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Efficiency in all we do

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Today we're facing the challenge of sustaining operations under resource constraints many of us have never seen, and all indicators tell us it's going to get worse before it gets better.

The environment now, and likely for many years to come, either drives us to find more efficient ways to get the job done or forces us to make tough choices as to which jobs won't get done. I perceive this to be a wake-up call, perhaps even a culture shock for an Air Force that has always encouraged efficiency and sometimes rewarded it, but in my opinion has never given efficiency the full emphasis it deserves.

Maybe this apparent lack of emphasis stems from a sort of complacency that has developed over the years, when, flush with resources, we were all conditioned by our environment to accept the notion that being efficient and getting the mission done are mutually exclusive endeavors. Or maybe it's because we in the profession of arms generally find it distasteful to compare ourselves to or take cues from big business, whose sole concern is the bottom line and whose survival depends, to a significant degree, on efficiency.

That we answer to a "higher calling" shouldn't cause us to ignore important lessons from profit-driven organizations. Similar to any large corporation, the Air Force is at least concerned with remaining relevant and competitive. This is true in the most tangible sense when it comes to engaging our country's adversaries in combat, but it also applies to the less violent, but equally real battles waged in the halls of the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill which shape the services' budgets and identities. In whatever arena the Air Force intends to compete, the stakes are such that we can't afford anymore to leave the concept of efficiency out of the equation or relegated to a tertiary concern or afterthought -- it should be integrated up front into everything we do. If we can agree with the above assertion, then the next logical question is "how do we get there?"

As with any military initiative, it starts with emphasis from leadership. Short of making it a new core value, commanders could at least start emphasizing efficiency like they do safety and equal opportunity, cementing it squarely in the minds of our Airmen and civilian employees. As far as making some practical changes, some low-hanging fruit might include reducing the number of government purchase cards, consolidating file plans and combining additional duties to reduce overhead. Careful scrutiny of purchase decisions, with emphasis on finding low-or no-cost alternatives is another way. Actually "walking the walk" can be tougher, though. For instance, how many of us would be willing to give back an end-of-year surplus versus finding a way to spend it within our unit? Our culture encourages us to spend all we've got, even if it's for less-than-essential things lest we lose it next year. But if I can operate my unit at a lower cost and the Air Force trims my budget accordingly, isn't that a good thing?

Next, I think we should put a renewed emphasis on management and growing managers. We emphasize leadership a lot, and leaders are essential, but in my opinion we need more people out there managing, really managing, with rigor and attention to detail. Managers need to know their processes and the details of their domain cold. More thought needs to be put into documenting processes to ensure repeatability and employing appropriate controls and measurements to gauge effectiveness. If a process isn't captured in an Air Force instruction or local operating instruction, then we rely on ad hoc folklore instead of sound management and have little hope of making improvements.
Finally, I think we need to shed what I call our "e-mail culture."

Over a six-month period, I received more than 3,200 e-mails, about 18 per day and sent about 770. Sure, as a commander I realize I should expect to receive more e-mails than the average user, but I estimate only one percent of those messages actually contributed to mission accomplishment. Everyone knows we rely on e-mail too much for too many things including workflow, task management, staff work and situational awareness.

More troubling, though, is our organizational behavior has in many ways evolved to mirror e-mail itself, taking on its worst characteristics: bosses forward tasks to subordinates for action without considering priority, workload or whether they should even be doing the task; time-critical tasks are sent via e-mail with the implicit assumption that recipients are waiting to act immediately when the message pops up; action officers, suffering from first-in-first-out attention deficit disorder, abandon critical thinking and well-researched staff work for the sake of providing expedient e-mail replies; people send information up and down the chain without applying analysis or added value; e-mail fosters a fire-and-forget, hot-potato mentality that causes people to psychologically transfer accountability to others and accept excessive delays while waiting for a reply; the list goes on.

The best thing we can do as leaders and managers is to recognize these pitfalls and teach our Airmen to avoid them. Air Combat Command recently published a policy for e-mail usage that's a great start, but leaders and managers may find it helpful to add their own refinements. Communicating priorities can help our people focus on the important things. Attentive management of tasks can avert wasted effort. Finally, Airmen should be coached to limit their time spent in e-mail, and to devote more time outside their inbox performing their duties, managing and thinking critically -- and perhaps finding those efficiencies we're looking for.