Over the past three decades, I have observed varying degrees in the shift of Air Force culture.
I joined the Air Force in July 1990, one year after the end of the “Cold War.” President Ronald Reagan had just defeated the Soviet Union, and the United States was emerging as the World’s only superpower. America’s future seemed bright. During this timeframe, the Air Force looked to apply industrial manufacturing quality control standards to all aspects of Air Force life to improve efficiency.
Under Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Merrill McPeak, the buzzwords became Total Quality Management (TQM) and Quality Air Force (QAF). In order to be competitive for promotions, Airmen needed to demonstrate they were executing Quality Air Force initiatives that show improvement. Most Airmen have never heard of TQM or QAF, but a relic of this culture continues today in performance reports when we read that an Airman reduced a process by 50 percent or saved 1,000 man-hours.
Later in the 90s, Air Force interests turned to regulations, Air Force Instructions (AFIs) to be precise. Due to several legal cases, regulations were transformed into instructions, and a new statement was added to each of our governing regulations, “COMPLIANCE WITH THIS PUBLICATION IS MANDATORY.” This change marked a dramatic shift in our Air Force culture. The change removed the necessity for Airmen to use sound judgment, constrained military commanders from making decisions, and has resulted in significant impact to operational missions. In 2017, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson laid out a two-year plan for eliminating pointless Air Force instructions. She indicated that approximately 40 percent of Air Force instructions were out of date or inconsistent with other AFIs. In 2018, the Air Force revoked 226 AFIs in an effort to get rid of “queep.” However, today still more than 130,000 compliance items focus on Wing level and below.
Almost two years into Secretary Heather Wilson’s plan to eliminate pointless AFIs, I still hear Airmen across base saying, “that can’t be done,” “that’s not allowed,” or just “NO.” In some aspects, this represents good order and discipline; for example, we want crew chiefs to follow technical order guidance to ensure the aircraft are safe to fly. However, I am certain that all of us have run face first into an AFI that just does not make sense. The question becomes how do shop supervisors and commanders develop a culture of critical thinking Airmen who can see beyond the AFIs? Amazingly, every AFI has a waiver authority. Some of these are at the squadron commander level, others at the group or wing, and sometimes the waiver authority rests with the Secretary of the Air Force. When deviating from an AFI it is critical to ensure: 1) it gets done deliberately and 2) the deviation is documented at the appropriate level.
The secret to moving your organization away from a culture of “No” is developing Airmen who know the instructions, understand the “why” behind the instructions and understand their organization’s mission. I encourage frontline supervisors to help shift our Air Force from a culture of “No” to a culture of “Yes, but …” For example, the next time someone requests something from your shop that is outside of current guidance; do not respond with “no.” Instead, force yourself to respond with “yes, we could do that, but it will require: additional resources, manpower, time or authorities.” This seems simple, but the shift results in turning Airmen from blind followers of instructions into problem solvers. Over time, it will become a dramatic shift in our Air Force culture to ensure that we focus on mission over compliance.
According to Secretary Wilson, reducing and revoking AFIs is a warfighting necessity as we prepare to be ready for a high-end fight where we have to deploy and disperse forces with imperfect command and control. We must shift the Air Force compliance culture to a warfighting culture where Airmen are prepared to solve problems. The key to making this transition is ensuring we train today the way we expect to fight in the future under centralized mission direction and decentralized execution. Deliberately shifting your shop from a culture of “No” to a “Yes, but …” organization is one of the first steps in developing innovative Airmen that are prepared to resolve national challenges and defeat future adversaries.