BY ROBERT P. MADER
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
LAS VEGAS — Some contractors might think of themselves as Top Gun. At the Mechanical Service Contractors Association convention Oct. 1 here, a group of current and former fighter pilots showed contractors how to function like one.
It may seem as if mechanical contracting and air combat have little in common, but the pilots from Atlanta-based Afterburners Seminars showed the contractors that running a successful project and flying a successful mission can be done the same way.
The half-day seminar was designed to teach a system of flawless execution for a business that’s based on the way military pilots fly a mission.
The highlight was a breakout into groups of a dozen or more people to attack the headquarters of an enemy known as “Chaosnia.” Everyone in a group handled a specific task, such as fuel, weapons, communications or being an F-16 pilot. The groups learned how to come together to formulate and execute a plan, and how to overcome obstacles, such as learning halfway through the exercise that the group had lost a quarter of its bombs and half its fuel.
Many of the breakout groups were successful in eliminating the Chaosnian headquarters. Other groups degenerated into standing around the map of Chaosnia shouting at one another. Nevertheless, the exercise demonstrated how to translate military methods of running an operation to running a mechanical contracting project.
Afterburner presenter George Dragush, call sign “Gundawg,” walked the contractors through the steps to flying a mission. Military pilots and their support crews set a specific target, identify the enemy, identify their support assets, compare their strengths and weaknesses with the enemy’s, plan for contingencies, communicate constantly during the mission, and then debrief after the mission is over about what went right or wrong and how to improve next time.
Contracting leadership has to create a vision to get everyone moving in the same direction, explained Dragush, who’s also a commercial airline pilot, and make sure that everyone has the tools to do a job. But vision alone doesn’t win a war or make a successful business; the leader has to set a clear, measurable objective, such as increasing sales 10% and net profit by 15%.
After setting a specific goal, a contractor must identify his competition, identify his support assets, make sure all departments and branches talk to each other and compare his company’s capabilities with the competitors’, especially if he can match his strength against a competitor’s weakness.
Once the groundwork for the plan is complete, the team has to set its priorities and timing. Every combat mission has a timeline, Drugash said, and every goal that a mechanical contractor sets should have a firm start and end date.
Just as nothing goes smoothly in war, contractors have to plan for contingencies. What if a significant service contract customer is lost? What if a contractor’s best technician quits?
Once a project is underway, “task saturation is the silent killer,” said Tracy Sailer, also know as “Jackie O” and a full time F-16 pilot for the Colorado Air National Guard. The team can get so “channelized” on a minor task that they crash the airplane or the business. Sailer told the contractors about how the crew of an Eastern Airlines L-1011 flew the airliner into the ground because they became obsessed with a landing gear light that didn’t come on.
There are three ways to overcome task saturation, Sailer said. No. 1 is checklists, for which pilots are famous. Checklists are memory joggers that reinforce training; they help you do what you already know how to do.
Second is what a pilot calls an attitude check, making sure the plane is flying straight and level. An attitude check for a contractor would be making sure that customers are happy. Other things such as sales reports are not as important.
Third is mutual support. A fighter pilot is taught to never leave his wingman. A business must think like a squadron with all departments talking to one another.
Finally, just as a squadron debriefs after a mission, so too must a contractor. It’s an opportunity to learn from mistakes and plan for the future.
If a captain took up a flight consisting of a general and two new lieutenants, Drugash noted, they would conduct a nameless and rankless debriefing where anything could be said — even if the general screwed up. It’s not so much for the benefit of the general as it is a training opportunity for the new guys. A debriefing is an opportunity to recognize mistakes, “‘fess up” and commit to correct them in the future. And it starts with top management, Drugash said, not with the new technician.