Air National Guard and Harley-Davidson join to improve processes

Nathan Wallin, Wisconsin Air National Guard, 128th Air Refueling Wing

What happens when Harley-Davidson meets the U.S. Air Force?


a.  Supersonic motorcycles.

b.  F-16s with kickstands.

c.  A big rumble.

d.  Something completely different. 


(If you chose “d,” go to the head of the class.)
“Everything we do is a process,” said Steve Nelson of Harley-Davidson, “whether it’s building a motorcycle or reviewing an airplane to get it back in flight.” 


Click photo for screen-resolution image

AFSO 21 instructor Linda Berry leads a group discussion on the value stream mapping portion of the AFSO 21 Process at Harley-Davidson University in Milwaukee. Value stream mapping is a process where each individual step of a job is listed on a Post-It note on a wall and examined for any areas of wasted time or effort. Wisconsin Air National Guard photo by Nathan Wallin.


Nelson, who is the motorcycle company’s process lead for operational excellence, was recently engaged in “AFSO 21 Facilitator Training: Training the Trainers,” an event held in Milwaukee at Harley-Davidson University, a training and service school operated by the motorcycle manufacturer. 

For a week in early May, Harley-Davidson and Air National Guard personnel pooled their knowledge on process improvement for the benefit of both organizations.

Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century (AFSO 21) formed in 2006 to eliminate wasteful and unnecessary processes throughout the Air Force.

In November 2007, Col. Billy Asbell, director of the ANG’s AFSO 21 program, came to Milwaukee’s 128th Air Refueling Wing to help with process improvements.  

Asbell and his team found many ways to eliminate wasted time from the aircraft inspection process, resulting in a 60 percent reduction in time spent. The team also shaved significant time off the process of painting the refueling booms on KC-135 tanker aircraft.

When Asbell and his AFSO 21 team sought diversion after the duty day, Lt. Col. Craig Plain of the 128th suggested a tour of the nearby Harley-Davidson motorcycle factory. 

Plain is the director of flexible and emerging learning opportunities at Madison Area Technical College, an academic post with some relevance to process improvement. So it was essential that a group of process improvement geeks descend on the Harley plant for a tour.

Since Harley-Davidson has a process improvement program of its own under the rubric of “operational excellence,” the tour givers and the tour takers started comparing notes. 

With ideas flying, the original purpose of the visit was soon forgotten. “We never got to the tour,” Asbell said. “It went real quickly from a tour to a meeting. We talked for about three hours.”

The exchange of ideas led directly to this spring’s joint military-civilian training event at Harley-Davidson University.

Approximately 20 Air Guard members from Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Ohio, Montana, Maine, Illinois and California gathered May 5-9 to glean knowledge of process improvement from Asbell’s AFSO 21 team and the Harley-Davidson participants. 

Besides Asbell and Plain, the instructional cadre included Linda Berry, an AFSO 21 instructor on Asbell’s team.

In teaming up with the Milwaukee-based motorcycle manufacturer, the AFSO 21 team hoped to learn how non-military managers in a leading company improve the work load, work flow and productivity of their business operations; and then to apply the best of those ideas to the Air National Guard. 

Asbell estimates that 10 percent of ANG members work with process improvement in their civilian jobs.  “I want to find those people (and put them to work),” he said.

From Harley-Davidson’s point of view, the benefits of sharing knowledge with the Air National Guard were well worth the effort. “While what we do might be very different,” said Nelson, “how we do it sometimes isn’t as different as we might think. And, why we need to do it is often very similar.” 

For the Harley-Davidson personnel, it was an opportunity to learn about the new Air Force system.

The AFSO 21 method examines the processes of any office or shop and breaks them down to a long list of individual steps using value stream mapping, a procedure Asbell refers to as “mapping it out.” 

The individual steps are evaluated one-by-one to figure out exactly which ones are necessary to the job and which ones are not. The steps deemed unnecessary are promptly cut from the list. The end product is a streamlined process that leads to better productivity.

And, it doesn’t matter if your collar is blue or white — or even camouflage. Part of AFSO 21’s appeal is its “one size fits all” approach. Whatever the job, an AFSO 21 specialist can help workers examine and analyze their operating procedures, uncover the wasteful and redundant parts of the job and then create a new, more effective and time-saving way to get it done.

The Milwaukee training included military officers from specialties as diverse as finance and aircraft maintenance. “AFSO can work anywhere there’s a process,” Asbell said.

With AFSO 21, workers have direct input into improving the way things are done in their workplaces. By engaging their workers, managers see a greater enthusiasm for the project; and by going straight to their employees and asking for their suggestions, managers get a more precise and fuller picture of exactly how the job gets done in their shop. 

“It’s not a push, it’s a pull,” said Asbell. “This is an opportunity for everyone to change their environment and fix a broken process.”


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