The U.S. Air Force is undertaking a major culture change known as Air Force Smart Operations 21, or AFSO21. The purpose is to eliminate waste and apply the resulting resources to priorities set by the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force, including modernizing and recapitalizing its force structure.

One of the important tools in the AFSO21 toolkit is the application of lean enterprise concepts.

Lean thinking is not new in Air Force Materiel Command; however, when most of us think about applying "lean" in this command, we think about the air logistics centers and their associated depot activity.

This is certainly understandable because the depots execute functions similar to commercial manufacturing firms, which is where lean concepts were first applied.

The same process of identifying value, mapping process flow and eliminating waste can be applied to the "white collar" processes that are more characteristic of what many of the personnel do at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. A good example is an effort to reduce contracting cycle time in the Global Hawk program.

By contracting cycle time, this article is referring to the time period required to convert an operational requirement into a signed contract action.

The Global Hawk team is executing an atypical acquisition model. The program transitioned from a technology demonstration directly into simultaneous development and production.

After the events of September 11, 2001, the technology demonstrator hardware was deployed in combat, which further complicated the acquisition strategy. The program was simultaneously executing acquisition phases that had historically been sequential.

The prototyping phase wasn't yet complete, and the program was already in development, production, sustainment and was deployed in combat.

One of the biggest challenges with this atypical acquisition model was an unusually large number of contracting actions that were consuming the time of program office and prime contractor staff members.

To address this challenge, the base engaged the entire government and contractor team in applying lean techniques to reduce contracting cycle time.

This initiative started in 2003 and is continuing today. The base used lean experts from the Lean Aerospace Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to facilitate the process. It started by identifying value and mapping the value stream for the contracting process.

The USAF quickly learned that it had three distinct types of contracting actions, so it divided the activity into three separate initiatives. The resulting value stream maps addressed development contract actions, production contract actions and engineering change proposals.

In a series of lean events, the resulting teams identified tasks that added no value to the three contracting processes. If all identified waste could be eliminated, the resulting cycle times could be reduced by 37 percent, 40 percent and 73 percent, respectively.

The teams next outlined actions required to eliminate the identified process waste. Some of the actions were easy to implement and were immediately adopted. Others required longer-term actions and were assigned to various individuals to work.

Most of the actions identified in 2003 have now been implemented, but the process continues. The lean journey is one of continuous improvement, and that certainly applies to the Global Hawk contracting process.

The USAF has seen tremendous results from the first application of lean concepts. The easy fixes are behind it, but the process is far from perfect, so its commitment to lean continues.

The base is now three years into this lean contracting initiative, and it has learned valuable lessons. It knows that it takes leadership commitment to invest in lean.

The people who are most busy executing the daily mission are usually the ones that the USAF needs to dedicate to a focused period of process improvement.

When embarking on a lean initiative, it needs to include all stakeholders in the process to ensure everyone takes ownership of the resulting recommendations.

When a lean event concludes and the team disperses, the site has got to hold individuals accountable for closing the actions required to eliminate non-value-added activity.

These are just a few of the base’s major lessons learned, but perhaps most importantly, it has learned and demonstrated that lean concepts apply just as readily to white-collar office processes as they do to the manufacturing floor.