MISSION POSSIBLE

5/11/1997
The Washington Post
By David Osborne and Peter Plastrik

Trying to improve a government organization can be like trying to change the direction of an aircraft carrier: You turn the rudder, then wait and wait for the big ship to move. But government managers don’t have that kind of time when they’re under the gun to cut costs and boost results.

That’s why the U.S. Air Combat Command (ACC), the 103,000-employee organization that controls the nation’s bombers, fighters and missiles, has adopted a rapid-change method pioneered by Japanese and American manufacturers. It’s called the Action Workout.

A workout is a super-accelerated reengineering project. It brings together many employees in an organization to tear apart and redesign the work processes they use — without spending more money. A workout is a way to “get rid of thousands of bad habits,” says Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric, which coined the term. In 1994, Welch mentioned the concept to the man then in charge of the ACC, Gen. Michael Loh, who sent a team to GE for training.

Unlike a typical reengineering project, which can take months or even years, a workout is compressed into no more than a week. If the team starts on a Monday, by Friday it hands precedent-shattering recommendations to top managers.

Speed is essential, says Col. Kerry May, head of the ACC’s process-reengineering efforts. “A workout forces change before the bureaucrats have time to resist, before the evil empire has a chance to say no. That’s why we like it so much: During that week we actually change something — not in six months or a year, but right now.”

When the ACC began experimenting with workouts, in 1995, it was already one of the top performers in the federal government. In 1991, the Tactical Air Command, one of its two predecessors, had put on a stunning display of air power to help win the Gulf War. In 1993, when President Clinton put Vice President Gore in charge of reinventing the federal government, Gore’s first visit was to ACC headquarters, to learn from the masters.

But the ACC’s Loh was committed to continuous improvement. When an early workout slashed the time it took to inspect B1-B bombers by 42 percent and another cut the time it took to inspect fighter engines by 65 percent — eliminating thousands of man-hours of work — Loh decided to use the new tool throughout his command. Last year, ACC bases conducted a dozen full-scale workouts, and this year they plan two dozen. The ACC is also training employees at every base to lead mini-workouts called Power Teams.

The ACC is not the only government agency to use workouts. In 1991, the northeast region of the U.S. Customs Service alerted GE about some problems it had with the company. GE suggested that Customs join it in a workout to seek solutions. Its success ultimately led to a comprehensive effort to improve work processes throughout the agency.

State and city governments have also tried the new tool. In 1994, West Virginia’s Environmental Protection Division eliminated 14 steps from a 19-step procedure for approving mining permits. In 1992, Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson used a workout to speed up the city’s acquisition and redevelopment of vacant property. Since then, about 30 more workouts involving about 500 city employees have saved $1 million.

Inside an ACC Workout

Early last year, the ACC tested how quickly Eglin Air Force Base in Florida could get its F-15 fighter jets ready for combat. “Generating” a fueled, armed plane involves many complex tasks: inspecting the plane, testing mechanical and electronic systems, servicing weight-bearing struts, loading oxygen for pilots, and so on. Eglin passed with flying colors, bettering the ACC standard of 24 hours by nearly five hours.

But Lt. Col. Chuck Louisell, who ran the exercise, was not satisfied. He challenged his 60th Fighter Squadron to cut the ACC standard by 50 percent — to 12 hours. “Everybody said, `That’s crazy, you can’t get there from here,’ ” he remembers. So he scheduled an Action Workout to try.

In December, about 30 members of the squadron stopped doing their work for a week and focused instead on changing how they worked. Louisell put senior managers and specialists, such as engineers, at their disposal to answer questions or solve problems.

To begin the workout, the employees divided into four teams and performed their usual tasks. With the help of other base employees, outside observers and facilitators, they videotaped and analyzed the way they did things and came up with ideas for improvements.

Almost immediately they discovered big efficiency gains. It normally took 21/2 hours to perform the preflight inspection, but one team found that inspectors wasted a great deal of time walking around the planes or back and forth to their toolboxes. “One inspector walked over 4,097 feet,” Louisell says. The team gave the inspectors tool belts and changed the sequence of tasks, which halved the walking-around time. That and other changes reduced the inspection to 70 minutes.

Another team tackled the process of loading external fuel tanks, which took five people 97 minutes. After the team reordered the sequence of tasks and assigned specific tasks to each worker, it took four people only 12 minutes. “This team caught on fire,” Louisell says. “It was like watching an Indianapolis 500 pit crew at work.”

Some participants noticed that it took 30 minutes to service one of the struts, because it was difficult to get wrenches onto it. So they designed a new tool to do the job faster.

At the end of the week the workout teams assembled these and many other changes into a seamless new process for readying the F-15s. They tried it out on the last day, as pilots prepared to fly the planes on a training mission. All the planes were ready in 12 hours, the seemingly impossible target Louisell had set.

Workers Unbound

The Action Workout unleashes the common sense and ingenuity of the people who actually perform the work — and gives them the power to make changes.

At the beginning of the Eglin workout, Louisell’s team wasn’t sure what it was getting into. “The first day, they look at you like this is another military hurry-up-and-wait exercise,” says Louisell. By the second morning, “they’re feeding on each other.”

The squadron knew that slashing F-15 deployment time got fighters to combat zones more quickly, thus increasing their effectiveness and reducing the risk of losing planes and pilots. It also cut the amount of labor it took to deploy the fighters — an important benefit for an Air Force learning to do more with less. Eglin is adopting the new process basewide; Louisell’s squadron is training others. And ACC headquarters is encouraging other bases to learn from Eglin.

Beyond saving time and money, the exercise had a lasting impact on employees, Louisell says. “Ask them what they did last year, and they’ll say, `We cut the time like you wouldn’t believe.’ That carries over into our day-to-day work in their pride and excitement.”

Now that employees know how to do a workout, Louisell encourages them to apply the method to their everyday tasks. “I tell them, `If you think you can’t do it any better, do your own mini-Action Workout.’ “

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