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Art of the Possible: 546th PMXS achieves monumental accomplishment

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The 546th Propulsion Maintenance Squadron embraced change and recently achieved a monumental accomplishment, epitomizing the "Art of the Possible."

The unit completed a task in record time and exceeded a goal that had never before been met. The group gave life to the Air Force Sustainment Center motivational phrase when it produced an F108 engine in 49 total flow days. The squadron achieved the feat by changing one of their processes.

"This is a huge accomplishment compared to history," said Chad Curl, 546th PMXS Production Support Flight chief.

The F108 has a history of being a constrained weapon system, meaning there weren't enough available spares for the mission. Over the past four or five years, the group really struggled to produce enough war-ready engines. The requirement called for 120 available engines, but it was a goal that had never been met.

In July 2012, senior leaders asked the squadron to develop a standard process to increase the production of engines and meet a recurring deadline. In this case, the goal was to send an engine to the test cell every 2.2 days and finish an engine in 55 total flow days.

"When we started this, our tact time to the test cell was all over the place from more than one engine a day to an engine every four to five days," said Tom Leinneweber, 544th Propulsion Maintenance Squadron deputy director. "And, we were averaging 106 flow days per engine."

Mr. Leinneweber said in order for the process to be effective, there had to be employee buy-in. Instead of directing orders at the workforce, the F108 engine line employees were told about the standard process development tasking and explained its importance. The squadrons then created a team to brainstorm and enact changes.

Harry Klempan, an F108 mechanic with the 546th PMXS, volunteered to be a member of the team. With fellow mechanics, first- and second-level supervisors, planners, material personnel and engineers, he was one of 14 people.

"I had good ideas and wanted to make a contribution," he said.

The team studied the cradle-to-grave approach that was customary within the shop and realized it had to change. Instead of assigning a single mechanic to care for every task on a whole engine as it came into the shop, it would be more effective to break down the engine into more manageable pieces and assign incremental tasks to particular mechanics, who would become subject matter experts in those fields. The learning time would be reduced and tasks would be completed in a matter of days.

"I have a crew of two people who only pull the quick engine connection off the whole engine; that's all they do, every two days," Mr. Leinneweber said. "So, what that's done is shorten the learning curve by giving continuous repetitions of the task. And that makes an employee's assets faster, because I don't have to have someone stand over his shoulder for six or eight months trying to teach him about a variety of tasks. The employee can have the individual task down in three to four weeks."

By dividing up the tasks, the team rearranged the process into four phases, or gates, -- disassembly, materials/kitting, assembly and test/preparation. It took eight weeks to set up initial process and the shop now runs like an assembly line.

Adam "Tiny" Davis, an F108 mechanic with the 546th PMXS on the team, said he was really impressed and surprised at how quickly the shop embraced the changes.
"Change on anyone is hard," he said.

While changing the floor plan is the biggest transformation to come from the team's suggestions, there are others that have been implemented; one of which came from Mr. Klempan.

"One of my ideas was organizing the kitting carts to make sure the hardware -- bolts and nuts -- are accounted for by being placed in their corresponding cutout holes," he said. "That way we can tell if anything is missing."
The results have paid off.

At the end of the fiscal 2012 fourth quarter the average flow days were 106, the first engine to go through the new process was completed in 92 flow days. In the first quarter of fiscal 2013, the average flow days were 84. Additionally, the squadron produced 28 of the requirement of 30 engines, a first-ever achievement. In the previous year, the squadron produced three fewer engines in the same amount of time.

In the second quarter of fiscal 2013, the unit averaged an engine every 59 days. Yet, in February, the unit produced four engines in 55 flow days or less, a 50 percent reduction since fiscal 2012. One engine was finished in 49 flow days.

Additionally, the shop reduced from three shifts to one and the amount of overtime has been reduced from upwards of 25 percent to 7 percent.

"The results are outstanding. We lowered our flow days and have more production and more focus on the constraints," said Michelle Greene, team member and a former 546th PMXS supervisor on the F108 line. "I'm very happy with the outcome."

Mr. Curl said the F108 has shown the center the possibilities that the process can do.
"The process is proven and it makes sense for everyone to do it," he said. "And it's a generic process; it's not customized for a single purpose. It can be implemented in any situation."