Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement – or – Design Like a Fighter Pilot, Part 1

As the smoke cleared from the initial campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it became clear that the mission and role of the U.S. Armed Forces was undergoing a radical shift.  An army that had been largely in garrison for the better part of three decades now found itself thrust into a new long term expeditionary role.  The Air Force had been expeditionary in nature since the end of Desert Storm, with units continuously deployed in the region enforcing Iraqi no-fly zones as part of Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch but was now faced with the challenge of supporting a long-term ground presence.   To complicate matters, the tools and equipment that were so carefully designed and stockpiled to wage large scale war were largely ineffective in close quarters urban combat and practically useless in counter-insurgency operations.  Essentially, the military had to simultaneously develop new tactics, procedures, equipment  – and a deployment system – while engaged in combat; not an enviable task.

The twenty-four month predictability of the Air Expeditionary Force system was essentially scrapped and three month deployments grew first to six months, and in many cases twelve months.  Ground forces began twelve month rotations and entered the now all too familiar one year on, one year off rotation in and out of the two theaters.  At the F-22 F-35 fighter jetsPentagon, the budgetary stresses of fighting two wars led to tough decisions between operations and procurement programs.  With funding increasingly focused on equipping ground forces, the Air Force was forced to make difficult decisions between current operations and force modernization.  After much deliberation, policy was developed that reduced the overall size of the force in favor of a more robust unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fleet, F-22 fighters and further development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  In 2006 and 2007, the Air Force cut 40,000 personnel from its rosters.


For those of us left, this meant a scramble to fill the gaps and “do more with less”.  Realizing that the overall force would need to be more efficient, Air Force leadership launched the AFSO 21 (Air Force Smart Operations in the 21st Century) program.  Based largely on Lean methodology, we studied James Womack and Daniel Jones’ Lean Thinkingand set about incorporating Lean practices into our organization.  At Columbus Air Force Base, we were fortunate to have a great advocate for Lean thinking in our Wing Commander, Col Dave Gerber.  Col Gerber tirelessly championed implementation of Lean methodology and helped us plan and hold a week long Value Stream Lean Thinking pilotsMapping exercise.  In preparation for the event,  Lt Col Jeffrey Snell, 14th Operations Group Deputy Operations Group Commander, and I attended a seminar held by the Lean Enterprise Institute.  On the flight home, Lt Col Snell – a fellow T-38 instructor pilot and prior A-10 “Hawg Driver”- and I reflected on how we were already familiar with and practiced many of the basic principles of Lean Thinking in our day to day operations as professional military pilots.


The culture of military aviation is, by necessity, a culture of continuous improvement.  Each mission begins with planning which identifies goals, objectives, threats and opportunities.  Pre-mission briefings describe a plan of action and discussion contingencies in detail.  During the flight, the pilot must constantly adjust to the situation as it unfolds and make split second decisions – always with the goals and objectives in mind.  Following the flight, the pilots gather for an extensive debrief to discuss the mission from planning through execution expressly to identify lessons learned for future improvement.

First 2007 RF-A exercise ends on positive note

What does all of this have to do with architecture, right?  I would argue that it has everything to do with architecture.  As a profession, we have certainly faced our own “reduction in force” during the last few years.  We are faced with a similar situation, doing more with less, and also looking for any opportunity to add value to our processes, and mainly to our clients.  Over the next several weeks, I will discuss the parallels between the habit of the fighter pilot and the habit of the architect, and suggest a few “tactics” to establish a culture of continuous improvement in your practice and add value to your clients.  Check back next week for the second installment – Planning for Effective Action.

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