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Lean uniforms: cutting the "waste" line.

AIR FORCE UNIFORMS are the tangible heritage that starts and chronicles an Airman's journey. Uniforms indelibly welcome newcomers into the Air Force legacy. They provide a common identity throughout an enlistment or career, and their symbolism evokes pride and emotion. At the same time, uniforms represent an individual and organizational expression. Because they literally "touch us" everywhere, any adjustments to them can become incredibly complex, often involving seemingly irreconcilable perspectives. Unlike civilian organizations or personnel, who can change clothing and subsequently their image "off the rack"--with easy access to end products from a market-driven, primarily international production process--the Air Force encounters compounding dimensions when it considers changes and improvements to its uniform.

In fact, the Air Force faces a multitude of challenges as it strives to develop and deliver new uniforms to Airmen. Any endeavor to ad just the external expression of our warrior ethos must consider image, function, and uniformity. Priorities must also reconcile desired timing with a long-neglected internal process, historically encumbered by a host of laws governing purchases of US-government uniforms. In order to navigate these restraints, stakeholders in Air Force uniforms have successfully applied the same discipline used for the development and procurement of weapon systems. This approach of "uniforms as a weapon system" fundamentally links the emotionally charged world of the Air Force uniform with the historically industrial process-improvement program called "Lean."

Lean is an especially important tool not only for the acquisition of new uniforms but also for the ongoing sustainment of existing uniforms, both aspects involving many processes and agencies. This makes the uniform-process scenario an exemplary springboard for illustrating how the Lean methodology's effectiveness aligns with nonindustrial processes. Equally vital is Lean's potential during confrontation with cross-agency protocols. Although the Air Staff and Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) are key players for the Air Force, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES)--not to mention several other critical stakeholders--are also substantially involved with uniform design, procurement, and distribution. Altogether, this diverse lineup encompasses joint, Air Staff, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force (SAF), major command (MAJCOM), field, and industrial arenas.

Background on Lean

Industry literature defines Lean as the elimination of "wastage." Within the Air Force, specifically AFMC, Lean has considerable impact, benefiting both customer and supplier. Despite this significant impact, the Lean approach, in theory, is quite simple. One sequesters personnel and gives them sufficient time to review process flows during a "rapid improvement event" (RIE), during which they identify inefficiencies and map improvements. A key element of the Lean methodology stipulates involving the right people in the RIE. Essentially, RIEs consist primarily of personnel responsible for and familiar with the specific process under review since they are uniquely invested to recommend and implement improvements. Lean RIEs have consistently proven themselves a triumphant approach to improving the way we go about our business, ultimately saving money and manpower.

Fortuitously, the Air Force established a program in early 2006 for use across all of its processes that enables the service to harness the power of Lean methodology. Air Force Smart Operations for the Twenty-first Century (AFS021), an Air Force enterprisewide initiative, guides the implementation of continuous process-improvement tools and philosophies, including Lean, throughout the service. Although it will take time for most people to fully comprehend the implications of AFS021, its designers built the initiative on a foundation of best practices as well as lessons learned. Lean constitutes one of four basic practices in use under the AFS021 umbrella, the others including Business Process Reengineering, Theory of Constraints, and Six Sigma, many of them used by other Department of Defense (DOD) agencies. For example, the Army, DLA, and AAFES use a combined Lean/Six Sigma approach. AFS021 is also part of the DOD's transformation initiative, which involves all services and agencies completing internal programs with an eye on meshing well in a joint environment.

Why Uniforms?

Beyond the obvious point that striving for more efficiency makes common sense for stewards of public resources, compelling dynamics drive the need to improve efficiency and protect Air Force capital. The five Lean principles include having customers define value (Value), mapping the process (Value Stream), making the process flow (Flow), producing goods and service on demand (Pull), and striving for perfection (Perfection) (all of them providing an overlay for enduring change as processes undergo review). Application of these principles and tools to organizational processes has yielded positive results. (1) Essentially, Lean principles apply to any process, regardless of whether it involves a maintenance function, contracting procedures, time-sensitive-targeting routines, or the acquisition of new uniforms.

As previously mentioned, the uniform process provides a good case study for illustrating the broad applications of Lean. But to fully understand where Lean begins facilitating restoration of an outdated uniform process, one must review the origins of the dilemma. For starters, the Air Force Uniform Office underwent dramatic downsizing in the early 1990s. Consequently, no overarching processes or primary point of contact existed. Many uniform-related tasks proved successful, such as functions of the Uniform Review Board, which meets annually, but the lack of a process led to wide variations in predictability, in turn causing delays to the implementation of uniform changes. Also problematic was the lack of timely updates to applicable governing publications, complicated by noncentralized communication of changes. These issues highlighted the lack of thoroughly documented roles and responsibilities.

The initial uniform-process RIE occurred at the enterprise level, establishing a full lifecycle time and process baseline for the development and fielding of a typical Air Force uniform--the Airman battle uniform. The baseline documented the current time of four and one-half years required to develop, produce, and issue a new uniform. Major subprocess identification during the baseline also provided focus for future RIEs, underscoring the cross-enterprise dynamic of the uniform process. The four subprocesses include requirements and funding (owned by Headquarters USAF/A-1--the Manpower and Personnel Directorate), development (owned by Aeronautical Systems Center), issue-item procurement (owned by the DLA), and optional-item procurement (owned by the AAFES).

Subsequently, application of Lean tools to the entire uniform cross-enterprise required scheduling a total of seven RIEs. To date, four have come to fruition: the initial enterprise RIE, requirements-and-funding RIE, issue-item-procurement RIE, and optional-item-procurement RIE. All of them attained goals set in the charter, established by participants at the onset of each RIE. The three remaining events are scheduled for completion by summer 2007. To ensure sustainment of long-term improvement, part of each RIE process establishes a timeline for future RIEs targeting the same process, allowing a second review. This guarantees setting aside a designated time to allow thorough assessment of the implementation of process change, fostering the permeation of continual process improvement into the organization.

The requirements-and-funding RIE, involving the earliest phases of the uniform process, documented a nonindustrial application of Lean tools. With all stakeholders involved, plus a facilitator at hand, participants put the primary phases of the uniform process--requirements and funding, development, procurement, and distribution--on paper (i.e., mapped them). Then they sequenced and authenticated processes within each phase, paying close attention to points that created a cross-agency interaction and/or dependence. At that point, the individuals most familiar with the specific tasks and any existing workarounds aggressively and meticulously scoured them. As suspected, numerous gaps came to light, as well as wasteful redundancies, resulting in the preparation of detailed courses of action. From this endeavor, RIE participants recognized the need for (and subsequently added) a review of communication rules of engagement. The team then synchronized the requirement-collection processes to ensure that participants ask the right questions at the right time, thus eliminating procedural delays in response time.

The requirements-and-funding RIE also revealed the need to increase the use of automation to achieve efficiencies--specifically, implementation of an e-uniform software architecture, now in development. The plan includes a user-friendly, easily accessible Web-based tool capable of hosting virtual Uniform Review Boards. This goal of improving customer input will increase the frequency with which boards meet and will reduce travel requirements for their members. Also, boards will consider suggestions quarterly rather than annually. Hence, Lean tools not only improve processes but also increase personnel buy4n and customer involvement.

In addition to improving process documentation, interagency communication, and automation, Lean improved bottom-line numbers. As a result of the requirements-and-funding RIE, Headquarters USAF/A-1 cut nearly 80 percent of the time spent on its uniform-requirements processing and review cycle, eliminating 528 of 663 days. During the issue-item-procurement RIE, the team removed 26 percent of the cycle time--77 of the 294 days currently required by the DLA to establish Air Force uniform contracts. The long-term, cumulative goal of these improvements calls for reducing the uniform-enterprise process-time requirement from a problematic four and one-half years to a diligent, responsive target of just over one year, assuring that the approximately 530,000 Airmen in the Total Force have the right uniforms when they need them.

A subsequent government/industry RIE, aimed at reducing production and delivery time, has been set for early 2007. The seventh RIE will return to the initial enterprise-level review, enabling examination of the integration of previous RIE sequencing and process improvements.

Lean Application beyond Uniforms

This recent experience in applying process-improvement tools in a cross-agency, enterprisewide process has yielded significant, encouraging observations.

A Seat at the Table for Everyone

Interagency improvement works, so we should strive to "widen the net"! The uniform commitment from stakeholders up and down the chain of command led to visibility across the entire uniform-enterprise spectrum. As a practical example, this prompted a number of improvement discussions among joint, MAJCOM, external, field, and Headquarters USAF senior leaders to focus the improvement effort. Additionally, it established the Uniform Enterprise Working Group, comprised of representatives from each associated agency, which convenes weekly to maintain dialogue and troubleshoot any disconnects before problems become overwhelming. This is continuous process improvement in action.

Cradle-to-Grave Approach

Using an enterprise process leads to "knowing what you don't know." For this particular process-improvement effort, we rapidly discovered that we had not previously captured the end-to-end process. This had profound implications, as we identified cross-agency-process disconnects, duplications, and waste that optimized one part of the process at the expense of another. Simply put, we didn't really have a "complete" uniform process. As a result of this enterprise perspective, the development of a uniform-requirement document process has finally captured what information we need, where we can obtain it, and when we need it.

Multidimensional Application

We need not always execute improvement events sequentially. In fact, we can engage several aspects of Lean concurrently. Doing so expedites the overall review process and identifies problem areas that will affect processes earlier. Horizontal application of the uniform Lean effort with involvement from AFMC as well as the Air Staff, DLA, and AAFES was accompanied by vertical campaigns that drilled down into AFMC-specific areas (Air Force Clothing Office [AFCO]) and those within the Air Staff (A-1's relationship with A-4 [logistics] and Financial Management [FM]). By approaching the uniform process in this multidimensional manner, we garnered benefits such as clarifying the AFCO's relationship with SAF/FM.


Lean is a paramount component of an extensive process-improvement net being widely cast across the Air Force. The overall objective seeks to cultivate throughout the service a deliberate conviction regarding the perpetual identification of processes--or in some cases, the absence of processes--for improvement. We can continuously--or at least regularly--scrutinize, streamline, reshape, develop, or even eliminate processes or process interaction for the ultimate purpose of improving efficiency. Evolving from its industrial genesis, Lean has become more than a force multiplier; potentially, it is a bellwether for an organizational mind-set.

Obviously, the cornerstone to true success of any kind remains the Air Force's personnel--the process owners and subject-matter experts. But tools are vital. If Michelangelo had had no paint, brushes, or canvas, he would have remained brilliant--but bereft of art. We need the imperative linkage of both talent and tools. When applied by the right talent, Lean works in virtually any organization or with any mission. More than ever, AFS021 and MAJCOM initiatives compel commanders to empower personnel to infuse the benefits of Lean into their organizations--whatever the mission.


(1.) James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 16, 19, 21, 24, 25.

Lt Gen Terry L. Gabreski, USAF Maj Gen Loren M. Reno, USAF Brig Gen Robert R. Allardice, USAF
COPYRIGHT 2007 U.S. Air Force
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Senior Leader Perspectives
Author:Gabreski, Terry L.; Reno, Loren M.; Allardice, Robert R.
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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