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Airman 1st Class Tyrone Spencer of the 374th Maintenance Squadron replaces a trunion that holds up the nose gear of an MC-130P during an Isochronal Inspection at Yokota Air Base, Japan. Utilizing Air Force Smart Operations 21 practices, the squadron was able to reduce the amount of work hours required to complete this inspection.
Airman 1st Class Tyrone Spencer of the 374th Maintenance Squadron replaces a trunion that holds up the nose gear of an MC-130P during an Isochronal Inspection at Yokota Air Base, Japan. Utilizing Air Force Smart Operations 21 practices, the squadron was able to reduce the amount of work hours required to complete this inspection. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

If they haven’t heard of it yet, it’s a sure bet airmen across the Pacific soon will.

It’s called Air Force Smart Operations 21, an Air Force initiative to get smarter and more efficient in the face of reduced budgets and sweeping personnel cuts.

Pacific Air Force bases have already begun streamlining, from reducing airmen’s in-processing time at Osan Air Base, South Korea, to saving more than 11,500 man-hours inspecting C-130 Hercules aircraft at Yokota Air Base, Japan.

The goal is to eventually train all commanders, supervisors and airmen on how to spot inefficiencies in a process and make it better.

The program, called “AFSO 21” for short, was introduced by Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne last year and is based on civilian business practices designed to cut waste and boost value and quality.

“People understand the need for this based on manning and funding shortfalls. Leadership knows we really have to do this,” said Col. Skip Day, U.S. Pacific Air Force’s AFSO 21 director.

AFSO 21 is the “Air Force’s answer to still being able to conduct our mission with less money and less people,” Day said.

The program can be applied to all facets of the Air Force, Day said, since “everything can be broken down into a process, once people are trained to do that.”

PACAF has set up an AFSO 21 office with a staff of six full-timers that reports to the PACAF commander. Each PACAF wing also has a full time, active-duty AFSO 21 process manager, whose job is to train airmen and conduct “rapid improvement events,” a 3-to-5-day affair designed to fix an inefficient process.

AFSO 21 principles were used to streamline in-processing at Osan Air Base, where about 6,000 personnel turn over every year.

“It was taking the average airmen around 20 days… to in-process,” said Col. John Carter, the 51st Fighter Wing vice commander who oversees the base’s AFSO 21 program. Much of that time was unproductive, such as travel to and from duty sections and waiting in line, he said. The base reduced in-processing to five days by combining separate appointments into a central location.

“We’ve taken wasted time out of the process,” Carter said. “Ultimately, time is money,”

It’s hoped that savings will be realized in other ways, as well, Day said: “If I can get airmen who work a 12-hour shift back to an 8-hour shift, then we’ve won a major battle by doing that.”

The Air Force is looking at improving its ancillary training program, Day said, “which takes up so much of our time” with numerous annual, computer-based and deployment training requirements.

“If we can get training once somewhere and don’t have to keep doing it over and over again, it’s going to yield a whole lot of time savings for our airmen,” he said.

At Yokota Air Base, base officials have banked thousands of work hours by targeting three areas, said Capt. Jeff Downs, the base AFSO 21 project manager: C-130 Hercules inspections, the aircraft’s launching sequence and paperwork.

The base, for instance, now tracks awards, decorations, staff summary sheets and performance reports electronically, cutting down on paper flow and saving about 5,200 man-hours since September.

“This is a grassroots program,” Downs said. “We want every airman to know how to put forth good ideas. They’re the ones actually out there on the flight lines doing the work.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Vince Little contributed to this story.

Efficiency requires money, which isn’t easy to come by

Training and awareness is key to the success of Air Force Smart Operations 21, said Col. Skip Day, U.S. Pacific Air Force’s AFSO 21 director.

But so is funding, and with the service facing a budget shortfall due to the war, AFSO 21 is a long journey that’s just beginning, Day said.

“It may take some unit funds to set up a warehouse differently, to move furniture, to purchase new equipment,” he said. Or for instance, an airmen might be able to save his unit $20,000 a year by purchasing a $5,000 tool. “Right now, there is no money to pay for that. That’s a frustration on our part.”

But Day urges airmen not to get discouraged. “We have to jump into the program, but patience is critical for it. It’s going to take a long time.”

The “rapid improvement events” also cost money. As part of these, experts in the field and a trained AFSO 21 professional work three to five days to fix an inefficient process.

The Air Force requires a certified facilitator to conduct these. Until wing process managers meet this standard, wings must hire a civilian professional to assist at an estimated cost of $15,000 to $20,000, Day said.

“Wings don’t have the money to get a certified facilitator,” he said. The Air Force is funding some of these events, but not all of them. One event the service did fund was at Osan Air Base, South Korea, to streamline the 18-month gun inspection on aircraft, Day said.

PACAF, however, is paying to get some of its own AFSO 21 people at headquarters trained through a 26-week-long program at the University of Tennessee. The coursework will certify them to act as facilitators, Day said, eliminating the need to hire an outside expert.

PACAF is also training, beginning this month, the wing process managers in AFSO 21. Once they’re certified, they’ll be able to conduct a “rapid improvement event” at their base, with help from civilian agencies, and train the rest of the airmen on base in basic AFSO 21 awareness.

“The Air Force, we have been told, will be providing (major commands) with funding for AFSO 21 … very soon,” Day said. “Right now we are paying for everything out of hide. It’s painful, because it does take time, but there’s a method to the madness. In the long run it’s going to work out because of standardization,” since training will be the same across the Air Force

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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