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Quality problem solving means not buying the solution

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Josh Levine
  • 6th Maintenance Squadron maintenance flight commander
Most people have heard the story of NASA, the Soviet Union and their quest for a writing utensil which could be used in space. Any version of the story has the basic premise that NASA spent a great deal of time and millions of dollars trying to develop a pen that would work in zero gravity, while the Soviets simply used a pencil. Although the story is purely myth, the lesson is still valid. We often set our sights on a particular solution to our problems because it's new and high-tech, while a simple and cheap solution is sitting right in front of us. Today, the Air Force is undergoing some incredible Air Force Smart Operations 21 efforts, but as we search for the next process, tool, or facility that can be improved, we need to be careful and not ignore the proverbial pencils. If we start to solve a problem, but already have the pen in mind, it becomes a crutch and the process is tainted. The newest devices also often come with unforeseen downfalls. Software glitches, system updates, and intricate hardware problems can all require expensive repairs and upgrades that weren't in the original cost analysis. That price only goes up with time as the device becomes obsolete and not supported by the original manufacturer. Of course these costs can be avoided with a warranty, but if you want that to be ironclad, be prepared to pay. A couple of years ago, the 6th Maintenance Squadron here at MacDill made just that mistake. Maintenance Flight was looking to solve a tool accountability problem and sought the high-tech solution. After purchasing the product for just under $100,000, the problems began. The necessary infrastructure, i.e. power cord drops, was never properly researched, and starting from scratch set implementation back quite a bit. After that came the various software and hardware problems, setting back use of the new devices even further. After about a year of waiting, the boxes were thought to be ready to go. By now, however, even minor problems became catastrophic as the original service plan had expired. During all these delays, the Maintenance Flight needed interim procedures to fix the tool accountability problem. It was decided that instead of entire teams having access to area tool boxes, individual team leads would be responsible for their area boxes, and all tools removed or replaced would be controlled by them. Interestingly enough, while everyone was worried about the new electronic boxes, tool accountability problems became almost nonexistent. The process was altered as a temporary fix, but when the fix worked, it became permanent. It didn't require a single dollar, but it remains in place while the boxes themselves have been deactivated, used as standard roll-around boxes. All this is not to say that high-tech solutions should be ignored, but our use of them must be due to a need, not a want, and more often than not the problem can be solved by means much simpler and cheaper. Simpler and cheaper is the key. It should be noted that just because the solution you've arrived at isn't high-tech, it still may not be the simplest or cheapest. Another example from the same maintenance flight revealed that a low-tech solution, which seemed great, didn't turn out to be the right one. A few years ago the flight purchased large tail stands for the dock. They could be pushed in for inspection, allowing access to the entire tail of the jet without any moving equipment. As the flight learned quickly, however, pushing them in wasn't very easy. The stands are large, heavy, and cumbersome, and stopping them is just as difficult as starting them, no matter the number of people. There were a few instances the stands hitting elevators, which comes with an extremely high price tag in terms of repairs, manpower, and aircraft availability. The flight quickly got to work trying to solve the problem and eliminate all errors during stand movement. The first proposal was pretty popular at first. A very simple concept, it involved a set of tracks placed on the hangar floor to guide the stands in. This would rely on the jet being parked perfectly, which wouldn't be too difficult, and would require tracks to be installed on the hangar floor, which wasn't all that expensive. But, although the flume ride always ends up at the right location by following its track, this wasn't the simplest or cheapest solution. The track solution vastly underestimated our Airmen. We didn't need to make it nearly impossible for them to deviate from the safe path, we just had to illuminate it. The agreed upon solution ended up coming at the cost of a few rolls of tape. Starting points for each wheel of the stands were marked with squares on the floor. Lines of tape were stretched to another square, which marked the final location of that wheel. As long as the jet was parked properly, they pushed the stand along these lines, and they blew their whistle when the stand deviated, the stands wouldn't strike. Local procedures were written outlining the team process for stand installation, and since they were implemented over a year ago, not a single tail stand struck a flight control surface. The solution was some quality problem solving and a little bit of 6S. The lesson is stick to your problem solving process, go through the process independent of any technologies or "quick fixes" that may help your solution, and trust your results. If the idea you had in mind is the right solution, you'll end up with it anyway. You might, on the other hand, end up with another solution. It may be changes to policy, processes, or both. These can be more cumbersome to put in place , but the benefits of that short term work will show in the long term, when you aren't spending money maintaining a system that your entire process now relies on. NASA, by the way, did end up going with the high-tech solution. They started out using pencils, but the costs outweighed the benefits. Pencils are extremely flammable in a pure oxygen environment, and broken lead tips floating around weren't very compatible with the sensitive equipment on board. The pens eventually used were developed at no cost to NASA by a private company, and sold in bulk for $2.39 each. The two customers purchasing in bulk were of course NASA, and ironically, the Soviet Union.