UCI excellence: mastering the box

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- The term "thinking outside the box" is appealing because it is associated with fantastic ideas, products or services that come from people thinking in ways different than others around or before them. 

Another reason this way of thinking is appealing is because thinking inside the box isn't viewed as anything special; everyone should be able to do that, right? 

Well, thinking outside the box is not all important. It is not called "thinking without the box." Although the terms are often treated as opposites, they both share a common element - the box. 

Together, they are actually part of a systematic view that helps us be more successful in three easy phases. 

First, understand the box. It represents expectations, standards and limitations. Fellow Sabers, that is what our Unit Compliance Inspection is going to check - whether we know and have mastered "the box." The inspection team will provide feedback to the U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander from their short time with the Sabers they meet, and we want that feedback to be great, so we must know the requirements. 

You must master the box; saying "I saw it from a distance" or "I heard about it from a really good source" is not good enough. 

Second, understand the inside of the box. These are the methods that organizations attribute a good part of their successes to - the inside the box thinking that helped them be successful. 

This is akin to the "profound knowledge" W. Edwards Deming insisted is required in order to actually improve something. Similarly, Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century teams improve processes through understanding of resources, processes and expectations as they currently exist in order to improve them. 

Third, with the framework and lessons learned, thinking outside the box will be more successful. A great understanding of the box helps us differentiate between the standards that are not flexible and the areas where opportunities for greatness exist. 

Along with ensuring compliance with directives, the UCI also recognizes people, teams and processes that excel. To achieve that, we have to show our mastery of the box and the ability to think inside it, then show our outsidethe- box excellence. 

Unfortunately, many people who feel they are thinking outside the box are often unaware of the box itself, so there's no way they could be sure they are thinking outside it. Ironically, those who don't know the box are more likely thinking inside it without even knowing it. 

This is not an effort to create a new catch phrase, "outside-theinside- the-box thinking." Rather, it's a reminder to read and understand the whole catch phrase we already know. 

Thinking outside the box implies the box is an important element. There is much more success for those who understand the box than those who don't.