Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Part 3 of QA, Mr. Touchy Feely goes "TQM"

parts 1, and 2

When the Air Force put all of its eggs into the TQM basket in 1991 most QA shops simply stopped doing any more inspections. Happily, the Logistic Group commander at Little Rock did not instruct us to stop, even though it sort of went against what the rest of the Air Force C-130 world was doing. In fact, as far as I know, we were the only QA shop not to lose manpower at the inception of the Air Force's reckless dive into the shallow pool called Total Quality Management.

WE continued to inspect, but with a radically different mindset than before. Previously, we had a schedule of inspection tasks basically designed to police our maintenance force, to keep them on their toes through intimidation.

Then, after TQM became the watchword, we inspected NOT to maintain compliance, but to gather data points. Instead of inspecting we “measured.” In keeping with the hottest “quality” tenants at the time, our new job was to identify our organizational processes and THEN work on improving them.

Continuous improvement,” another famous TQM phrase, meant that nothing was EVER good enough; but the only way to actually know if improvement was at hand was to measure the products resulting from our processes. “Products” meaning those items and services provided to our “customers” like “mission capable airplanes” for instance, and all the logistics that went into making those planes mission capable. Oh, and “customers” were defined as those availing of our data products, such as pilots, aircrew and maintenance personnel, and especially decision makers at all levels. Anyone making use of our measurement products were our customers.

Part of what all this meant is that I got me a new title, two to be exact. In the Air Force, everyone has one or more of them. It’s a requirement if only to be able to fill the “duty title” block on enlisted and officer performance reports, and by the way, having a good duty title is almost as crucial as the rating—the “fancier” the title the better chance at picking up the next higher rank. Previously, I had been a lowly inspector; now, I was a “quality manager” as well as an “avionics advisor.”

I still think getting rid of all those “keep ‘em on their toes” inspections was a bad idea, but honestly, my job in the nouveau quality shop was amazingly gratifying. Now, making workers feel uneasy by my very presence was no longer in play. In my new persona I was there to help make things work better, and I took on that assignment with total seriousness.

Our “big” headquarters boss, called Air Mobility Command, or AMC, was located “up the road” in Illinois at Scott AFB. AMC went right along with our commander’s decision to allow QA to continue inspecting, probably because of Little Rock’s unique position in the command—in several ways we were like no other C-130 base anywhere in the world.

For one thing, we were the “school house” for anyone in the world who flies the C-130, including many foreign air forces. Of our wing’s four flying squadrons, I'm not sure anymore but I believe two were devoted entirely to the purpose of training new pilots, navigators, loadmasters and flight engineers.

(Keep in mind that almost everything I describe here organizationally has now changed and changed again--THAT is the United States Air Force!)

Another LRAFB distinction was the sheer number of C-130s on our flight line. All together, including the Air Guard squadron, there were 5 squadrons of those big planes with as many as 16 to 18 “birds” per squadron. Imagine 90 gigantic Hercules lined up 4 deep. On days when most of the planes were at home it made for quite an impressive display.

With all those C-130s in one place, HQ AMC used to reach out and “use” Little Rock quite a bit for various “projects,” and when there were projects you would ALWAYS find QA people involved in their coordination, if not in their outright management. I loved it, because being in QA, I was constantly right in the middle of “the action.”

An additional significant uniqueness at Little Rock was the CFT or contract field team. The CFT at LRAFB set up shop there in the late 80s, and might still be there now for all I know. A division of Lockheed Martin provided our CFT. Their job was to modify C-130s with various upgrades, all most all of them involving electrical and avionics modifications.
What made our CFT different from others in the AF was the unusually long time it stayed in continuous operation there--at least 10 years. It became institutionalized and was considered an asset to the wing because of the knowledge stored in all those "old heads" working there. I was considered an avionics "expert" by the wing, but I knew the real corporate knowldege was over there at the contract field team and I never hesitated to consult with them.

One of my “hats” in dealing with the CFT was QAR, or Quality Assurance Representative. Yep, another title, and one of my most favorite. As QAR, I kept an eye on virtually everything the field team did. For instance, I signed off on all the man-hours they expended, especially those designated as “over time.” But primarily, my job as QAR was to accept C-130s back into the USAF after they had been upgraded.

When an aircraft goes “under the knife” with a contract field team it goes into what’s called depot status. By going “into depot,” even though it never actually left the base, the plane no longer is counted on operational rolls. That’s important to the owning wing since they jealously measure the downtime of all their birds, and downtime is not good time.

I did more than simply sign the acceptance documents. I had a pager and I could expect to be called in to sign off “areas” about to be paneled up at any time between 6 am and 11 pm. I didn’t have to do that, but I insisted on it. As part of the mod plan—which was another rather extensive document that I signed off on—I inspected every “disturbed” area on the C-130 in work before it was “closed up” by the team. That’s because once some of those panels went on, many with as many as several score screws, no eyes might see that area again for years.

In other words, I never “bought” anything back for the Air Force unless I first saw, touched and felt every wire bundle, connector, tie-strap, splice, terminal, lacing, and clamp! That’s why they called me Mr. Touchy Feely.
Just as important was my fetish that all wire harnesses be separated and routed correctly so as never to fail due to chafing or exposure to heat sources. I could go on for paragraphs on all the ways an installation can fail. My guys installed so as NEVER to fail.

I wasn’t exactly unique in the way I did my job as QAR. Eventually, I met nearly every other Air Force C-130 QAR scattered at bases throughout the world. Almost all of them did their jobs exactly as I did, although not all of them insisted on inspecting every single area.

An interesting sidebar to all this is how I ended up getting a “free” trip to Ogden, Utah. I went there at the request of an air force colonel whom we immediately nicknamed “Colonel Burly Man.” Now that was an interesting trip. I think I'll write more about it and that burly colonel in part 4…

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