Continuous process improvement -- start a movement!

  • Published
  • By Maj. Robert Prausa
  • 71st Security Forces Squadron commander
Common concerns echo across the business landscape: "our people are already overworked"..."we wear several hats simultaneously"..."I can't give up any more personnel without failure."

There are no magical answers to these challenges. However, you've heard one very likely solution that goes by different names -- Six Sigma, Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century, Quality, Cost Conscious Culture and lean transformation.

President Harry S. Truman once said, "Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better."

Change -- this mystical concept strikes fear in the hearts of many. This fear is manifested in the all-to-often-heard defense, "that's the way we've always done it."

What is required in the face of adversity are leaders at all levels willing to drive organizations in new ways of thinking about the processes, business models and effects they weave to produce greater mission capabilities.

From job to job I typically find the "out-of-the-box" thinking required for process improvement begins by helping people understand -- and more importantly, believe -- the status quo is not good enough, that the easy answer or path is not likely the correct one.

I believe in three foundational elements as the underlying keys to success for a continuous process improvement structure -- leadership, innovation and persistent perfection. You will find these elements on each coin I present for exceptional performance.

Leadership is the most important continuous process-improvement element. Leaders must be bold, courageous and steady. They cannot fear naysayers or critics, but must focus on building and continuously nurturing an environment of new ideas.

This environment must foster a climate capable of cutting through the sometimes constricting red tape of chain-of-command. For this reason, when you walk through the halls of the Security Forces building, you will find "Idea" and "Cost Conscious Culture" boards.

Our Security Forces members, known as Defenders, are encouraged to freely recommend process changes and other mission-enhancement ideas without fear of the idea being bogged down in ever-increasing critical reviews at multiple levels of supervision. These ideas are tracked electronically cradle to grave.

It is critical these ideas are fast-tracked. Airmen operating at the tactical level are most capable of recognizing the process errors that are recurring and they always have brilliant solutions to fix them.

The challenge to supervision is keeping up with their ideas and capturing the resources needed to execute them. I have a list that will keep me busy well beyond my tenure at Vance Air Force Base and will drive ever-increasing levels of mission capability for years to come.

Innovation is more than a new way to complete the same process. As budgets shrink and manpower and other resources disappear, our force must be asked to create efficiencies in everything we do.

The good news is our total-force approach to mission execution provides an unlimited pool of intellectual capital to support innovation. This workforce fosters unique opportunities for process owners to drive critical thinking about what they want to accomplish and the different ways to get it done.

The endgame is to reengineer processes to remove duplicative and other zero-value steps.

Finally, "persistent perfection" is the continuous process improvement mantra.

Why perfection? Is perfection achievable? Is the bar set too high?

Consider that on their worst day, aircraft maintainers, security forces, fire fighters and many other occupations must execute tasks perfectly or serious injury or death can befall their employees and/or customers.

This drive for persistent perfection creates a team understanding of the need for constant process analysis. It also prevents the belief that one look at a challenge is enough. Improving a process is a continuous effort.

To be successful, continuous process improvement must be integrated into the strategic vision of an organization.

Rosalynn Carter, wife of former president Jimmy Carter, said, "A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be."

Do you support continuous process improvement? Whether you process travel vouchers, enlisted performance reports, aircraft parts, fuel, train pilots or prosecute integrated defense, you have the power to create efficiencies across the Wing.

Think about your processes. How can you make them faster, smoother or more efficient?

You don't believe effective process improvement can be easy?

Do this for me just once and you'll be hooked. Grab a pad of sticky notes. Write each step of a process you own on a separate sticky note. Post the sticky notes in order around your cubicle or office.

Now play with the order of the steps. Can you make the process more efficient by reordering or removing steps that provide no added value?

Ask your cubicle neighbor to look at it. What would they change? Document your ideas and tell your supervisor.

You've just impacted how Vance provides aviators to the Air Force.

I want to extend a special thanks to all my Defenders. For the second year in a row, you have postured continuous process analysis solutions in a resource constricted operating environment that has allowed us to meet the goal of saving $3 per day, per Airman.

You did what many others could not.