Why continuous process improvement?

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Nearly 20 years ago, I was honored to be the 5th Medical Group’s Airman of the Quarter, chosen to represent my group before the wing awards board.  With my freshly lint-brushed uniform, a new haircut, and a head full of current events and knowledge of Air Force history, I reported to the panel, nervous but confident.  After nailing the first two questions, I thought I had it in the bag when the chief at the end of the table dropped the question, “Airman Wheeler, why ‘Quality Air Force?’”

I drew a complete blank and to the best of my blurry recollection, stammered something about my airman 1st class fall-back response, “Attention to detail.”  Needless to say, I didn’t win.

In the years since, I’ve watched the Air Force implement Quality Air Force (and heard old-timer’s stories of its predecessor Total Quality Management), transitioning through Performance Management to Air Force Smart Operations, or AFSO 21, into our latest initiative, Continuous Process Improvement.  All of these programs have been built upon the programs before them, and as I’ve watched the evolution, I’ve had many opportunities to reflect, “This is obviously something the Air Force takes seriously and places great value upon, but why?”

You will hear people say that the reason for CPI is that we need to maximize efficiency in these times of increasing requirements and decreasing resources.  That answer is 100 percent true – CPI is an invaluable toolset in our mission accomplishment in these times of doing more with less.  I would add, however, that I feel that this is not the whole answer to the question of “Why CPI?”

Another aspect of CPI that sometimes gets overlooked is something more basic – the usefulness of the CPI mindset in helping us to uphold one of our Core Values – Excellence in All We Do.  When you think about it, the goals of CPI are the underpinnings of this core value; in striving for excellence, we should continuously be improving the things we do.  Even if we were not in a resource-constrained environment, we wouldn’t want to be content with the status-quo.  Even though we’re the finest Air Force the world has ever seen, we can’t say “We’re no. 1, so we can ease up and relax.”  Instead, we need to always try to make what’s good, better. 

This doesn’t just apply to the traditionally defined processes, either; you can apply CPI concepts to almost everything we do, even our daily lives.  Not all benefits of CPI have to result from a formal event. Become trained/familiar with CPI, and then think about how you could use some of those tools to become “excellent” at something like getting the kids off to school in the morning, or getting yourself to the gym. Don’t look at CPI as just another program; instead, challenge yourself to develop a CPI mindset, to enable us to truly aim for excellence in all we do.