How the Air Force Embraced "Partial Quality" (and Avoiding Similar Mistakes in New Endeavors)

Article excerpt

We're also starting a whole new movement called "partial quality. " We think it'll have a much larger following.

-David Langford

Fourth Annual National Governors' Conference on Quality in Education, April 1995

SECRETARY OF THE Air Force Michael Wynne's first letter to the force set out several goals, two of which started the service on a new journey toward "Best in Class" excellence in business practices and "Lean Processes."1 Expanding these topics in his second letter, he called for "constant examination of our processes in order to recognize better ways of accomplishing the mission," specifically by applying "LEAN concepts beyond the depots and maintenance operations into the flightline and the office."2 In March 2006, the secretary released an expanded letter to Airmen with more details on this initiative, which had become known as Air Force Smart Operations 21 (AFSO21): "a dedicated effort to maximize value and minimize waste in our operations." In its emphasis on looking "at each process from beginning to end," not just "how we can do each task better, but. . . why [we are] doing it this way" (emphasis in original), and in its promise to "march unnecessary work out the door-forever," AFSO21 appeared reminiscent of other management revolutions many of us had been through before. The proclamation that "the continuous process improvements of AFSO 21 will be the new culture of our Air Force" could just as easily have been made for the era of Total Quality Management (TQM).3

Apparently an Air Force-specific packaging of industrial practice, similar to the Quality Air Force (QAF) program that repackaged TQM, AFSO21 even boasts its own Web site ( and a dedicated Pentagon program office.4 We might imagine that TQM (or QAF) would have had its own Air Force Web site had the Internet been as developed then as it is now. Because innovations such as Web-based applications and training are commonplace today and because TQM originated when desktop computers were rare, it is easy to think of TQM as the product of a bygone era. But not everyone has forgotten TQM. As one retiring chief master sergeant recently put it, "I've been zero defected, total quality managed, micromanaged, one-minute managed, synergized, had my paradigms shifted, had my paradigms broken, and been told to decrease my habits to seven."5 During the 1980s and 1990s, the Air Force empowered, qualitycircled, and off-sited its Airmen; opened quality-related offices and institutions; and poised itself for a great leap out of the McNamara-inspired past (i.e., away from the Management by Objectives program touted by secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in the 1960s).

From the perspective of the large number of changes in management philosophy Airmen have weathered, AFSO21 seems like TQM or QAF redux, so it behooves us to recall the lessons of our last foray into this battle. Today the remnants of continuous improvement are not what Airmen hoped they would be. Advocates unreasonably applied reasonable ideas, to the point that they were eventually laughed out of professional military education courses (which themselves inexplicably became "developmental education," a phrase having more redundancy than precision). Airmen now snigger at anything that remotely resembles continuous improvement, rolling their eyes and declaring that it "sounds like another quality thing." Furthermore, "lean," "Six Sigma" (another concept borrowed from industry), and AFSO21 all sound very similar to what we heard in the days of TQM.6

We might think of the failure of TQM to permeate the Air Force as a battle lost or a battle won, depending on which side we took. The shame of the service's failure to adopt quality-improvement practices the first time around, however, is not that Airmen nurtured an unworkable or unworthy idea, but that they induced its birth prematurely and left it to die. If we're not careful, we may repeat our mistakes with new ideas-even if they are worthwhile. …