Fundamental Change Lessons From Air Force Transformations

Fundamental Change Lessons From Air Force Transformations

Great organizations are “learning organizations” that adapt to changes in the market. Although the success or failure of any organization will always rest with the people who actually do the work and perform the mission, leadership is the enabler in how well these organizations adapt and grow. In difficult times, both public and private institutions have to be agile enough to meet these challenges.

The current emphasis on efficiencies and innovations in the Department of Defense (DoD) at a time of war is reflective of national competing demands for healthcare, national infrastructure, economic growth, etc. As an institution, the military’s role is fundamental to our survival as a Nation, but it also has the added responsibility and duty to execute its mission as efficiently and effectively as it can. With evolving threats and aging weapon systems, the need to relook at how we do business is as critical as it has ever been.

The purpose of this article is to outline key lessons learned by the Air Force (AF) when faced with a 20 percent reduction in funding and manpower for maintaining its bases around the world. We certainly had many missteps and surprises, but the following lessons did help us make significant progress on our journey. These lessons can be used by any organization, public or private, when faced with the need to fundamentally change how to perform its mission.

Mission (or Customers) First

When times are most challenging, it is easy to forget the basics. However, understanding your purpose as an institution or organization is fundamental in beginning a journey of significant change. In every phase of planning and execution, maintaining focus on your customer/mission while working through a transformation ensures focus on the right priorities. This will also help gain external and internal stakeholder/leadership buy-in and support.

As an example, transforming how we manage AF installations must fit into the “bigger AF efforts.” We had to redesign how we managed our built and natural environment from maintenance and repair to how we did environmental restoration. Every dollar we freed up could then be used to fund needed weapon system upgrades. The engineers’ mission was to support the bigger AF mission.



Said another way, the business of the Air Force is not to maintain 166 bases but to “fly, fight, and win.” Air bases are needed to perform the mission but it is not the core mission of the Air Force. The business of Ford Motor Company is to build cars that people want to buy, not to build and maintain manufacturing plants. Improvements/efficiencies in how you manage your real estate portfolio translate directly into opportunities to reinvest in better automobiles or airplanes. Our goal was to accomplish enterprise-wide transformation while not compromising warfighting or installation standards.

Understand the “Why”

Leadership must be ready to answer the tough question upfront. Develop and understand the key transformation message that ties the “why” to mission and people. For example, AF must modernize its aging weapon systems as well as all “support” capabilities to detect, deter and defeat any future threat. The foundation of our capability is the Airman. For installation transformation, we must maximize the talent of our engineer workforce and leverage the value of our warfighting and training platforms (installations).

Transformation: Initial Installation Imperatives

Ensure you set boundaries or principles for your organization. For example, we established the following imperatives:

  1. AF installation transformation required a new vision/plan that challenged the status quo;
  2. Break stovepipes and “tribes” – a common approach to enterprise problems;
  3. “All” capabilities must be addressed – military, civil service and contract support;
  4. Private and public sector expertise must be leveraged;
  5. All aspects of Transformation must be owned by those responsible for execution;
  6. Transformation governance requires structure; include top leadership as well as every major level of the organization (expands with scope of transformation);
  7. Build Organizational Change Management Plan right away with corresponding Strategic Communication Plan (use every media available at every level, updated constantly).


Transformation Framework

A key lesson learned was having a framework for transformation – an approach for managing the effort to ensure it was effective, lasting and enterprise-wide. A framework also helped leadership at all levels to align efforts across the enterprise to ensure all elements worked together. This is a real leadership challenge. The five key areas to understand and work were: people, processes, technology and infrastructure (your product). Equally important was the fifth element, which is often overlooked and hard to quantify: identifying the “drivers” (external and internal), which you may not control but must recognize as you work the four areas. Ignoring any of the five elements in your plan or approach will create disconnects in your journey.

Organizational Change Management (OCM) Framework

The OCM “framework” was key in working the transformation framework but was critical to managing the “people” aspects of transformation. The OCM framework we used had six elements:

  1. Top Leadership Commitment (leadership involvement at every level to help identify opportunities, build the plan and execute its objectives);
  2. Establish a Sense of Urgency (i.e. reduced funding, free up resources for war effort, aging infrastructure, reduced manpower, etc);
  3. Create Vision (Transformation Plan, Strategic Plan, Strategic Communication Plan, Transformation Initiatives, etc); the key is linkage and interdependencies between these documents and ensuring they were used daily by leadership in conducting business;
  4. Strategic Communication (awareness as well as education and training – newsletters, briefings, articles, plans, emails, revising enlisted and officer training and education programs, etc);
  5. Empower People (align organizations/revise career paths, inspire ownership, etc.) and
  6. Institutionalize (governance structure, codify in policies, regulations, metrics, performance plans, etc).


Leverage “Best Practices/Ideas”

On a parallel path, we had to look for new ideas. We called this our “Corp of Discovery.” The AF looked to six different but complimentary communities (this was deliberate):

  1. ©


    Private sector companies who had similar real estate portfolios (we visited executives from 12 Fortune 100 companies and spent an entire day with each company learning how they managed their real estate portfolios);

  2. Contract support (consulting firms such
    as Booz Allen Hamilton
    and IBM);
  3. Academia (Harvard & University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill);
  4. Other Federal agencies (GSA, Corp of Engineers, Navy, Army);
  5. Associations like IFMA, BOMA and OSCRE (especially as it relates to standards); and
  6. Our most important “touchstone,” our internal stakeholders: AF engineers.


We benefited from each in different ways but all played key roles in generating “new ideas.” I will say that this was difficult to do and to sustain because you first must realize and be willing to ask for help and be open to learn. Finally, as a leader, you must be willing to be accountable for what you were taught.

Key “Lessons” from the Six Sources

  1. Manage real property from a portfolio perspective;
  2. Asset management principles must be leveraged at every level and are foundational;
  3. Use key performance indicators to drive decision making;
  4. Standardize enterprise business processes and best practices – develop playbooks for every key process/capability;
  5. Use automation and IT to reduce costs, improve transparency and better utilize personnel;
  6. Leverage the size of your organization through strategic sourcing and establishing Centers of Excellence.


Implementing these lessons across a large organization requires a clear strategy and goals with measurable objectives accompanied by specific implementation plans. Lessons were applicable to every capability in our mission set, despite resistance from “tribes” (e.g. internal and external).

The lessons we learned helped us make significant improvements in organizational efficiency and accountability. Some examples of savings include: Asset management space optimization identified 37 percent excess capacity in admin facilities; centralizing environmental restoration saved $63M/yr; strategic sourcing of long-term restoration monitoring saved $32M/yr; centralizing capital improvements execution reduced manpower 40 percent and saved $8.5M/yr; fire protection initiatives saved 901 positions and $58M/yr. There are many more examples and lessons learned, and I know the AF is continuing its journey of discovery and change.

Transformation is not an easy journey, but leaders who have a vision with clear objectives, are engaged at every level and communicate constantly will have a better chance of success. An organization that is constantly growing and adapting can meet any challenge. Given the opportunity and support, people will amaze you with their dedication, initiative and results.