Lean in the Air Force


    Thinking lean, a must for stronger, smaller Air Force

    Here's an article about the Air Force's ongoing Lean efforts, a Major General giving a speech about Lean in Turkey:

    General Rogers began with a big picture explanation of the Air Force's strong focus on the “lean process” — the endless pursuit of identification and elimination of waste, adapting to change, and continuous process improvement.

    That's a pretty good standard definition — but what about people?

    General Rogers stressed that the focus of lean should be on enabling the Air Force's people, for they are the key component of all processes.

    “Lean is a great leadership development tool that should be used to mentor your people and develop them,” the general said.

    Oh, there we go. That's good that the Air Force sees the people development potential of Lean. That's always in the center of Toyota diagrams about the Toyota Production System, people and the development of people. Lean isn't about the Generals figuring out what waste to eliminate, it's about involving everybody.

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    Mark Graban
    Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    1. The Air Force has been working on lean for over a year now with a program called AFSO21 (Smart Operations for the 21st Century). Through the University of Tennessee’s Center for Executive Education they are training leaders in Lean and Six Sigma principals, along with Kaizen event implementation. This training is then provided to others including frontline airman. The Air Forces is seeing great improvements, but they are not immune to the same problems every organization is having trying to implement Lean. Check out this link for more articles, lean.http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123020236 Bill

    2. I can speak to the fact that the Air Force is actually doing what many companies who try and fail do–using LEAN piecemeal without embracing the whole concept.

      The Air Force is going through what they call Force Shaping–a euphamism for layoffs. They miscalculated their personnel and subsequently laid off approximately 1800 junior Officers (middle managers). I know because I was one of them. Some specialties had 80% of their Lieutenants and Captains in year groups (date entering commissioned service) cut.

      Additionally, elements of JIT are impossible because of a woeful funding system which has units scrambling to spend millions of dollars the last week of the fiscal year because of mismanagement of funds at the higher levels.

      I now have a career in a Fortune 500 manufacturing company which is in the midst of pick-and-choose LEAN as well, but things here are much smoother in many regards. The Air Force may say they’re LEAN, but this is another LAME example.

    3. Stephen — I’m truly sorry to hear all of that. I appreciate you sharing your experiences with us. Can the layoffs be blamed on Lean or is it a matter of “business conditions,” such as funding needs for ground troops in Iraq, etc.? Were the layoffs of officers the result of efficiency improvements?

      With Lean, when we promise “no layoffs,” we mean no layoffs because of lean improvements, especially those that come from employee suggestions. If sales drop dramatically (like with GM), the need to reduce employees in line with sales/production is different than laying off employees who weren’t needed because of production efficiencies.

      Please don’t take my comment the wrong way — I’m very empathetic to your situation, especially the frustrating one with the manufacturing company. I don’t know enough about military life, so my question about the layoffs is just that — a question. I don’t know what was behind the reductions. Can you or somebody else clarify this?

    4. The Air Force is not saying that they are lean; they admit there is a lot of waste. Additionally, there have been many successes and some failures, and there will be more failures – it’s a journey, right. This is the largest lean undertaking anywhere. They have identified 10 core processes and are aligning kaizen events to those processes. The flywheel is just starting to move. The Air Force is also seeing some success in applying lean to their many bureaucratic administrative processes. PBD720 was an initiative that mandated the reduction of force by about 8%, unrelated to lean, but it has now become the burning platform to use lean as a method also a compensate for the already identified loss of manpower. Once training has been applied, the airmen are on board at the same ratio of anywhere else I have seen. Bill


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