BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
When the mission is high and workload stressful, members of Air Force units around the world can find it difficult to take the time to make strategic planning part of daily operations, which can mean endless cycles of reacting to problems instead of managing and growing. To overcome this, the Air Reserve Personnel Center has done something different that will affect not only its own internal operations, but could also have an impact on Air Force strategic planning as a whole.
KICKSTARTING SOMETHING DIFFERENT
When incoming commander Brig. Gen. Samuel C. Mahaney – then a colonel – arrived in the fall of 2013 from the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March Air Reserve Base, California, ARPC boasted a strategic plan already outdated in the year since its inception. Due to swift and severe changes in personnel management and the structure of the center, the plan was ineffective for the road ahead.
“You should always build from what was done in the past, but the previous plans were too broad,” said Lt. Col. Bruce Winhold, ARPC process manager, “and ARPC evolved so fast that a lot of what was identified in the plan was further afield than what we had become. Changes in technology, manpower, and the Human Capital Transformation process all happened within that 2012-2013 timeframe.”
Not only was the plan less relevant to what the center had become – through major manpower restructuring programs like HCT – it wasn’t integrated into daily operations.
“When I asked about the current plan, few people in the center were familiar with it,” said Mahaney. “That, in my assessment, was not a good state of affairs.”
Mahaney spent his first three months drawing up his commander’s assessment and reviewing all the center’s strategic planning materials. To build that assessment, he interviewed directors and division chiefs to get a complete top-down understanding of the current state of the center. After finalizing the assessment and submitting it to his boss, Air Force Reserve Command commander Lt. Gen. James Jackson, Mahaney took that assessment and wrote out the rough draft of the new strategic plan, himself.
“Originally, the plan had 14 goals,” said Winhold, “which, from a management standpoint, is very difficult to implement.”
An outcome of Mahaney’s assessment interviews, those 14 goals were soon reduced to nine and contained nearly 98 objectives from identified problems. For Mahaney, though, that was only supposed to be the beginning.
“Once I identified the problems, I set out to envision the end state,” he said. “I then converted those ideal solutions to objectives, placing them within strategic goals that had been established in the old strategic plan. I then turned it over to (ARPC’s) board of directors.”
This became known as Mahaney’s “ball of,” or “lump of clay,” which he gave to the directors for their buy-in.
“Mahaney’s leadership style is … strategic direction without the how or when,’” said Winhold. “What we want to accomplish is the clay, the how and who is the molding part. He had the basic draft done, and we molded it.”
That interaction and buy-in would only be the first step in a top-down, bottom-up drive for daily integration of the strategic planning with operations.
DIVERGING FROM THE COMMON
ARPC avoided making the strategic plan just another task to complete. Integrating it into organizational culture was paramount, not only to avoid past mistakes, but to achieve an enduring impact the change was designed to create.
“Strategic planning isn’t unusual to the Air Force,” said Scott Fromm, ARPC director of staff. “The Air Force is good in (strategic planning) steps, right up to execution and reassessment.”
That’s where Air Force units often fall short, said Winhold. Implementing strategy into operations is something that, with few exceptions, many Air Force units struggle to use daily. To make it work at ARPC, center planners would have to operate differently, and it started with the commander securing his directors’ buy-in.
“They returned my original draft with significant changes,” said Mahaney. “The key, however, was that they had the opportunity to do their own assessment and analysis, which shaped the final version of the strategic plan.”
Mahaney began with a top-down approach to get the ball rolling. He wrote the assessment, drafted the strategic plan and gave it to his directors to find real shape. Unlike most planning processes, there was no initial off-site conference in which to debate the draft plan. It was made while the team was in motion, forcing those involved to work on and shape it during daily operations. All too often, unit seclusion of draft debates to off-sites has made real change difficult.
“At one of my previous units, we did off-sites every week, but no one thought about the content outside those meetings,” said Col. Sean McElhaney Pahia, ARPC vice commander. “Here, we created some ownership. We are working hard to create a battle rhythm. We do that by making every week’s staff meeting a strategy review.”
Regular review by leadership has helped solidify the strategic plan in their daily tactical planning processes. This helped prepare them for ten months of execution, review, refinement and the opportunity to begin developing tools to best assess progress.
To that end, a new way to track the progress of the plan’s objectives was created and implemented. These communications tools included performance metrics and rules governing how to execute the strategy that outlined task points of contact and responsibility. Using a “Commander’s Dashboard” of Microsoft Excel and other programs, loaded on MS SharePoint set up by communications, these POCs logged, monitored and updated task progress throughout the day, every day.
“Improving these metric tools enabled leadership to verify how effective we were at improving processes and their impact,” said Winhold. “It also provided resources in areas that were falling behind established requirements, agreements and customer expectations.”
The metric tools offer real-time review of where the center is, at any moment, in its trek toward fulfilling its strategic plan, but getting there didn’t happen overnight and required a little extra help.
With the 2014 ARPC Strategic Plan finalized, the center could move forward with working and testing it. Actions could now be evaluated against whether they supported a goal or objective in the plan. It also allowed them to test the full scope of the plan against the realities of workday activities.
“As the year went along, we recognized that the nine goal areas (of the 2014 plan) were far too expansive,” said Mahaney. “We also recognized that almost everything we did came down to only four areas.”
Those four areas are ARPC-specific problems, but the process allowed them to eventually narrow the original objectives to a more targeted focus. As the focus narrowed, determining how to meet its needs became clear.
To that end, a unique office was birthed within ARPC to perform non-traditional research and development on systems and processes impacting center operations. Temporarily staffed with members from across the center, members worked to find nontraditional solutions to long-term problems, and were instrumental in helping Winhold focus the greater strategy onto real needs from center departments.
“To avoid the common trap of focusing on tactical ‘stove pipe’ processes, it helps to have an ‘outside of daily operations’ eye on finding solutions for problems,” said Winhold. “Such a perspective can help any unit find creative solutions to old problems. They can do this by focusing on processes that add value and eliminate non-value-added activity, or ‘waste.’”
THE YEAR AND THE OFF-SITE
2014 was packed with problem-solving, including upgrading the center’s information technology infrastructure, developing non-traditional solutions for traditional problems, and employing continuous improvement tools to improve process analysis, development and implementation.
When it came time for ARPC to assess the results of the 2014 Strategic Plan, center culture had changed. From one of box-checking to a high integration of daily operations, strategic planning had become part of the center’s world. This changed how the upcoming off-site meeting was conducted, converting it from a startup to an accelerant.
With guidance from the Air Force Reserve Human Capital Management Strategy, ARPC went into the offsite prepared to move previous momentum into the next year’s plan.
“We had just spent a year guided by a strategic plan that had been a tremendous development in the history of ARPC,” said Mahaney. “In doing so, we had accomplished many of our original objectives. It was time to re-engage on such a successful concept. The original strategic plan had been a 70 percent solution; we were now coming together to get to 100 percent.”
To avoid problems of previous off-sites, which often included bickering, lack of direction and inadequate and unfocused preparation, the center prepared personnel differently.
“This is the first off-site we were working on time,” said McElhaney Pahia, who added that weekly staff meetings were used to spin up all participants on what would be discussed. That would reduce wasted energy and time at the off-site. “We should be thinking: ‘what do we want to accomplish?’ before ever getting there.”
McElhaney Pahia added that preparation is paramount when it comes to making an off-site conference as effective as possible in shaping and polishing a strategic plan.
“Do a little homework before you go into an off-site,” he said. “Some people can shoot from the hip during public debate, but others need time to think, and they may have great input. By the time they’re ready to respond, though, the room’s already moved on. Homework ensures everyone’s ready to talk when the subject arises.”
One leader, however, went into the off-site looking to avoid talking much at all.
“I entered the two-day off-site as a neutral,” said Mahaney. “My job was to help the off-site team come to consensus on goals and objectives. I didn't want to lead them to it. I wanted the team to come up with a product they would believe in, that they could call their own for years to come.”
Mahaney’s early efforts paid off. Instead of driving the evolution of the strategic plan a year after he had drafted the original, he had succeeded in moving ownership into the hands of directors and division chiefs.
“We tackled goals and objectives first,” said Mahaney. “Inherently we knew we were all striving for a similar vision – allowing any Airman to access quality personnel service delivery and human capital management from anywhere at any time. It was an interesting approach, one not recommended in the (governing) literature. It was effective because we were not creating a strategic plan from scratch, but rather assessing and revising one used and consulted regularly for about one year.”
THE CULTURE SHIFT
According to Winhold, the change in center culture had three specific impacts in operations. First was how they had employed the communications division to develop tools to accurately track plan progress. Second was a direct use of public information tools to inform center members on the plan and their part in its fulfillment, via printed summaries, snapshots, emails and strategic and operational execution workshops which always tied current actions to strategic goals. Lastly, the commander met regularly with various groups across the center to engage personally with center staff, both to gain staff buy-in, as well as promote a culture of feedback.
Along with a focus on engagement, Mahaney also emphasized that the strategic plan wasn’t a side project – it was the whole point of center operations and future growth.
“We have so many things going on,” said Mahaney, “that if certain tasks don’t fall in our main areas, we have to ask: Why are we doing them?” Mahaney added that short of direct commands from his own boss at AFRC, this would help the center eliminate unnecessary work and wasted time.
The resulting culture change has already greatly impacted center operations and people’s expectations of it.
“This is the fastest I’ve ever seen the ship turn in terms of culture changes,” said Fromm. “The biggest reason is a persistent focus from leadership on the change and bringing it down and communicating it to the lowest possible level.”
According to Winhold, the center has top-down driven strategic planning, but bottom-up execution. He said Mahaney wants everyone accountable for the plan and that it won’t work without input from the bottom. That focus on buy-in and daily engagement could serve not only ARPC, but also units at every level.
“If other units followed this model, they would see the end of stagnation,” said Winhold. “We’re trying to create a sustainable strategic plan and execution cycle. Everything is tied to that. Our number one goal is taking care of our ARPC professionals – our Airmen. If you take care of the people, they will take care of the mission.”
This process has impacted the growing evolution of ARPC, as well as the leaders who put it into action. For the director of staff, this went beyond following regulations and into creating a resilient culture focused on preserving that evolution.
“This isn’t about checking a box,” said Fromm. “This is about culture. This is about driving us into the future. This one has that buy-in at the top. If you don’t get that senior leader buy-in, it fails.
Because it’s enduring, the next senior leader comes in and can implement it with minimal changes.”
For Winhold, it has been the best job of his career in process management, one which is continuing to impact AFRC and the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph AFB, Texas, affecting many more customers than ARPC already serves.
“I’ve learned the hallmarks of a plan for success,” said Winhold. “Hire the best people or create the best training programs. Also, develop people for unprecedented results. Create the highest employee satisfaction. Lastly, your success is dependent on how well your teams are formed.”
Mahaney remained focused on the original point of a strategic plan – creating real change that would impact the unit, its members and customers.
“Don't bother with a strategic plan if you are not going to refer to it regularly and are not going to use it to guide your plans, actions, and decisions throughout your organization,” said Mahaney. “A strategic plan is an investment. By taking the time to collaborate, most of the differences of opinion are ironed out once, at the beginning of the process. This makes the organization much more cohesive moving forward. Great decisions can be made at all levels of leadership because those leaders know what the organization's goals and objectives are.”
To see ARPC's final four objectives to date, watch this video: