AGE streamlines using AFSO 21

SPANAGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- What is the first thought that comes to mind, that first emotion you feel when you hear the words, Air Force Smart Operations 21 or AFSO 21? Is it pain, agony, despair? Do you think "what a complete waste of time?" I thought and felt all of those things when I heard those words.

As a 20-year master sergeant, I was skeptical about what AFSO 21 could teach me about my job that I hadn't already learned. What can I possibly learn from an AFSO 21 event? And what could it teach the other Airmen in my shop that I had not related through my experience and knowledge? Not to mention, I have already lived through the "quality" era, so I was not too anxious about reliving it.

The Aerospace Ground Equipment Flight or AGE is a 70-person flight. We deliver, inspect, maintain and repair more than 570 pieces of AGE equipment daily which supports the 52nd Fighter Wing at home and on temporary duty assignments. Additionally, AGE supports the 726th Air Mobility Squadron 365 days a year and 24 hours a day, as well as AGE tracks maintenance, tools, supplies, manning and time, meticulously, in order to carry out this mission.

Like most Air Force Specialty Codes and organizations on base, the daily management of the mission with less than 100 percent of authorized personnel is a challenge. So what do you do when Spangdahlem Air Base deploys one or two of its fighter squadrons or gets an additional tasking? How do you manage a flight of 70 personnel that shrinks as low as 40, and still maintain the same amount of equipment? Do you mandate extended shifts? Do you take away weekends and holidays? Or do you try to streamline your processes in the hopes of cutting out the unnecessary slack so you can do more with less? We recognized our pending problem and decided to tackle it head on. We decided to try our hand at AFSO 21.

We started out in the AFSO 21 office, away from the distractions of the daily work. Our team, comprised of both very inexperienced Airmen and experienced noncommissioned officers, learned what the AFSO 21 process was all about, what a facilitator does, what the key terms and tools are, and how to use them. Then, we learned we needed to focus our efforts on a specific process for maximum effect, and the AGE inspection process seemed the most likely candidate. We learned how to map our processes and map our way to success.

We wrote every single step to our inspection process on yellow sticky notes and placed them on a board in order of operations. Sounds like an easy task, but five AGE mechanics will inspect a piece of equipment five different ways. Finding out what people do versus what we thought they did was eye opening. Although technical guidance lists required tasks to complete an inspection, there is no specific order these tasks must be completed in, so sorting through these tasks and placing them in the "best" order was no easy task.

We examined our current inspection process and noticed that our mechanics were working very independently. Each mechanic would complete an inspection on a single piece of equipment from start to finish. This required the technician to move around the entire AGE complex to obtain the required tools, equipment and supplies and return back to his equipment to accomplish the inspection. We quickly realized our flight did not operate as a cohesive unit and our processes did not flow as an assembly line. We had a lot of work to do.

We mapped out the activities of the average AGE mechanic's day. We examined how a technician picked which equipment to inspect, how the job was started, where the tools were, how far away supplies were and the computer to document the inspection. We used a chart to document how many personnel actually touched maintenance forms and we used time-motion studies documenting how much time our mechanics were moving and how long it was taking them.

After completing these mapping exercises, the team discussed the results. It was unanimous. We were moving too much and wasting too much time. We discovered if we could eliminate this waste, we could increase our production and inspect more pieces of equipment in less time. Now that we discovered our problem, we had to find the solution and the best way to find that solution was through a Rapid Improvement Event, or RIE.

It was time to put words into action. We returned to the shop. We drew our new efficient shop layout on paper. This gave us the visual aid needed to keep us focused on the specific task at hand. After we drew our new process, we made one very important discovery. If we developed a process that controlled the mechanic instead of the mechanic controlling the process, we could further eliminate wasted time.

We broke the inspection process down into seven basic steps: operational check, documentation, fluids and filters, depanel and wash, stencil, lube and seven-level inspection. We applied the "6S" method (safety, sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain) to organize the inspection building by function or inspection step. This enabled us to develop a work flow to complete the inspection's seven steps in the most efficient manner.

Applying the "6S" method, we completely emptied the inspection building. Only items needed for the seven steps of AGE equipment inspection were allowed back in -- everything else was tagged and put into storage or turned in. We created a neat, clean, efficient and safe environment for our mechanics to operate. We also were able to save the Air Force money by turning in unneeded equipment.

The new AGE Inspection cell was born October 2008. As with any new process, we encountered our share of hurdles and hiccups. Though we have stumbled, we have refused to give up. Today the inspection cell is running much more smoothly. AGE mechanics are completing specific inspection steps instead of the complete equipment inspections like before the AFSO 21 event. One mechanic performs lube and filter while another stencils the equipment while another washes it. We created an efficient assembly line that maximizes our technicians' time and motion. We exceeded our goal by leaps and bounds. We now complete more inspections in less time with fewer mechanics. What used to take us five-seven days to accomplish can now be done in four days with nearly 30 percent less Airmen. We continue to find areas of improvement, ways to further streamline our processes, and AFSO 21 has equipped us with the tools and know-how to act on these discoveries. AFSO 21 is not one project; it is a new attitude of always finding a new way to do something better.


In the current Air Force culture of doing more with less, it is very important that we open our minds to new schools of thought and to look at our processes from outside the box. Chances are we can all benefit from process improvement and AFSO 21, no matter how large or small the task. At first glance AFSO 21 felt and sounded like the dreaded total quality management of many years past; however, it proved to be much more user-friendly and applicable. It is adaptable and unique to each process and problem -- not cookie cutter -- and accepts the input from the user, not just the supervision. Even this 20-year master sergeant learned something new.