| A while back, I was working
on a team to reengineer the Air Force's logistics process
for all the reparable items in the inventory, everything
from engines to oxygen regulators to electronic circuit
cards. After doing some analysis, some experimenting,
and some prototyping, we were ready to implement our changes.
In simple English, we were trying to put a process in
place where, like Wal-Mart, every customer purchase provides
the tug that causes a replacement to be shipped overnight
from the warehouse to fill the hole on the shelf before
the store opens the next morning. Then, in response to
the hole that's just been created in the warehouse, the
depot either buys or repairs a unit and quickly ships
it to the warehouse.
this "Wal-Mart solution" we were sure we could make
the whole system respond quickly to the needs of
the war-fighters using the items.
By implementing this "Wal-Mart solution" we were sure
we could make the whole system respond quickly to the
needs of the warfighters using the items. Although most
people understand this process today, at the time it was
My team and I started by explaining all the flaws in the
current procedures and processes, and what we needed everyone
to do differently to address these problems. We laid it
all out in neat, logical presentations and traveled the
globe to make sure everyone got the message. But still,
the masses soldiered on, continuing to behave in the same
At that time, the entire system was based on forecasted
demands. Once a year, the item managers, who were responsible
for ensuring that depot repairs satisfied demands, met
with the war-fighters' staff at a workload conference
to predict what would be needed the following year. Armed
with last year's data and an enormous set of computerized
forecasting algorithms, they agreed on what would be repaired
during the upcoming year. The item managers then met with
the depot repair shop chiefs, who were required to keep
all their people and machines gainfully employed, and
negotiated a workload plan. Things had been done this
way for the last forty years.
Everyone recognized there were problems with the process.
Actual demand always turned out significantly different
than what was forecasted, leaving the war-fighters with
things they didn't need and holes they couldn't fill.
Assuming that a more accurate forecast was the only way
to improve the situation, every year smart people got
busy building a better forecast. Yet, after spending millions
of dollars year after year to incorporate more data and
increase the complexity of the computer algorithms, the
This was the state of affairs when we arrived with our
proposed changes. After months of explaining, and wrestling
with the item managers to change their process, I was
feeling extremely frustrated because it seemed that despite
our best efforts, we weren't getting anywhere at all.
If anything, we were going backwards.
That's when I went to visit Chief Steve Haskin. Steve
was sharp, full of energy, and above all, practical. He
had 26 years of Air Force experience, grew up in Texas
in the heart of cattle country, and I could always count
on him to provide me with sage advice.
As I explained my concerns and frustrations, Steve interrupted
me and said, "Sir, the first thing you have to do is get
the cows on their feet."
I'll never forget that comment. It floored me. I just
stared at him with what must have been an amusing expression
because Steve laughed out loud before explaining: "When
you're herding cattle, the first thing you have to do
is get them up off the ground and moving. Then you can
worry about heading them around in the direction you want
we had to find a way for them to see it themselves -- we
had to get them on their feet.
"I think we need to do the same thing," he continued.
"We need to get these people off their feet and moving.
They've been lying here doing the same thing for the last
It was a clarifying moment. We had been trying to explain
logically what changes needed to be made and why. Now,
with Steve's help, I realized we had to find a way for
them to see it themselves -- we had to get them on their
feet. What was needed was some sort of prod; whether it
herded them into the right pasture was irrelevant, but
we needed a prod that would get them up on their feet.
As luck would have it, just that morning we had demonstrated
a new computer system that would let all the item managers
and the repair shops see exactly what "holes" existed
at each war-fighter base location. I grabbed a few key
members of my team, and after making an animated, emotional
appeal, got the general's permission to provide this information
to all the repair shops, and tell them they could only
repair something if it appeared on this list.
It worked! Predictably, the item managers went ballistic.
For them, success had meant delivering what they had promised
the war-fighters at the workload conference, but now the
repair shops wouldn't be paying attention to the negotiated
quantities. All that mattered was the list of the war-fighters'
"holes." The shop chiefs weren't happy, either. In their
world efficiency was king. Success depended on efficiently
using all the shops' budgeted hours, but how could you
efficiently plan the work when you were given a new "to
do" list each day?
There were many questions, and we addressed them all as
we met with both the item managers and the shop chiefs.
Eventually we worked out a compromise where the shops
repaired only what was indicated on the "holes" list each
day, but the requirements were prioritized each day by
usage-predicting software algorithms. It wasn't the perfect
solution, but it was an excellent short-term win. Everyone
from the war-fighter staff to the shop workers quickly
saw the benefit of letting actual customer demand drive
the repair process.
In a few short months, we stopped repairing equipment
no one wanted, and focused on what was actually needed.
In the next year we eliminated $798M of inventory and
reduced delivery time to the war-fighters by more than
a third. But more importantly, this first step got everyone
on their feet and moving. Without that, we would never
have been successful in rounding everyone up, coordinating
their efforts, and moving the Air Force's logistics system
in this new direction.
- There comes a point where you have to stop talking
about what you're going to do and just give it a try.
Results will change beliefs much faster than words
or briefing charts.
- Most people won't willingly jump into something
they don't understand, don't see a need for, or aren't
confident they can excel in -- you have to give them
Is it time to stop talking and take action on your idea?
Search by lesson to find more on:
A professor of program management and leadership
at the Defense Acquisition University (DAU), Major
Norman Patnode believes that stories accelerate
learning in areas such as leadership, risk management,
and teamwork. Recently, Patnode put his theory to
the test when he introduced the concept of learning
through story to fellow DAU staff. With support
from the Academy
of Program and Project Leadership (APPL),
Patnode organized a Knowledge Sharing Workshop in
December 2003 modeled on similar programs run by
APPL at NASA centers.
The workshop was a big success. Patnode reports:
"We had nearly thirty folks participate, and their
comments were all positive. Many shared with the
group how they planned to start using stories both
in their classrooms and in their group facilitation
Patnode's respect for story has another APPL model,
as well -- the semi-annual Forum
of Master Project Managers. "I gained a
tremendous amount when I was invited to the Masters
Forum," explains Patnode. "While I was there, I
learned much from the wonderful stories that were
shared so openly. Since then, as I've reflected
on those stories and how I can apply them to what
I do, I continue to find new insights. It seems
that each time I reach up and pull one of those
stories back out of my memory, a bunch of other
related stories come tumbling down as well, so I
end up reflecting not only on the original story,
but a web of interrelated stories. That's the beauty
of it -- learning from stories is multi-layered
and never ends."