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Today’s military calls for radical change

  • Published
  • By Col. Elisabeth Strines
  • 31st Maintenance Group commander
I saw the past and the future when I was recently reintroduced to an Air Force icon. I first met Lt. Gen. Leo Marquez when I was a lieutenant assigned to Air Force Logistics Command, and he was in charge of logistics and engineering. AFLC is long gone, but General Marquez is still known as the godfather of aircraft and munitions maintenance.

When I met him back in 1986, I was holding the esteemed position of flipper of acetate charts (no power point back then!). As such, I was holed up in the back room to literally flip charts while my boss briefed General Marquez and a roomful of minions on a proposal intended to make AFLC more responsive to the “using” commands.

The last slide in the presentation was a rather bold joke on the general, but the good news is that the general liked the proposal so much -- as well as the slide -- that he asked for a copy of the last slide for himself. The easiest way to satisfy his request was to hand him our acetate copy, taped to a plastic frame for easy flipping, so I came out of the back room and handed him the slide, as if on cue. He said, “Thank you, sweetheart,” and uncharacteristically realizing this was a good time to zip my lip, I simply responded, “You’re welcome, sir.”

Over the years I’ve pondered this meeting with the general from several angles. While “sweetheart” put the encounter forever in my memory, what I’ve really thought about is the openness to new ideas he demonstrated as well as his absolute passion and practical vision for making life easier and more productive for the maintainer, with optimizing Air Force effectiveness his ultimate goal.

He was the prime impetus behind improving reliability and maintainability, and the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter are the latest results of his demands on design engineers so many years ago.

Last month, USAFE’s maintenance group commanders and superintendents had the privilege of sitting down with the now retired general to discuss whatever we wanted. As you might guess, the question of how we’re going to deal with the programmed personnel cut of somewhere between 40 and 60 thousand blue suiters came up. The general stated what we probably all think is obvious -- that somehow we need to cut down on what we’re doing -- but also gave us two simple questions that should be excellent tools in helping us figure out what to cut out.

His first question was “Why are we doing what we’re doing?” Second, if we decide that we need to be doing, whatever “it” is, the follow-up question is, “Why are we doing it this way?”

These questions are not new. Back in the days of total quality management, we were supposed to examine these very issues. Unfortunately, the Air Force did not deploy the ideas of TQM very well, and now those three letters strung together in that order can evoke all sorts of malignant faces, off-color sputterings, and even fruit throwing if any is at hand. What goes around comes around, though, and in this case I think it’s a very good thing, as long as we do it right this time.

In the next several weeks and months, we’ll be hearing about Smart Ops 21, including
Lean Logistics and other related ideas. While training should provide more insight, the basic concepts will still distill down to General Marquez’ two simple questions.

The obvious idea is to identify and eliminate the stuff that doesn’t really need to be done, and to do the stuff that does need to be done in smarter, more efficient ways.

After the USAFE conference I attended last month, I’m convinced our leadership is ready for radical ideas -- including those requiring waivers or changes to AFIs -- as well as those that might be more mundane or even boring but still absolutely useful and necessary.

We’re cutting people because we can’t afford the bill anymore, but we’ve still got a mission to perform. Since the cut is going to happen -- it’s a “done deal” in common parlance -- we might as well take advantage of this new open-mindedness and fix stuff that has not made sense for years. Long live General Marquez, carpe diem, and don’t call me sweetheart. And this time, by the way, he didn’t.