!

So what have you done to make your work center "new and improved?" Clearly you're proud of your existing product, and I'd put Robins Air Force Base up against anyone in the areas of depot maintenance, supply chain management, combat support, deployment, and aircraft and equipment sustainment. Yet every one of us can find a more expedient path, a more efficient process, and a new and improved product. It's in our nature to do so, and it just becomes a matter of uncovering the right tools to help you work through what you already know needs to get done.

One of the most straight-forward tools is 6S (sort, straighten, scrub, standardize, sustain and safety). In my previous job in Germany, we used this tool with great effect. Much to the initial dismay of my group, we embarked on a LEAN/6S journey. We chose three candidates to serve as our test benches. To be honest, each was in desperate need of just some good old-fashioned cleaning. Yet here was a chance to not simply throw a GI Party at the problem, but to offer a systematic approach to streamlining their processes and making them more efficient and effective in their daily jobs - making them "new and improved."

The results were more dramatic than I could have imagined. The in-flight kitchen completely re-designed itsproduction flow, eliminating unnecessary steps and waste. As a result, they reduced order fill times by 60 percent, reduced pre-staged meals by 75 percent - think of inventory savings - and now spend 220 less man-hours a year completing inventories. When you consider this facility builds 210,000 meals a year, you begin to see real savings.

Similarly, the Security Forces Armory had poorly positioned weapons racks and unmanageable ammunition stocks, cluttered by excess equipment and weapons from a mission long gone. The "new," 6S'ed armory eliminated four steps during weapons turn-in and issue and reduced the time to arm and equip a security forces flight by 56 minutes per day. Given the size of the SF squadron, that's 70 man-hours per day, and it gives an hour back to the Airmen on the line...time they no longer need to spend standing in line waiting to arm up. Not only were they able to shave time off the process, but what used to take three armorers to accomplish now requires just one ... and that's two more weapons carriers back on patrol.

Finally, the air traffic control maintenance back shop was a work center in disarray...cluttered would be an understatement. Since these pros maintained the systems that run what is the most important overseas enroute airlift hub, they were prime for a 6S event. The team moved tools to the work site where they were most needed, allowing easy access and fewer return trips to the back shop. They ruthlessly pared and then organized their inventory, increasing storage capacity by 35 percent and saving 500 man-hours annually just in time required for tool and equipment issue. The biggest benefit, however, was a bit more intangible -- we got a higher quality maintenance product out of those same Airmen and NCOs. Our in-commission rates for the air traffic control and landing systems were the highest ever. Coincidence? I doubt it!

We're now using that same model process/model cell approach to 6S in the 78th Air Base Wing. But there will be one huge difference. This time, I won't be surprised by the dramatic results, because I've seen first-hand how 6S can deliver. So can you, as you try to brand your work center as "new and improved." Perhaps the best news, however, is you don't have to walk the streets of Washington, D.C., to think LEAN. All you have to do is walk through your office!