Exceptional Release Presents
Leadership and the Art of the Possible
An Exceptional Release “Perspectives” Interview with: Lt Gen (Ret) Bruce A. Litchfield
“Strategy, like politics, is said to be the art of the possible: but surely what is possible is determined not merely by numerical strengths, doctrine, intelligence, arms and tactics, but, in the first place, by the hardest facts of all: those concerning requirements, supplies available and expected, organization and administration, transportation and arteries of communication…”
–Dr. Martin Van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton
Lt Gen (Ret) Bruce A. Litchfield, sometimes known within the USAF as “The Architect of AoP,” the Art of the Possible leadership model, is the vice president of Sustainment Operations for Lockheed Martin’s Aeronautics business. He served 34 years in the US Air Force, retiring after commanding the Air Force Sustainment Center. The Exceptional Release recently had the privilege of discussing his thoughts on leadership and the AoP leadership model during this interview.
Exceptional Release: Your 34-year Air Force career spanned logistics, acquisitions, and maintenance assignments, but you started your military career as an Electronic Warfare Engineer and then Program Manager after completing a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. How do you think your early experiences in engineering and program management shaped your perspective and approach to leadership as your career progressed?
Lt Gen (Ret) Bruce A. Litchfield: My career was shaped by my first two assignments at Warner Robins Air Logistics Center (now called Air Logistics Complex), followed by an assignment in the Operations Directorate at Strategic Air Command. Those assignments provided a rich perspective into operational requirements, flightline needs, wholesale and retail logistics, fleet management, and Air Force decision making at all levels and across boundaries. I was given responsibilities well above my rank early in my career, encouraged to be aggressive, allowed to find the boundaries that enabled responsibility with authority, driven to make things happen, and learn from mistakes. I gained respect for our civil service workforce at the start of my career. I also learned some valuable lessons through the “school of hard knocks.” Everyone has an important job, and they deserve respect regardless of rank or position, being responsive to field needs, decisive actions coupled with prudent risk-taking, the value of senior non-commissioned officer mentoring, and personal conviction. I also learned that senior leaders were depending on me to know my job, provide solutions, and deliver on mission needs.
ER: What was one of your most memorable learned lessons from that time? Any stories?
Litchfield: As my assignment at Warner Robins was closing, I was recruited by a Major for Headquarters Strategic Air Command. As an engineer, that was not the preferred career path, nor was it supported by my assignment officer. I was told engineers would not survive a SAC assignment. I understood the arguments but decided to take on the SAC challenge and contribute to the high priority mission. I felt that was the best fit for my skills and passion to make a difference. Shortly after arriving in Omaha, I was in the 2-Star Director of Operations office defending a position paper I put forward to change paths on a system capability to advance our operational advantage. In that meeting, I was sitting across from the General who had operational control of nuclear forces…and he looked at me and said “Captain, would you bet your ##??? (sic) you are right?” After thinking of a million answers in a fraction of a second…I looked him in the eye and said, “Yes Sir.” The 2-star then grabbed my shoulder, and we walked to CINCSAC’s office, where he told the 4-star to listen to what I had to say. In that 30-minute period, I had a chance to make a significant change to our warfighting capability. It was a powerful lesson that drove my entire career and reinforced my passion for supporting the operational mission.
ER: Was there a career field during your military career that you identified with the most? I noticed from photos that you did not wear an occupational badge, why was that?
Litchfield: While not a career field, the position I aggressively sought was commander, which was the position that is most unique to military life. You can be a pilot, program manager, engineer, etc. as a civilian, but being the 24/7 leader of a unit responsible for mission and people (including families), morale and welfare, discipline, along with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, only comes with the title of commander. I had the privilege of carrying the flag six times from a 400-person squadron to a 35,000-member center. Every day, I felt I could make a difference in that role. It’s what I miss most about hanging up my uniform. I was thankful that my last duty day was as a commander.
Not wearing an occupational badge was a personal choice because I did not want to confuse anyone that I am an Airman first. In the early 1990s, the Air Force was struggling through an identity crisis. There was a roles and mission battle raging in the Pentagon. We were going through the “Base Force” reduction, and some were questioning the Air Force value. The criticism back then was, ask a Marine what they do for our country, and they would say, “I’m a Marine.” If you asked an Air Force officer, the response would be, “I’m a (pilot, maintainer, civil engineer, or whatever the air force specialty code they carried).” The label was the Air Force consisted of a bunch of tribes. At the same time that this was brewing, there was a big top-down push for occupational badges. The tribe label made me mad…I wore the “US” insignia on my uniform, representing an Officer in the United States Air Force. Since badges were optional, my silent protest to fostering tribe mentality was not wearing a badge. Interestingly enough, I did catch periodic negativity from senior leaders for not wearing a badge, but hardly anyone asked why. If my philosophical explanation is not enough…it was one less thing to keep straight on my uniform!
ER: The Art of the Possible (AoP) leadership framework and constraints-based management model has been one of the longest-lasting and most influential impacts of your career. Adopting “commercial best practices” and other efficiency management models in depot operations is something that has challenged, and in many ways eluded, Air Force depot leaders for nearly a century prior. How is it that the AoP model has been so successful in ways that other efforts were not?
Litchfield: AOP was born out of what I consider a once in a lifetime set of circumstances. The framework came during the standup of the Air Force Sustainment Center (AFSC) and part of the Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) five center reorganization. The AFMC reorganization had roots back to 2002/2003 when first proposed as a command transformation effort. However, it was not implemented due to political and cultural resistance. Fast forward to the start of this decade and the initiation of sequestration, the environment drove the need for bold change. Sequestration was enacted because of failure to govern – the impact was devastating to both mission and people. Our Air Force needed to save every dollar just so it could do the basics. General Hoffman, AFMC commander at the time, made the strategic decision to put forward the concept to reorganize the command with substantial savings in resources and manpower.
Our Air Force needed to save every dollar just so it could do the basics. General Hoffman, AFMC commander at the time, made the strategic decision to put forward the concept to reorganize the command with substantial savings in resources and manpower.
I was nearing the end of my command tour at the Tinker 76th Maintenance Wing. As a bit of trivia, just prior to moving forward with the reorganization, I had a set of orders to PCS out of AFMC, but the orders were canceled due to unforeseen circumstances unrelated to my status. Therefore, I was given the responsibility to conceive and run the planning for AFSC standup.
Many factors came into play that led to our overall success. We started with a design map that showed the organizational interplay based on the command and control concept of centralized planning and decentralized execution. Next, we created the leadership model that is the best, and maybe the only, “organizational leadership” model in existence in the Air Force. From there, we focused on standard work, process excellence, and a relentless governance structure that gives clear lines of responsibilities from the “Shop Floor to the Chief’s door.”
Aside from the approach, the key to standup success was the involvement of true sustainment experts from all organizations. They were selected based on a deep understanding of what it took to do depot operations, wholesale supply chain operations, and process masters. We also recruited a host of experts that focused on the enablers to make it all come together. Additionally, we capitalized on the lessons learned from the Global Logistics Supply Chain standup that occurred a few years prior. It was a high performing team that was energized by the challenge and opportunity to make tomorrow better than today.
What happened next – likely what history may look back upon as the best decision – was to involve high potential leaders who would ascend to run the command. This cadre of incredibly talented military and civilian leaders invested their time, energy, and sweat equity into making things run. Granted, we used a determined governance process to ensure compliance, but those leaders owned the success of the command in positions that allowed for learning, growing, and leading. This key group of individuals were true “believers” and their excitement rubbed off on others, creating additional “believers.” They are now the leaders who are in charge and taking AOP to the next level.
ER: How important was the role of Enterprise Partnerships as that organizational and doctrinal framework took shape? How did the relationship management of commercial partners influence the early development and adaptation of the AoP model?
Litchfield: AFSC was not constructed to be a stand-alone organization. It was reliant on strong relationships with Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Operational Commands who had the mission requirements, Air Staff and OSD Working Capital fund managers, Congressional delegations, and Industry partners. As we moved forward with the implementation of AOP it was viewed with some skepticism because of the new approach. However, as performance improved, so did our credibility, advocates, and partnerships. The decision was made to openly publish the AOP paybook so industry teammates could better integrate and align.
ER: How did those ideas and the AoP book come into being? Was commissioning the AoP book something that you had considered before commanding AFSC?
Litchfield: AoP book is the framework for success. The book was created as a living document to ensure enduring mission success to provide our Air Force “more readiness at less cost.” There was clear concern that AoP might be personality-driven vice process-driven. History showed that when leaders moved to different assignments, the discipline and focus of continuous improvement eroded. There was also the realization that few understood the science of producing airpower. The credit for the book goes to the team who led and drafted the content. It was an amazing time as a small group of true believers struggled with developing the right approach, content, and examples to document a standard approach. There is a delicate balance between standard work and application-specific implementation. AoP should be considered an operations manual for all to follow.
AoP book is the framework for success. The book was created as a living document to ensure enduring mission success to provide our Air Force “more readiness at less cost.”
Reading AoP provides a basic understanding of the concept. Mastery of the process comes from the implementation struggles. Consider AoP like an education – read the book, and you might be ready for middle school, master the principles, and you have an advanced degree. My challenge to current leaders is to write the next chapter, which enables greater success and demonstrates a true level of knowledge and commitment.
ER: On the topic of the science of producing airpower, and in reference to the AoP handbook — Why is speed more significant than other factors, such as safety and quality? In addition, why is it important to recognize that “Throughput is King” in comparison to other important metrics?
Litchfield: The leadership model has four variables that underpin success: Speed, Quality, Safety, and Cost. Many will argue which is more important, but the one which got the marque billing was speed when it was coined “throughput is king.” Speed, in this case, is process speed…not cutting corners…but eliminating constraints that inhibit efficient workflow. The easiest way to think about it is traveling on the backroads vice highway. The absolute point to point distance may be the same, but backroad red lights, stop signs, curvy roads, and slower speed limits make the trip faster (aka more throughput) on the highway (of course I’m excluding traffic jams and accidents which would be a constraint on the highway…ripe for elimination). While “throughput is king”; Safety is an absolute commitment to the workforce and can’t be compromised; Quality determines an organization’s reputation; and cost is a differentiator that sets up future opportunities. All are important and determine the effectiveness and efficiencies. They are dependent variables and require a system approach to implementation.
ER: As you were influencing the diverse production systems of the depots, building process machines across AFSC and bringing them all under one umbrella, what was your vision for making those changes stick? What were your thoughts on auditability and the resiliency of those changes?
Litchfield: The overriding drive during the AFSC standup and my tenure in command was to achieve the full potential of our depot infrastructure and supply chain operations to increase readiness and reduce cost. I believe AFSC has more impact on Air Force readiness and weapon system lifecycle cost than any other organizational entity when it comes to Air Force sustainment. The investment into the depot infrastructure and artisan workforce is sometimes hard to comprehend in terms of enormity; therefore, we set out to ensure the sum of the whole was greater than its parts. Included in the AFSC calculous must be the supply chain wholesale and retail elements. Effective and efficient maintenance operations is underpinned by a robust and responsive supply chain. In standing up AFSC, the focus was on the integration of the value stream.
Making it stick was always a top priority and part of the design criteria. Having been either a customer or a member of Air Force Material Command for most of my career, I observed the performance ebbs over time as personalities came and went. Strong commanders with a solid understanding of how complex processes functioned outperformed those who just jumped into the depot structure late in their career and assumed it was just like field-level maintenance. Furthermore, the ability to lead a civilian workforce required the full use of a leadership toolbox to motivate in a collegial environment. I found the leadership lessons learned operating in a predominately civil service organization made me a better leader when transitioning back to the operational force.
Litchfield: Prior to forming AFSC, the common characterization of Air Force depots was “if you have been to one depot…you have been to exactly one.” In other words, they were not aligned, nor was there any synergy and in fact, at times, had open competition for workload that resulted in redundancies and less than optimize solutions. The power of AFSC was to introduce the notion of “all boats rise together.” Working in cooperation, the ALC leaders demonstrated the power of teamwork and alignment. Furthermore, the ability to share best practices, innovation, and talent helped raise overall performance. There are lots of examples, but none better than the software consortium that developed between the complexes. Software work is exploding, and competition for software talent is a nationwide concern. Through ALC alignment, the strengths of each complex software group have made it possible to deliver more capability in an Agile systems approach.
Furthermore, the ability to share best practices, innovation, and talent helped raise overall performance. There are lots of examples, but none better than the software consortium that developed between the complexes.
ER: After retiring from military service in 2015, you have continued involvement in the Air Force logistics community and within defense aerospace in your current leadership role with Lockheed Martin. What are your thoughts on how AoP and Air Force logistics leadership have progressed? Moreover, do you have any thoughts or advice for the future of the Air Force?
Litchfield: I chose to go to work for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics as they asked that I help make the company the partner I wished I had when on Active Duty. To Lockheed Martin’s great credit, they have really embraced the notion of customer partnership. In fact, we have built our Sustainment Success System (S3) as an industry companion to AoP. S3 is built on the premise of the Flightline as the Center of Gravity, Partnerships, and Engineering for Sustainment. The four elements of S3 that create unsurpassed sustainment capabilities are High Reliability, Prognostics/Analytics, High Velocity Supply Chain, and Condition based Maintenance. In concert with AoP, the Sustainment Success System is a seamless means to bring unprecedented value to a government/industry partnership. When I was on active duty, I tried to reach out and find industry partnerships. My focus now is to build the bridge back to the government team that enables an exponential step towards More Readiness…at Less Cost. The notion of “the cost of readiness will determine the size of the force; and the size of the force will determine how we fight and win” was true when designing AoP and is more relevant today as we implement S3. I look forward to the next article when we talk about the integration of the two-breakthrough operations framework!
About the author:
Captain Dave Loska is the Chief Editor of the Exceptional Release military journal.