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Smoke doesn't always mean fire Part I

When you meet a good leader you know it Part VI

In the beginning of this blog I tried to balance between stories of toxic leaders and stories of leaders that had made a positive impact on my career. Recently I've moved away from that balance to tell the long story that ended my career, and to address topics that were bothering me about the maintenance community or that I thought would have a catastrophic impact on maintenance. But it's time to bring some balance back to the blog.

In 2013 I was working in the 308th Aircraft Maintenance Unit at Luke Air Force Base. We had just climbed out of a maintenance death spiral and were moving in a good direction. I had a fantastic AMU Chief and a smart and hardworking AMU OIC.

Our Lead Production Superintendent was retiring, and they were bringing in a SMSgt I had never heard of before. Like our Chief, he was a PCS transplant, not a manning move from within MXG.

Most of the Lead Pro Supers I had known in my career were in varying states of stress. The jets were never cooperating, the parts never arrived when they were supposed to. Ops was always asking for more. Lead Pro Supers usually burned hot and quick; with no-one holding the position longer than 9 months or so.

Our new Lead Pro Super was SMSgt Aaron "Doogie" Hauser. He joined the 308th AMU just after we came out of a terrible period. I had just moved from the expeditor truck into the APG section and was still trying to build my own leadership team.

As I was the principle APG section chief I went to the morning production meeting in the AMU. The AMU production meeting is led by the AMU OIC and Chief. Our Chief at the time was CMSgt Bradley Roberts; by far the best Chief I've ever had the pleasure of working for.

The morning production meeting can sometimes feel adversarial. Typically, the briefing pro-super explains the status of the production effort and tries to satisfy the OIC, Chief and Lead Pro Super. This scrutiny is intentional to provide the OIC all the information they need to in-turn brief the group production meeting.

My first interaction with Doogie was in the morning production meeting. As the mid-shift Pro Super was reviewing the fixes from the previous day a few of them didn't make a lot of sense. Normally the OIC has to stop the meeting and dig down on these dubious fixes; however today would be different.

Doogie stepped in on the first fix and explained how the repair not only didn't address the behavior reported, it didn't align with the system theory of operation. He of course was right, but the point he made was much bigger. In that first move he set the tone of the entire production effort moving forward; that quality would be prioritized over quantity. More importantly Doogie had also signaled to the OIC that she could trust him, and as a result she could trust his production section as well.

Now the optimist in me would like to think most OICs can trust their production section. However, the realist in me has seen too many times where Pro Supers withhold information at the morning production meeting and the OIC gets absolutely clobbered at the MXG meeting. It's really unfortunate. Because the better prepared the OIC is, the better decisions they will make and the more faith their supervision will have in them. But I digress, back to Doogie.

As many people that worked for me can attest, I did not keep a tidy desk at work. I'd like to say it was a product of a chaotic work environment, but the reality is I'm just disorganized at a desk. I was a bit of a professional hoarder. Everything felt important so I was unwilling to relinquish any of my accumulated materials, because after all I would eventually get to them.

One Friday I passed through the production office and I saw Doogie sitting at his desk, and it was just as [if not more] cluttered than my own. I made some off-hand remark about the condition of his desk. He shrugged and replied 'At the end of the week I dump all of this in the trash. If I didn't need it all week, I probably never really needed it.'

Even to this day I don't know if he was actually serious, however the ideology behind that statement was completely foreign to my experience in aircraft maintenance. Everything is urgent. Everything is your top priority. Everything has to get done. Everything has to be perfect.

Eventually Doogie handed the reins of the 308th production section to a fantastic pro super MSgt William Jennings. However, Doogie's story doesn't end here. Doogie was moved to Assistant NCOIC of the 308th and became my direct supervisor.

I was still a young MSgt running the APG section. At the time I thought I pretty much had everything sorted out in my career and knew what I was doing. Like most of my stories, in hindsight it is painfully obvious that I had a lot to learn.

One day Lt Col Martin came into the unit and breezed through the entire break room and made it all the way to the AMU leadership's office without anyone calling the building to attention. As the room had many of my crew chiefs in it, in addition to one of my guys working the snack bar at the entrance, I was embarrassed and angry. I turned to my assistant section chief lamenting at how our personnel didn't call the building to attention. In fairness, Lt Col Martin was the type of commander to take something like that and make it a big deal. If narcissism was an Olympic sport, he would win gold and silver.

Doogie stepped out of his office to greet the commander. As he did, he overheard my angst in talking to my assistant. He gave me a look; it's hard to describe it. It was half 'what are you going ape-shit over' and 'you're making it worse.'

In the past, AMU leadership would've been just as agitated over such an inconsequential transgression as I was. This was different. I was looked at as an outlier. It was implied that I was seriously over-reacting to something that was really minor. I suddenly was very aware of how ridiculous I was being. I was no longer embarrassed because my guys didn't call the building to attention, I was embarrassed because my reaction was at complete odds with my leaderships and really just common fucking sense.

Last week I wrote that we as leaders should remove stress from our Airmen's lives. I learned that from Doogie. The idea that not everything is important, and if I couldn't differentiate between what was or wasn't, I was going to drive my people insane [and drive them to separate].

There will always be slide shows with red on them. It's the cost of having human beings working for you.

If an Airmen on midshift misses a 1400 dental appointment, let it go. Same goes if an Airman is a few minutes late on a rainy day. Look, I know you're starved for resources. But so are your people. If you get wrapped around the axle for everything like I used to, your people are going to be stressed. What's worse, they probably won't feel like they can come to you.

The key takeaway here: People didn't stop pinging about stupid things. Doogie just interrupted that stress and everyone below him was positively affected. It also helped Doogie was ridiculously competent at any job he did, but what made the mark on me was his ability to eliminate stress in a workcenter.

The military, and aircraft maintenance in particular, is stressful enough. It's important you prioritize the important things. All the rest? Slide that shit off your desk, it's obviously not worth worrying about.

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  1. Great post Chris!
    I learned a while back, after attending your MRM class of course;) that people change through out the day, and week etc.
    When I got up on Staff I seen the wings struggle and many mx leaders pride would get in the way of asking for assistanceand essentially utilizing the resources avail to them within our Military org. Trust me when I say MANY mx leaders do not want to ask for help outside their grp or even wing unless your MSG;)...15 servings of SP augmentees please, 14x12 no prob here ya go.
    We must do all we can to reach for that assistance, and also be quick to offer when your unit is doing well. Many training opportunities become avail for the young Amn that could be used for the sake of meeting min crew sizes if they are completely a "dud". Training pilots is very important but taking care of Amn is most important, especially if we cant keep the experienced maintenance mbr past their first enlistment. Hold em high and build them to replace yourself eventually.


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