Picture yourself as a leader in Air Force Materiel Command of today’s Air Force. In the face of sequestration you cannot allow your primary mission to go unmet. You still must provide all the support that the “war fighter” needs on the front line, on time, every time, and with high quality.
Add to that scenario the fact that 66 percent of the cost comes in the form of material cost over which you have limited control. Plus, you need to also plan and prepare for the “threats of tomorrow.”
Most businesses I know of would face this scenario by increasing their price to generate additional revenues. But that is not an option for the Air Force. The way they have addressed this challenge is a fascinating (and encouraging) study in leadership.
I was privileged to hear Lt. Gen. Bruce Litchfield, commander of the Air Force Sustainment Center, as he addressed community and industry leaders on the changing structure of leadership in the Air Force.
“Cost-to-readiness will determine our size and ability to fight the next war,” he taught the group. “Our mission has always been focused on ‘speed, safety, and quality,’ but now we have added increased focus on the component of ‘cost effectiveness.’”
This expanded focus on cost effectiveness is a change from traditional government spending. They no longer focus on spending every penny of budget they have been allotted.
By focusing on cost rather than on budget, they have been able to influence the drivers of those costs. The focus today is on “value,” not “budget.” Here are just a couple of ways they have made this happen:
Speed in production is no longer measured by “activity,” it is measured by “outcomes.” What counts is that the finished product comes out the end of the assembly line on time and done right. Period.
Consequently “everyone is accountable for improving the business and making today better than yesterday, while making tomorrow better than today,” Litchfield said.
He called it “synchronized accountability, from the shop floor to the chief’s door.” This is not micro-management. In fact, it enables the workers along the way to identify best practices as well as problems. It keeps the leader involved and able to solve problems before they reach a crisis point.
When they ask the assembly line workers: “Are you having a good day?” it is not meant as a rhetorical question. They immediately follow up with “How do you know?”
“Make sure people know what a good day is,” explained Litchfield. They have designed metrics that tell them how they are doing at every point along the way. Daily metrics set expectations; weekly metrics measure performance; monthly metrics identify trends; and quarterly metrics determine process sustainability and goal achievement.
So, is leadership an art or a science? Is it based on personality or process? Air Force Materiel Command says it is a science. “You cannot control what comes in Р circumstances change Р but you control the process and what comes out at the end.”
The “AFSC Way” is the next evolutionary step in “Continuous Process Improvement” practices in that it takes leadership from a personality-based phenomena to a process-based structure, and because of that it is sustainable and repeatable. “You get the right results, the right way, every time, across the entire organization.”
I have seen this type of leadership in large corporations in industry, but it is very encouraging to see these practices implemented (and perfected) in a governmental venture. I applaud our Air Force leaders for having the foresight and wisdom to effect these changes.
Don’t minimize the scale of the task they undertake Р Litchfield leads 33,000 people with a $16 billion budget. I firmly believe that, in a few years, you will see the “AFSC Way” highlighted in a university-level leadership course as a case study on how to do it right!