Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Part 2 of "QA, A Touchy Feely Experience"

A clear demarcation exists between the tasks I did in QA before and those after the 7 months I spent away in the 1st Gulf War. My first year as an inspector had been devoted to assessing standards and keeping the avionics technicians honest with plenty of inspections. (read part 1 for more on those experiences.) I had been the bogeyman, the maintenance cop, the guy to watch out for.

Once the war ended however, and I returned to my old home in the Quality Assurance shop, I was shocked at how much had changed. As far as many of the other inspectors were concerned—me included—a terrible wind had roared through Little Rock AFB and had swept away much of what HAD previously made maintenance so effective there.

Two transformations had taken place, both of which had a huge impact on me as a QA inspector.

First, there was no longer a wing DCM. The Deputy Commander for Maintenance, usually a full bird colonel, and usually a pilot but sometimes not, was the “maintenance king.” He “owned” all the planes in the wing and was responsible for their upkeep. We in QA were his “people,” his eyes and ears, and kept him informed on all the doings “out there,” on the flightline and in the shops.

The DCM “went away” under a new-fangled organizational concept called decentralized maintenance. Under that new “foolish” brainchild the planes were distributed out to 4 new Aircraft Generation Squadrons. Each squadron commander of those AGS’s then became responsible for HIS planes. So, there was no more DCM to control ALL the 80 or so C‑130s, and believe me, maintenance suffered horribly because of it--and I'll tell you why I think so as this continues.

The second sweeping change that "enveloped" the entire Air Force during my absence had an even bigger impact on us QA guys than even the onset of decentralization. It was called TQM, which stands for Total Quality Management.

When TQM was first explained to me I recoiled in horror that anyone would be silly enough to try to implement such an idiotic thing for aircraft maintainers. The basic concept of TQM, at least as far as it was interpreted for use on Air Force flightlines, was that quality inspectors were no longer required, and THAT was all I had to hear to know that some moron had finally become the boss of the United States Air Force!

The rationale for the demise of inspections (and inspectors) was simple—under the principles of “total quality,” ALL members of the wing were going to have a new “quality oriented” mindset—with proper training and indoctrination of course—and would no longer require any oversight, because magically it seems, they would take responsibility for always doing the right thing, for doing it absolutely correct and by the book.

So, in 1990 and 1991, during a phase-in time of just over 6 months, the Air Force had made two very major cultural and organizational changes, and from what I could see as an inspector, doing so was a huge error on several levels.

For one thing, a major misjudgment was that "they" hurriedly put into effect TWO incredibly earthshaking institutional revolutions at THE SAME TIME! Now, I understand that there are times when its best to just actuate quickly instead of gradually, but this was not one of those times. It was simply too much too fast.

In one crucial way the quick changes destroyed the very fabric of what makes a unit good at what it does--the level of experience available to it. By decentralizing, virtually overnight, they practically wiped out almost every bit of corporate knowledge among the specialist trades. Where there HAD been a shop all filled with people with THE SAME specialty credentials, now, these troops (and their experience and varying backgrounds) was spread out between four different squadrons.

The idea behind this "misguided" action was that these specialists were “under-utilized” and “spoiled” and so could now be “cross-utilized” for OTHER “more important” "general" tasks, such as towing, refueling, tire changing, and panel pulling. Those had all been jobs strictly done by APGs, or the general mechanics, most of which had the view that ALL specialists were lazy, while all the “real work” was done by the APGs. (By now you might be picking up on the undercurrent of resentment that many APGs had for specialists, especially for avionics specialists!)

Unfortunately, the APGs under the newly decentralized schema were now running the maintenance show and “the abuse,” I mean the "cross-utilization" of the specialists began in earnest. Specialist training suffered horribly; usually, there was no one supervising the young apprentices anymore, at least not anyone with much experience on their systems. Before, there has been a specialist shift leader, a specialist shop chief, and a branch chief, all of whom took particular care to make sure THEIR new people were trained, and trained well. Compared to that, the new system was nothing less than a training fiasco.

Before, when the specialists were centralized in shops, there were always on-call a large population of experienced men and women from which to call upon for the tougher system malfunctions. Suddenly, these people were scattered to the wind and were no longer available for advice, guidance and training.

Now, instead of a 3-level having the advantage of being exposed in training to several 5 and 7-levels, once assigned to an AGS they usually trained under a single 5-level who had also been trained similarly. After a year of that nonsense the damage was done. What the heck were "they" thinking!

And speaking of training, previous to the formation of AGS’s, there had been almost 80 aircraft upon which to train at LRAFB. With so many airplanes it had been relatively easy for a supervisor to find the infrequent jobs for apprentice technicians to train and learn on. Suddenly, not only were there fewer experienced trainers, now there were less than 20 aircraft to use for that training. The result is that a new troop might NEVER get a chance to see and learn many of the infrequently seen tasks and malfunctions. Now THAT wasn't very smart, was it?

All together, I can’t imagine anyone coming up with a more efficient way to destroy the abilities of what had been a very fine set of avionics experience. I can't speak for all the other specialists, like the electricians, and the hydraulic and engine troops, but for me, it was a sad thing to see, especially considering how amazing the specialists had just performed during the 1990-91 war.

This new situation—the dispersing of planes and specialists—really began to limit the abilities of the newly qualified troops. It sickened me to watch it because once the core set of veteran technicians began to either leave or get promoted off the flightline, their lost expertise was virtually impossible to regenerate.

Luckily for me, and luckily for the 314th TAW, the decision was made NOT to disband the QA shop and therefore my life in “quality” continued, albeit in a metamorphosed state. As it turned out, it was one of the best periods of my life in the Air Force. I’ll get into exactly why in part 3 of QA, A Touch Feely Experience.


Ed said...

I can sympathize with both sides. I've seen when "management" makes a decision without really knowing what they are making or the ramifications and I've also seen laymen on the floor who have been doing things the same way for so long, they begin to truly believe that it is the only way. When you are in the middle of either of those scenarios, it is never pleasant.

PhilippinesPhil said...

You definitely hit the nail on the head concerning the part about management ignoring ramifications. That's exactly what they did. You don't just screw around with a crucial set of systems like that without at least trying it out first on a small time basis. Do it first in a single wing or even a squadron, let it run for a year, and then gather the lessons learned and implement them BEFORE going full bore. As I said, "Morons!"

Kevin said...

Follow the money. After the fall of the USSR, I remember lots of talk about the "peace dividend". The isolationist/touchy-feely/build schools not bombs crowd jumped at the chance to cut the defense budget. This seems like a manifestation of the attitude of the time.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Yup, you're right Kev. A lot of this malarkey was done with the mistaken notion that they were going to save money by figuring out ways to become more "efficient." In fact we used to laugh about being forced "to do more with less." The first Bush/Cheney gang started it and Clinton and crew kept right on with it. It was a hell of a thing.

Kevin said...

Yep. This happens in all walks of civilian life as well. Every year we do a "budget-dance" in healthcare. The VP's, CEO,COO,and CFO all answer to the board of directors.

It is always assumed by the top that there is budget-fat to be trimmed, and as managers, we are always expected to find ways to do more with less. It's my job as a manager to push back on my director in the cases where I know that cutting money will be detrimental to a program and subesquent revenue. Some managers are afraid to do that, fearing for their jobs, or whatever. I could care less about that. I was looking for a job when I found this one.

Sounds like something similar happened in that case. Somebody had some great idea, developed some stats to back themselves up, got it implemented and then probably retired before they were ever held accountable for the results.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Absolutely! The Air Force is known for reinventing the wheel that had been reinvented the exact same way when the last 4-star, or the 4-star before that one, or before that one, decided to "make his mark." Believe me, its ALWAYS some general determined that HE has all the answers that foists these ridiculous programs on the hapless Air Force. According to one of my buds still on active duty its happening even as we speak!

Kevin said...

Having a change in commanders is sometimes the worst thing ever. Without fail, they invariable arrive to find the operation in a shambles, then almost like majic, a year or so later (in time for their next OER)everything is the height of efficiency. The troops get really f$$%^%g tired of that s&^t.

Anonymous said...

I was caught up in the same stupidity, only mine was on different aircraft-- the F-4, which was, even at its best, a maintenance person's worst nightmare. As a senior Avionics technician, I suddenly found myself assigned as a flight chief with 24 aircraft and 43 crew-chiefs (apg types). I was horrified to learn that I would be signing off "exceptional realeases", which meant that my signature would guarantee that an aircraft was safe to fly! Without one day of training! Avionics specialists were no longer working from a central shop, they were randomly dispersed around the flight line. The planes, nautually, deteriorated into piles of unflyable junk. A few years later I was assigned to General Dynamics corporation as an Air Force acceptance team member, where I met assorted Generals, Senators, and Corporate Executives, and by listening and learning, I realized that the destruction of fundamental maintenance concepts was not an accident-- it was concieved and planned so as to destroy the current front=line aircraft and to obtain funding for the F16 and F22. Well, thats a little strong, but thats the conclusion I reached at the time. In retrospect, wether or not it was planned, the outcome would have been the same...

PhilippinesPhil said...

I know what you mean about F-4s. That was my first Air Force aircraft and I detested it. A lot of guys speak glowingly of it, but not me. That thing was dangerous to work on and it had been poorly managed over the years as far as the way they upgraded it. Darn thing had hundreds of pounds of unused wiring on it!

What year did they decentralize you guys? My impression is that these things happened cyclically depending on what new general took over, most of whom seem to be know it alls. (As in: Can't tell 'em anything, coz they already know!)

I'm not convinced they purposely destroyed common sense policy to make the planes less flightworthy. I believe it was more about pilots trying to make maintenance policy without listening to maintenance people, or to the WRONG people. No one ever asks specialists, the red-headed stepchildren of the AF, its always the APGs they go to.