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Paper airplane exercise reveals power of AFSO21 tools

Tinker Lean Institute instructor Michael Kukhta, first row center, poses with the Green Belt training class that shattered the paper airplane exercise record.  Both eight-person teams broke the previous record of 65, totaling 76 and 69 respectively.(Courtesy photo)

Tinker Lean Institute instructor Michael Kukhta, first row center, poses with the Green Belt training class that shattered the paper airplane exercise record. Both eight-person teams broke the previous record of 65, totaling 76 and 69 respectively.(Courtesy photo)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla., -- It was hard for me to imagine how eight adults building paper airplanes could do much to enhance Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century efforts here at Tinker, but I was in for a huge surprise.

For the past few months I have been part of a Lean Institute at Tinker Air Force Base Green Belt training class (NOTE: In FY09 the Lean Institute at Tinker AFB Green Belt training changed to AFSO21 Level 1 training.) . To be honest, I have struggled to see how all of this Six Sigma, SCOR and Lean stuff could really be applied in staff operations such as public affairs. Admittedly, I was more than a little overwhelmed by all of the process improvement tools and terms being tossed at me.

I'm a word person. Most of us are either people who relate well to words or numbers. Numbers people soak this up like a buttermilk biscuit in a bowl of red-eye gravy; word people ... not so much.

We were in the "improve phase" of the class training. This is where after we have identified and defined a problem; collected, measured and analyzed as much information as possible; we work on ways to make it better.

Our University of Oklahoma "black belt" instructor, Michael Kukhta, divided the class into two, eight-person teams. We were given very strict guidelines on how to construct each airplane. These guidelines included the specific location of work stations, technical specifications for each step of the process and what work could be done by each team member. The airplane had to be moved by a specified handler from one work station to the next.

The mission was to "successfully" deliver as many airplanes as possible in six minutes. We delivered 12.

The next round we were allowed to make just one change. Instead of each station working on six airplanes at a time as we had on the first run, we went to single-piece flow. Each station received one airplane at a time so you could only work as fast as the flow before or after you allowed.

As with the first run, my job was the materiel handler. I still had to take every airplane to each station in the process, but now it was one at a time instead of six. I think I lost 10 pounds in six minutes, but we made 25. Single piece flow was a killer on the handler but clearly more efficient than the "batch and queue" process.

On the third run, we were allowed to make significant process changes on our own. We still had to follow the technical order -- each airplane had to be folded to the exact same specifications and had to be inspected and accepted by the customer to the same standards.

One of the team members designed a jig which allowed us to make the most difficult wing folds faster and crisper. Others contributed to improvements in what work was done at each station and on how the materiel was moved. We combined tasks and established two process lines with the same eight people.

Six minutes later we had made 63 airplanes, just two short of Kukhta's all-time exercise record of 65.

A couple additional process tweaks and the team raced to a record shattering 76 airplanes. The other team also broke the old record, making 69 airplanes. So what did this prove; other than we got really good at making paper airplanes? A lot!

Remember we didn't change the product. We didn't change the technical specifications. We didn't change any of the actual work which had to be done on each airplane. We just eliminated waste!

Given the opportunity to look at the way we made the airplanes and remove those things which we could control we were able to improve production from 12 airplanes in six minutes to 76.

If we could do that with paper airplanes, imagine what a little waste reduction might do for any of our Tinker programs.

This simple exercise opened my eyes to the potential AFSO21 tools can unleash in our everyday operations. 

This stuff really works!