A Reflective Testimonial by Markus Murdy

About the author: Markus Murdy is a participant in IDB’s AIR-P Cohort 5. He is sharing reflections from his participation in the the residency 2 benchmarking tour. Mr. Murdy is an Aerospace Engineer currently working at NAVAIR.

IDB’s Griswold Adventure – A Life-changing Experience

The innovative element of the Institute for Defense and Business’s Aviation Industrial Readiness Program (AIR-P) is the fusion between private industry, ‘post collegiate’ university education, and an invested government industrial base. Following on Residency One in “Blue Heaven”, as they say, Residency Two kicked off exploring commercial and organic industrial sites in the Florida Georgia region. First up, a visit to Northrop Grumman in St. Augustine for an industry benchmarking tour.

IDB AIR-P Benchmarking Tour 2023

The novel piece at St. Augustine was that their expertise in making brand new, 1960 design era airplanes in a manufacturing environment designed around flexibility and capacity. It was insightful to see what you can build in a clean-sheet space. I appreciated the tremendous efforts they go to for community outreach and growing their workforce from an early age. They have recognized their workforce of tomorrow already exists within their county. They are not afraid to reach out and “get these students smart on the skills and tools NGC needs”. Workforce development was a recurring hurdle and NGC appears to be a clock cycle in front of its industry partners. We also visited Boeing Global Service’s Cecil Field (BCF) components shop. Cecil Field is no stranger to military aviation, serving as a key North Florida airport since World War II. Some of the components in BCF WIP might have flown on operational aircraft during the NAS Cecil field days. A few items that stuck out from the BCF visit were the challenges they deal with in a commercial rework of components with wide ranging damage conditions setting to government contracted cost and schedule expectations and staffing difficulties. Particularly in light of recent defenses news that Boeing Defense, Space, and Security exited the Survivable Airborne Operation Center a.k.a. the E-4B, recapitalization effort because of fixed firm price contracting constraint and tech data rights, cost and tech data expectations are a wide-ranging issue.

After two industry benchmarking visits, new manufacture and component rework, we headed to the Navy’s heavy depot on the East Coast, Fleet Readiness Center-Southeast (FRCSE) for a rapid Kaizen event. This was the first ‘rubber meets the road’ opportunity for the AIR-P Cohort that has been working through NC State Extension’s Lean Six Sigma for Executive Champions course over the past few months. FRCSE identified two different component process improvement projects, one with the actual aircraft stakeholder onsite and one that ships back to the supply system. After a brief facility tour, the AIR-P teams dived into interviews with the artisans and shop supervisors while performing a gemba walk to actually go see first-person the process flow. The Lean waste of Transportation quickly became apparent in the team’s step count. Another hallmark of AIR-P is the wonderful dining IDB lines up. They work hard to keep our focus on problem solving the nation’s organic industrial base challenges instead of where to find food tonight. That night we convened at Iguana on Park, a local Mexican eatery, where the industry benchmarking exposure to new manufacture, and commercial rework combined with the ‘on the ground’ opportunities and challenges that we saw at FRC Southeast simmered over wonderful conversation with our cohort members. These dinner (and lunchtime) shared meals are a great way to enjoy and learn more about the unique and diverse organizational perspectives brought by the group from many of the levels of the organization.

The next day it was lights-camera-action time. Following up on our gemba walks and interviews, it was time to put ideas on paper. I appreciated the specific choice to eschew fancy computer presentations, filled with login issues, formatting problems, and things of that nature, to focus on the actual content. Pens and sticky notes were the flavor of the day. We spent most of the morning distilling Kaizen bursts into specific improvement opportunities then prioritizing what we thought would be the least invasive and best return options with the help of NCSE’s Lean/Six Sigma champions that came down for the event. Applying classroom risk-benefit charts to the nuances of the real world made for some good brainwork. Next, we set about preparing presentations to FRCSE executive leadership, thinking through what matters to them, how to connect the dots to their goals, and doing the calculus on what we thought the first and 2nd derivative questions might be. Some questions we could answer. Some questions we identified where likely answers might be, but we were limited in our time on target so were unable to verify. The afternoon brought the actual stage time. We were joined by Executive Officer Windom and Civilian Executive Director Pfannenstein to brief what we saw and our recommendations moving forward. They were excellent listeners, posed thoughtful questions, tested the bounds of our contributions, and seemed to value our input. I look forward to following up with FRCSE in the coming months to see what process improvement suggestions were implemented, the results, and how the command responds to feedback. Understanding the downstream results of the process improvements, what worked, what didn’t work and why, offers a unique opportunity to think strategically about problems that we tend to interact with tactically.

Wrapping up in Florida, it was time to head north. Our magic carpet (coach bus) for the week stopped off at 306 North in Valdosta, where we, while missing our Marine Corps and Airborne brethren, took over the restaurant in the most polite way possible on Wednesday evening. We spent the next morning with the leadership from Marine Depot Maintenance Command in Albany, Georgia to learn about their challenges, and some of the unique breakthroughs they’ve made. The Marines have made some rapid decisions as they look to the future fight, sometimes divesting of platforms that had a hot rework line in Albany. The government is not known for efficiency in warehousing. We have all seen that scene from Indiana Jones, some of us may have even tried to find parts in that warehouse. The MDM command leadership has put a finer point on physical digital transformation than other areas I’ve seen in DOD. They have moved from presentations to parts in flow, taking warehousing problems that previously took tens of people and reducing that to single digit numbers of people. It is important to note the project’s focus was on employee optimization, not with an eye on job reduction, but on retaining hard to get workforce and putting those smart people in jobs that actually need their intellect while letting the scanners, computers, and conveyors handling the mundane. The examples of DLA relationship building and novel technology implementation to solve kitting problems is something we will be enjoying the fruits of for years to come. Walking their version of the MRO line, no wings but bigger wheels, they’re working through many of the same challenges NAVAIR faces, in some cases with even less tech data. Here again, their digital transformation/digital engineering has actual usage. They were using RFID tracking, inside the fence, and camera motion studies to identify and build out both kit part asset, tracking, and the technical repair information for the national tactical assets they repair. We had a great visit in Albany. It is fascinating to see what the Marines come up with when given a hard mission and severed from the traditional bureaucratic limitations.

There is “air” in the title of this course so we had to do something related to airplanes that day. We finished with a visit to the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, another of the nation’s cornerstone organic industrial base sites. We enjoyed a tour of their C-5 rework line and heard a similar refrain of the challenges with MRO on aging platforms, in this case bigger than others. We also saw some of the component work they’re doing. I was impressed by the openness and earnestness that they brought to the discussion of propeller blades and hub rework, a topic of unfortunate mishap reports in recent years. This organization leaned into what was a tragic event and took the opportunity to transform their manufacturing capability. We saw numerous examples of robots and other digital inspection assistance on dull, dangerous, or dirty work where the human is better utilized outside the cage. We collectively have work to do in bridging new manufacturing technologies with airworthiness approvals. Funding and Pentagon visibility for new technology hardware is wonderful. Tight coordination with platform management authorities should be given the same visibility to move our Basic Designs into the 21st Century. Wrapping up the day, we visited their electronic components maintenance and learned more about the usefulness of close asset tracking in gate analysis to demonstrate bottlenecks, breakthroughs and barriers to organizational production plans for more tech data starved MRO postures. The organic industrial base sites that we saw in Georgia are working hard on tough problems and doing an excellent job. One more magic carpet ride up to Atlanta. A notable thing with the transportation on this trip, it is quite a thing to not spend brain bytes on managing the logistics of a trip like this. It frees the mind to move into and stay in the strategic thinking frame of reference that is so hard to shift into in our jobs where we are tactically trying to perform to ‘the plan’.

For the finale of East Coast/Residency Two, we visited the Promised Land of western hemisphere MRO, Delta Tech Ops in Atlanta. This organization works on big airplanes, with big engines, with big goals. Noteworthy is how their business practices, particularly in accounting, drive what components makes sense to work, where, and when. This is a key difference from the discrete bureaucratic hurdles faced by government depots. We have heard quite a bit in the last couple years about applying industry best practices to our organizations, sometimes without a coda recognizing how commercial aviation and military missions are different. Delta Tech Ops is a useful industry benchmarking tour because the MRO innovations forced by their airline schedule and public company financial position have motivated optimizations beyond the government organic industrial base’s posture. The lessons the organic industrial base can learn from Delta TechOps are many when viewed through the lenses of our different mission sets. There is a strong focus, from the engine facilities, to the component back shops, to the aircraft in the hangar on how the piece in front of the artisans contributes to the organization’s mission. They are not bashful about investing in technology or infrastructure that reduces touch labor time or in some other way improves the process. Delta Tech Ops in the enviable position to have options in outsourcing slightly less profitable component business lines.

For many of the organic industrial base component lines, that is not an option. There is a usefulness in evaluating our value propositions differently. What is readiness worth? Considered differently, what is the opportunity cost of readiness? How should that factor into our decision-making and continued support of aging aircraft lines where organic engineering can solve the challenges brought on by decades of corrosion, field use, and segregated platform modifications. Every organization has some “red”, deliverables that are behind schedule, quality targets below goals, and similar undesirable benchmarks.  Large organizations tend to have clay layers, enough executive intent doesn’t quite penetrate down to the action point and good ideas from that repair desk/test stand/shop can’t quite make it up to champions. As this was a southern tour, we’ll call them red clay layers. High functioning organizations recognize this undesirable economic factor of scale and spend time and treasure to combat it. When is the last time you asked the person working on your part (not his supervisor or division leader) what he or she needs? The wellspring of fresh water already exists within our organizations.

It is quite something to see and understand a bit more of the challenges in a facility where raw stock comes in one door and an airplane rolls out the other door, whether new or newly airworthy again. I deeply appreciate the openness of each of the organizations we visited in sharing their opportunities and hurdles to mission accomplishment. I think these benchmarking tours, conducted in a cohort style, are useful as the individual participants of the group lend their background and perspectives in the questions they ask to expanding the collective group’s overall experience. I anticipate with great joy continuing aperture expanding events and learning more from people who have devoted their professional lives to solving hard problems as a part of IDB’s AIR-P.

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