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Continuous Process Improvement at the 125th Fighter Wing

What do Motorola, Toyota and the U.S. Air Force have in common? The answer is Continuous Process Improvement -- Known by different terms in different industries, CPI is the ongoing effort to reduce unnecessary effort while also reducing errors. Basically, CPI aims to take the shortest path to the best results.
While the Air Force as a whole has taken steps to become more efficient, the 125th Fighter Wing has stepped forward and embraced the concept with the goal of making CPI second nature.
"Our vision for CPI is to make a cultural change where people naturally implement and use CPI tools in their work areas," said Lt. Col. Robert Wetzel, director of 125FW Continuous Process Improvement.
Previously, Wetzel likened CPI to a morning routine. Airmen wake, shower, dress and drive to work. Each individual finds the best order to do these activities and the quickest route to drive while avoiding traffic congestion. CPI tools help Airmen do the same thing at work, finding the best order of operations and the quickest route to a goal.
The 125FW adopted the idea in the summer of 2009, and leadership created a strategic plan published in January 2010. In June, the plan was updated and republished. The strategic plan outlines the goals, objectives and metrics of the 125FW. Metrics are a way of measuring and tracking progress; they essentially turn qualitative change into quantitative values. To monitor progress and make updates, leadership implemented a semi-annual redraft schedule.
Following the plan, trained CPI facilitators observe a working group, determine if goals are being met, and find ways to improve any inefficiency, Wetzel said. However, changes made are not to entire processes but rather to segments or specific steps within processes where issues occur. For example, Airmen not turning in Fitness Screening Questionnaires may not be due to Airmen's laziness but due to the forms sitting on someone's desk, unfiled.
"This allows for a more predictable and sustainable change," Wetzel said. "System-wide changes are disruptive and expensive."
Despite its short-lived presence, CPI has dramatically shifted how issues are dealt with, Wetzel said. There are currently 22 trained facilitators working on 14 different projects in the 125FW alone.
Facilitators are Airmen who attend academic training and earn certification through on-the-job training. Green Belts attend only one week of academics and work on smaller issues, such as shop-specific problems; Black Belts attend four weeks of training and work on more complex, cross-functional issues that impact large groups or multiple departments.
All Airmen are eligible to attend training, and volunteers from various career fields are encouraged to do so. Often time's facilitators from career fields outside the target group are assigned to projects. This offers fresh eyes and an objective view of the issue at hand. For example, a maintenance Airman may be assigned to help the medical group with a challenge.
Objective eyes also help see possible improvements to existing standards. Wetzel quoted Henry Ford saying, "If you think of standardization as the best that you know today, but which is to be improved tomorrow, you get somewhere." This is another lynchpin of CPI.
"People hide behind their standards," Wetzel said. "Yes, it's good to have standards, but you have to be willing to adjust your standards and establish a new standard of excellence."
As facilitators assess process improvement they document and report the team's findings to sponsors. Sponsors have both the desire and authority to implement changes to the process. In the 125FW this role if often filled by, among others, Col. Bob Branyon and Col. Jim Eifert, the commander and vice commander, respectively. The sponsors remain engaged throughout the improvement project and ultimately approve any changes.
This creates a feedback loop that allows leadership the opportunity to communicate goals and assess progress toward and completion of those goals. This helps reduce what Wetzel called "tampering," which is changing things based on hunches. By observing the facts, management can base decisions on evidence leading to a more stable and successful process over time, Wetzel said.
Although the strategic plan projects a short five years down the road, that's just the beginning, Wetzel said. He said CPI's mission will be complete when it's so engrained facilitators won't be necessary, and it's part of our culture.
"The goal is to not need a process improvement office in the future, per se," Wetzel said, "but to have it become just the way we do business."