SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany --
People have strived to make life just a little bit better since the beginning of mankind. These days, inconveniences are much smaller. For instance, a broken phone screen could jokingly be called a “first-world problem.”
However, U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Connelly, 52nd Maintenance Squadron precision-guided munitions production supervisor, said it’s a good thing we are focusing on those smaller problems.
“We’ve got our food, we’ve got our shelter, we’ve got the ability to sustain our lives, and now we are focusing on those minute details,” said Connelly, who is also a 52nd Fighter Wing Innovation and Transformation Office continual process improvement instructor.
He said too many small, precise details will slow down Air Force programs and operations over time, but the ITO team is here to help.
The team is responsible for educating people about process improvement and innovation, keeping track of innovation Airmen are using in the field, as well as helping units make processes better by providing third-party objectivity.
“Innovation” has turned into a widely used buzzword in the Air Force, but Connelly said to him the word refers to the concept of making something from what it is to what it could be. “Continual process improvement” is how innovation happens over a period of time.
“The Air Force has things that are absolutely sacred to it,” Connelly said. “If you say anything against those programs, you are the bad guy even if those programs are in dire need of optimization. We have to look at things together and really take that dose of reality. The only way to do that is through objectivity, facts, and data.”
52nd FW ITO team members are located all over base.
Master Sgt. Kevin Cumbie, 52nd Fighter Wing ITO superintendent, said the team is comprised of people who have been through a process improvement course, people who want to do a secondary function by being a group representative, or those who just want to teach.
Cumbie said the team teaches several classes to help process improvement in the workplace: Problem Identification Training, Yellow Belt, Green Belt, and Black Belt. Each class tier covers a deeper level of training.
U.S. Air Forces in Europe invited Cumbie to teach a Green Belt class at the Heavy Airlift Wing in Hungary, Nov. 3 to 9, 2019. Cumbie said due to the HAW being a multinational wing, there has been a lack in process improvement and innovation. Cumbie and Connelly visited the HAW to change that.
“Not only are we spreading how we do business here at the 52nd FW,” Cumbie said, “but we’re also developing new continual process improvement trained individuals from eight different countries.”
USAFE calls on the 52nd FW to teach process improvement professional development, which speaks volumes about the innovation program here.
“Everything to do with continuous process improvement is Air Force wide,” Cumbie said. “Each major command has their specific spin on it. Because of the way we do things in USAFE, we are the top innovative MAJCOM in the Air Force.”
Two innovation competitions the 52nd FW ITO team excels at are Innovation Madness and Spark Tank.
Innovation Madness is a competition where people vote on different wings’ process improvement ideas throughout USAFE. Spark Tank is an Air Force-level competition that drives people to submit ideas to better military organizations.
Cumbie said last year’s winning Spark Tank innovation is being used across the U.S. Department of Defense.
“The 52nd FW has always been in the top three across nine wings with Innovation Madness,” Cumbie said. “When it comes to Spark Tank, we are the current winner, and we actually have an idea that is being worked now that is sitting as a semi-finalist.”
Connelly said one reason the competitions are in place is because success tends to inspire others to succeed.
“A lot of times we want that quick result,” Connelly said. “It is nice when you have speed, cost, and quality, but really you can only have two at the expense of one. With continual process improvement, generally we can raise all three of those.”
The change innovation makes in the Air Force is why Connelly is passionate about being on the ITO team. He said in 2016, he became a program manager during a merger of two squadrons into one. He oversaw 19 programs and felt overwhelmed.
“I remember my boss came up to me and said, ‘Matthew, I just went to Problem Identification Training and I think you would like it,’” Connelly said. “I remember going to this class and the scales fell from my eyes. I remember thinking ‘This is how we fix things.’”
Cumbie is also passionate about being on the team.
“I have the ability to influence the mindset and culture shift I feel the Air Force needs,” Cumbie said.
Airmen can help make change happen in their units right now.
“If given the right parameters, the right environment, and the right support, ‘no’ easily shifts to ‘yes,’” Cumbie said.
Connelly said if someone has an idea on how to improve their unit, the first step is gathering data.
“There is no rational commander who will say no to solid data,” Connelly said. “That is one of the things we help with at the ITO -- we will help that come to fruition.”
Innovation and process improvement not only helps daily workflow, but betters Airman quality of life.
“People have been working with technology for years,” Cumbie said, “and there are better ways to do things. If we can save an hour a day in a process, that gives us one extra hour of either production at work or one extra hour with family. We’re trying to give time back to the Airmen.”
Connelly said Airmen are the key to start innovative change and leadership should not be afraid of the time and labor commitment it takes to make improvements.
Optimizing situations by using continuous process improvements also helps morale.
“Individuals who are in optimal situations tend to be happier in their job, they tend to be more productive,” Connelly said. “The way forward is for us to optimize our particular set of circumstances to the best of our abilities.”
Per AFI 38-401, it is every commander’s obligation to maximize the productivity of every asset and resource in both business and warfighting processes. If an Airman has an idea to improve their workplace, Cumbie recommended they start by speaking with their leadership, who can contact the ITO team. They can also submit an idea to usaf.ideascalegov.com.