Exceptional Release Presents: Innovation in Sustainment By Mr. Jeff Slayton
Business Processes Represent the Largest Opportunity for Innovation
When you hear the word “innovation,” what comes to mind? Additive manufacturing, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and robotic process automation are frequent mentions, and all represent excellent innovative technologies with significant potential. However, the idea of innovation isn’t limited to these technologies. Innovation is a way of thinking, and the real challenge and opportunity we face are innovating our business processes such that it is easier for process doers to access the right answer in sustainment. Decision cycle speed is the big deal.
For years, we’ve focused on enabling and refining administrative methods almost exclusively in a business process sense, and more than two decades of low-end conflict have not yielded this focus invalid. Our bureaucratic bias defaults to sustaining the old because it is institutionally easier than developing a continual upgrade approach. Our new reality is characterized by smaller fleets and leaner, interlaced supply chains woven into a global economy populated with near-peer competitors where small perturbations can have disproportionate impacts. Assumptions of supply availability require adjustment around a new model in which the supply chain required to sustain our weapon systems must be viewed as a weapon system in and of itself, for without it, we cannot sustain the fight. This system – or machine – starts at the foundry and continues to the fight, and the health of a weapon system is only as healthy as our ability to sustain it.
An Example – New expectations
Anyone planning to sustain an electronic subsystem or component in its base configuration for 30 years should be drawn and quartered publicly – figuratively.
– Col Fictitious Fairytale
The global supply chain and the pace of technological change, present the primary drivers for changing fundamental expectations in how we sustain systems – particularly those comprised of commercially developed technologies.
Everything starts with the demand signal and the business processes creating it. Industry responds to where we place the cash. If we keep asking to maintain the old, they will make old (or we’ll lament them publicly for not doing so, then spend exponentially higher sums to figure out how to redesign it). As the Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages (DMSMS) Resolution Average Cost chart (figure 1) illustrates, the cost of mitigating DMSMS increases over time, further eroding our ability to recapitalize to meet emerging threats. Compounding this cost is the lost time component between upgrade decisions.
Figure 1: Derived from “Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages – Cost Metrics”; Defense Standardization Program Office; February 2015.
Alternative sustainment models have been studied, and at least one found “a strategy designed to upgrade and replace electronic avionic components (versus sustaining the original design) can improve lifecycle reliability and can result in significant annual and total lifecycle sustainment cost saving.”
So, why don’t we continually upgrade as part of normal sustainment? There are, after all, existing authorities within the planning, programming, budgeting and execution process for this type of life cycle sustainment planning. Aside from situations where the laws of physics limit alternatives, I offer the issue has less to do with the absence of authorities and more to do with how said authorities are utilized. More simply, today’s business process to get to the right answer is administratively challenging and slower than the pace of change. Let’s walk the process and find out.
First, the environment is characterized by different organizations involved in sustainment, which presents ambient challenges (and no, I’m not suggesting a reorg). Then, assuming leaders have driven organizational alignment, discussion on planned upgrades invites immediate – and sometimes ill-informed – debates about whether the adjustment makes changes to the subsystem or component’s Form Fit or Function (aka, “F3” or “F-cubed”).
This decision point is critical (some may characterize it as a significant emotional event) because the decision informs two paths with diverse administrative and fiscal implications. If no change to F3, nothing changes in terms of administrative steps, and life goes on in the same sustainment funding (e.g., Working Capital Fund) stream while only slowly appreciating the costs of managing DMSMS. If it is determined the change affects F3, an investment funding path must be utilized to affect the change. This involves considerably different planning and programming processes, different input and decision cycles, different acquisition panels, and multiple reviews up different chains of command (cue the Benny Hill music). Beyond the administrative challenge, modifications for sustainment then have to compete with capability modifications for limited investment funding. Ultimately, this whole process can take several years and may not be successful – all the while, DMSMS risk continues to compound. Real or perceived, the F3 decision, and its associated administrative and fiscal ramifications, represent a barrier to enabling continual upgrades for sustainment. In other words, administratively (day to day), it’s simpler to sustain the old design.
A Starting Point
Change the demand signal. (For the Air Force) The 448 Supply Chain Management Wing, via Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), made a positive, fundamental change to the Improved Item Replacement Program (IIRP). In 2019, AFMC adjusted the scope of IIRP to include improvements of items in the face of obsolescence and safety of flight challenges. More importantly, this reduces the nature of the constraint around the F3 decision and leverages sustainment funds to field improved items as part of the overarching sustainment strategy. The process is by no means perfect, but it’s a significant policy step towards recognizing the need to introduce improved items within sustainment planning and funding streams.
Continue to Adapt
Taking this concept further – institutionalize a policy similar to IIRP as the norm. Approaching programming changes is not without precedent. Both the 2008 and 2013 National Defense Authorization Acts provided the authority to use the Working Capital Fund for product improvements., Ultimately, a broader definition of sustainment (including continual upgrades) utilizing fewer ‘colors’ of money could enable faster decision and execution cycles by virtue of a more fluid funding stream.
Putting the “how” to affect the change aside, consider the effect. Imagine the organizational culture and industrial base impacts of proliferating thousands of iterative demand signals – across subsystems and components – over time across our sustainment footprint. This is innovation at scale, and over time, industry will respond to the demand signal keeping funds flowing to relative, iterative research and development industrial base activity.
This is just one example. Business processes proliferate our landscape. And regardless of policy changes, any discussion on adjustments should start with the following narrative – the existing ruleset was established by good people who were provided objectives by good leaders in a different environment. That environment has changed, and adaptation of the business processes which enable time-relevant decisions should be considered a mission essential task. Ultimately, a weapon system is an amalgamation of the materiel and processes placing it there.
It’s not enough to harp on a technology, inundate people with math, or repeatedly state a point. Innovation is not an additional duty. Following Air Force Sustainment Center’s Art of the Possible tenets, we can (and do!) manage the decision cycle critical path just as we would a production critical path to enable our process doers with fewer constraints in achieving the right answer. Our people are smart, driven, and capable, and if provided with the right goals, processes, and resources, we can achieve unimaginable results. In most forms of competition, the side adapting faster will win. Today, we spend a lot of time and money in yesterday’s business processes sustaining the old. The real innovation challenge: making the right (strategically relevant) answer the path of least tactical, administrative resistance by innovating business processes.
About the Author
Mr. Jeff Slayton is the Director of Special Programs, Strategy, and Policy for the 448th Supply Chain Management Wing, within the Air Force Sustainment Center, Air Force Materiel Command.
 “Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages – Cost Metrics”; Defense Standardization Program Office; February 2015
 Underwood, Kenneth, Major, USAF, “Minimizing the Risks of Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages: Evaluating Electronic Avionics Lifecycle Sustainment Strategies”; Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT-ILS-ENS-11-10); May 2011