After years of instability led to a severe backup on the nation’s sole F-15 depot line, things are finally coming together at the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex at Robins AFB, Ga.
Up until recently, the complex’s approach to depot maintenance was to treat it as an art form. Restoring an aircraft was a delicate art, and each artist—or worker or crew chief—had an individualized approach to the process. This approach made the process (and the results) very personality-driven and ensured that any movement in personnel could disrupt the entire operation. Something had to give. All too often that was the F-15 repair schedule.
“Our own processes are our biggest time hindrance,” said Doug Keene, the chief civilian overseeing the depot and special assistant to the ALC’s then-boss, Brig. Gen. Cedric D. George.
The depot was instructed to implement a new, more disciplined, scientific approach to workload maintenance in 2012 when an Air Force Sustainment Center reorganization occurred. The goal was to find ways to deliver cost-effective readiness across the entire Air Force. Lt. Gen. Bruce A. Litchfield, commander of the Air Force Sustainment Center at Tinker AFB, Okla., has touted a scientific, data-driven decision-making processes to achieve the best cost benefit across the entire service. With the shift in attitudes, a concerted effort was made at all three Air Force depots (the Ogden ALC at Hill AFB, Utah; the Oklahoma City ALC at Tinker AFB, Okla.; and Warner Robins) to depart from personality-driven maintenance to a process-driven, sustainable activity-based style of maintenance. Sustainment Center officials refer to this as the “AFSC Way.”
According to an April white paper on cost-effective readiness released by AFSC, the new way would be based on a shared leadership model emphasizing speed, safety, quality, and cost-effectiveness. Based on the Theory of Constraints—focusing on identifying hindrances to productivity and restructuring the approach to get around them—the AFSC Way systematically identifies waste and constraints to productivity to create a more efficient process.
It was a process George himself had to go through during his time as commander of the 76th Maintenance Wing at Tinker. He said in the second year of implementing the then-trial system at Tinker, it started to take hold of him and show him that increased efficiency was possible under the new approach.
While he acknowledged that the new system of dividing duties, analyzing breakdown and hindrances to productivity, pinpointing specific problems, and identifying ways to solve each problem individually should make logical sense, he said it is not necessarily a no-brainer to believe the system will work—especially when they’d been doing it completely differently for years. “It’s very easy to [say], ‘We’re doing alright. Don’t change it,’?” said George. It takes much more gumption to decide to overhaul an entire system and get the team to buy into a whole new way.
The results he saw on the KC-135 line, though, really made him a believer.
All of the KC-135 depot work is done at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex. None of the work is farmed out to the private sector, an approach George said is much less expensive. The KC-135 depot team was the first unit to really take hold of the AFSC Way’s system and make it their own—going from 400 days on an aircraft to less than 100 during a depot cycle. “When I saw that, I said, ‘I’m all in,’?” said George.
The focus began shifting to a format that established a “right” way to do aircraft maintenance. “There’s a science to fixing an aircraft,” Keene said. “If we all apply the same science, we get common outputs.” The foundation of the AFSC Way is process discipline, a scientific way of doing business, and “throughput’s a key part of that,” George said. “All of our production operations are assessed using a mathematical approach for how we do maintenance. It’s not just a gut feel.”
But as with any change, this shift is taking time to be fully embraced. Implementing the AFSC Way is not just about changing one or two things in the existing process. It is about completely changing the culture at Warner Robins. Personnel who actually regarded themselves as masters of their craft have to be taught to remove themselves from the process and focus on the science of new methods.
Though it was initially introduced as a concept in 2012, it was not until December 2013 that the base was able to take hold of the new way of doing things. Federal budget maladies trickled down to affect base operations that were already moving slowly. Just as the new approach to depot maintenance was being implemented, sequestration hit. Voluntary early retirements, separations, and furloughs further knocked back productivity.
“Throughput was not where we wanted it, actually, going into the furlough, and then … as we went into the furlough, we realized why [we aren’t] getting the throughput,” why it was disturbed, and that it was “because we didn’t have the process discipline,” George said.
With roughly 7,500 civilians working on depot operations at Warner Robins, the overtime bans before sequestration made it difficult for teams to work off a backload of aircraft, and the mandatory furloughs of sequestration set the teams even further behind. “We ended up having an additional 18 to 22 aircraft just basically clogged here,” George said. “You could not work any overtime, you could not do anything to just move those machines.”
“If you were an aircraft [maintenance] squadron that was in trouble before the furlough, the furlough killed you,” said 561st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron director Mike Arnold. He said that due to “lots and lots of ‘nobody can come out here and work’ time,” the squadron “gained nearly 25 days on every airplane just during that six-week furlough.” Not only that, he said, 20 percent of the squadron’s workforce was eliminated because of separations and scale-backs.
Despite the impact to the workload, the staff at Warner Robins grasped that depot maintenance was a logical place to make cutbacks. “The Air Force very deliberately made sure that the dollars that were going to the folks who were in harm’s way” were not interrupted, Keene said. “If you’re going to make cuts, while it’s painful and it degraded the mission some to have us go on a six-day furlough, you certainly wouldn’t want to cause mission failure out there in the field. … You wouldn’t want a guy or a girl out on the front line not getting food every day or weapons or the types of things they need, information they need.”
But with a large civilian workforce, it is sometimes hard to matter-of-factly make that call. George made it plain: When Warner Robins’ 7,500 civilians stop working, the depot shuts down. For George, it is the “devastating effect” on the people he commands that he thinks about most. “Many people made the mistake … of thinking it was just one civilian, but we had civilians married to civilians, so it was families,” George said. Cuts had an “impact … across entire families, and so it had a huge effect and we are still restoring the trust of our civilians.”
Beyond mandated time off from the aircraft, time that may have otherwise been spent repairing airplanes was redirected. Trying to deal with ensuring the personal welfare of the employees who were the heart and soul of the depot operations was a necessary process, but it took effort away from the job at hand.
“What really hurt us here in that time is [that] the focus came off the mission,” Keene said. “The focus came on to managing through the furlough. We were very concerned about our employees. We were making sure that they were given every opportunity off base to seek financial counseling,” Keene said.
Starting with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, which ended the furloughs and authorized pay raises for civilian staff on base, George and the staff at Warner Robins said they have begun to restore the trust of the workforce and get the mission back on track.
Keene said staffers “don’t want to be focused on scary things, like a furlough and the possible loss of days.” He said, “In the last few months, the focus has really come back to the mission and the process.”
Around the end of 2013, George and his staff were able to set in motion a mandate to properly implement the AFSC Way. But while the easing of sequestration has allowed the team to move expeditiously to work off the Fiscal 2013 backlog, there was a snowball effect that first put them further behind where they’d like to be this year.
“If you work off last year’s aircraft, that impacts this year’s aircraft, so we have some 40 aircraft here in the station that we need to work off, … 18 additional aircraft above the number that we want to have here,” George said. Of those aircraft, most are F-15s.
If the aircraft are sitting in the depot, they are not available for training or combat purposes, he noted.
Because of a previous emphasis on meeting the target date, Arnold said the staff had cut a lot of corners that ended up damaging the process and the overall results heading into the sequestration. “We were focusing on one method, one goal, and that was: The airplane had to leave here on time. If you leave here on time, in a lot of ways, you cut corners. … We broke a lot of basic maintenance processes along the way to get that really good performance,” Arnold said.
“There’re a couple ways you can get that done: You can just get your giddy-up on. And that’s not the way we do it, because that’s not sustainable,” said George.
The right way, George said, is understanding “what the constraints are in the machine, [using] science to make sure you understand it, then [applying] our outstanding people to that well-thought out and disciplined approach to the process.”
The leadership team is still working to assess the full impact of sequestration on base operations, but George knows one thing for sure: “We don’t ever want to go back to a furlough.”
“We need to make sure that we capture fully the intended and unintended consequences of [sequestration],” George said.
Part of the consequences, said Arnold, was not having all the tools to do the job. “We got through the big problem in February and March of not having the basic parts and resources” needed to properly maintain the airplanes. Once that issue was solved, the team in May “started getting smoother about how we’re doing this. In eight weeks, we have reduced the number of days that it takes us to get airplanes through here by about 41 days.”
George said the crews are making progress, but he wants to continue to push his team to be more efficient, constantly striving to eliminate any clogs that arise in the system. Many aircraft lines are flowing now, but “we are in no way satisfied with the fact that we just unclogged them,” he said, adding that he wants to speed up the flow to get caught up.
In October and November, Keene said, the squadron was producing three airplanes per month. As of July, they were up to nearly six, but the target is eight.
The depot gets two types of aircraft: those needing regular depot maintenance overhaul and those coming in for rewiring. They get 48 airplanes coming in for regular maintenance per year, and they are supposed to be at the depot no more than 125 days. In July, they were at 236 days—111 more than the standard. On the rewire side, the standard is 185 days, but the depot was still exceeding that by 90 days and holding airplanes for 275.
“The customer sends us an airplane, pays us to fix it, and we say, ‘Your oil change will be done in 30 minutes.’ Instead, it’s done in three days,” Arnold said.
He said the answer is to employ a collaborative approach to problem solving. “We’re trying to get all of those smart minds and everybody’s perspective in the room. They’ve got to arm wrestle it out and let everybody throw their piece out there on the table,” he said. Then, with a number of perspectives on the same data, they are able to reach applicable solutions that may improve efficiency. The team identifies one problem to target at a time, and everyone mobilizes to improve that area so that they can, as a group, move on to solving the next problem.
In one July meeting, all of the crew chiefs and engineers sat around a table and analyzed each individual depot station. What were the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges to efficiency, and how could each individual step of the process be improved to create a smoother overall process, they asked. After deliberating for some time, they decided that actually consolidating two work stations into one would make the process more efficient.
Instead of breaking an airplane down and separately charting what needed repairing or maintenance, they could evaluate the aircraft as they broke it down. By doing so, they could eliminate several days from the process and save themselves some effort backtracking. They would not have been able to reach that conclusion independently, if each chief were working in isolation, said Arnold.
“The key is throwing all those minds together. That helps us actually solve problems and move forward,” he said. “For me, it makes my job a whole lot easier. Everyone’s not standing around looking at me for what the easiest solution’s going to be, because I’m probably not going to have it anyway.”
The depot has started to recover and its workforce has refocused on its mission. But despite gains made, it is not enough. George says the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, like other depots at Hill and Tinker, must deliver the same readiness at less cost. And that means in less time.
“We’ve got to get those aircraft out of here and ensure the touch time on those gets down to 115 days” from the time they arrive on base to the time they are out the door, said George. “If we’re doing 200 days on an F-15, we want to get that lower and lower, … and the way we do it is that scientific way.”
“The problem is, we are way behind,” Little said. “Forty-one days, yeah, that’s really good, but what have you done for me lately? You’ve got to get more. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”
George is confident that the depot staff has everything it needs to reach the goal set if they keep plugging away at the process. “I believe we are back in stride. It took some time to get back in our full stride and get them fully engaged,” he said. “We need them focused on producing aircraft and making sure that our warfighters, our sons and daughters in harm’s way, have the necessary capability that this depot provides. And that’s what we’re back to.”