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Back to basics?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Chad H. Scholes
  • 386th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander
In a speech at a recent Air Force Association convention, Chief of Staff of the Air Force,
General Norton Schwartz noted our Air Force needs to pursue a "back to the basics approach for what we do" by "returning to the basics of precision and reliability."

In simpler terms, the CSAF is saying we should focus on compliance with Air Force Instructions, technical data, accountability and military discipline. But have you ever thought to yourself, "Why do we have to get back to basics?" Shouldn't we always be "doing" the basics? Perhaps an even better question is, "How did we allow ourselves to get away from the basics?"

There are several reasons why organizations might allow themselves to drift away from the basics to include: loss of personnel and budgetary resources, changes in organizational structure or an increase in operations tempo. I think the real reason we allow ourselves to move away from the standard is because adhering to the basics day in and day out in doing even the simplest of task each and every time is hard work, and it may seem more efficient or favorable when weighing risk versus reward.

Mike Mullane, a NASA astronaut, talks about a phenomenon called "normalization of deviance." This is when we cut corners with no resulting negative outcome and the result becomes the norm. Over time, we fail to see our actions as substandard. It might have started when someone decided external pressures, such as short manning or high operations tempo, justified cutting corners, then they taught their replacements or new Airmen "how we do it here," and it became an acceptable, yet incorrect, way to perform that task at that base.

So what do I mean by basics? Think about it this way. Most people know the basics of staying healthy. However, some people choose French fries over salad and others opt to sleep longer versus getting up early to exercise. These are a couple of basic steps associated with our everyday lives. If people are willing to alter basic behaviors that are important to their health, there might also be a strong likelihood that they might alter procedures related to tasks within their specific jobs.

If we all agree we should never leave the basics, then what can we do to prevent the need for future "back to basics" campaigns? First, we need to get rid of the idea that "the basics are something we have to do" before we can accomplish the real mission. If you think this way, you've missed the point. The basics are the real mission. These tasks are what we must do to perfection each and every day to achieve the precision and reliability critical to the Air Force mission.

Second, leaders at all levels must recognize everyone for the level of integrity and excellence in every task, no matter how mundane it may appear. This doesn't mean everyone gets a pat on the back or coined for doing their job, but those who go above and beyond should get positive recognition and those who fall short should be appropriately corrected. Given that a single job often requires knowledge of dozens of different instructions and technical orders, this is no simple task. Finally, it takes good old fashioned leadership to communicate and establish the right priorities. Leaders at all levels must stay focused on compliance, accountability and discipline.

In the end, "back to basics" is simply applying our Air Force Core Values: Integrity First, Excellence In All We Do, and Service Before Self to everything we do, even the simplest of tasks or basics. A wise mentor reminded me to "let integrity and uprightness preserve me." We can take this one step further as we support our leadership's "back to basics" call by applying our integrity as Airmen to help preserve our Air Force.