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Greatness must be our singular goal

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David W. Bobb
  • 36th Medical Operations Squadron Commander
As I have been coming close to the end of my time here at Andersen, one of the many tasks I have had to complete is the writing of officer performance reports and enlisted performance reports. One of the phrases I have been using on several of these is "MDG executed 2006 business plan at 103 percent." 

Obviously, I thought this was an impressive achievement. The more I thought about this "business plan" milestone though, the more I started to question what it really meant. Does it mean we are providing outstanding care to our patients or ensuring a healthy force? Does it in any manner mean we have contributed to building a better Air Force? Let me share a few thoughts with you. 

The business model, or carefully crafted business plan, used to run an organization has increasingly swept into our Air Force culture. More often, we have heard or received the mandates to plan and run our individual parts of the Air Force more like a business. 

Coming from my viewpoint as a medical officer, this has especially been true in military medical circles wherein the business model is used as a means to quantify our value compared to civilian counterparts. The reasons given for adopting the business model are the speed of decision making, the need to increase productivity, accountability, and decreasing costs. While these goals of the business model are worthy in and of themselves, we must guard against wholly embracing the business model as the only way to operate or determine the value of the Air Force. Other parts of the business model ignore the unique characteristics of a military service and do not readily translate so well into today's Air Force. 

First, I firmly believe Airmen are not employees. We are much, much more than that. We are Airmen with a capital "A." 

All of us volunteered to do what we do, we don't sell merchandise or manufacture widgets, and we don't get a bonus based on the company's profitability. We simply serve because we want to, and we're willing to go anywhere at anytime to support the needs of America. We serve in the greatest Air and Space Force the world has ever seen and each and every one of us is willing to put his or her life in harm's way if called upon to do so. The willingness to serve others and lay down one's life for a greater good reaches far beyond the traditional "employee" concept. 

Second, the business model revolves around the bottom line profitability of an organization. The Air Force cannot adjust "profitability" by selling more widgets, so by using the business model, we are left with increasing our "corporate value" by reducing costs through the supply and/or production side of the equation. Nowhere is this more evident than with our current Force Shaping initiatives. The problem though, is that our "product", the defense of freedom, has an adjustable cost we cannot control and a never-ending customer base. We have no idea what the price of freedom may be tomorrow, or how many resources it will take to pay that price, yet the business model dictates cost-cutting as a highly valued attribute of our Airmen. 

Lastly, there are no stockholders in the Air Force. Clearly, there are many groups of stakeholders, but no stockholders. To interchangeably use the two terms as equals is a mistake. Stockholders are affected financially by the performance of an organization, while stakeholders can be any group that has an interest in the performance of an organization. The business model focuses on stockholders, with only deferential emphasis on stakeholders. In the Air Force, stakeholders are our priority. 

Defining the value and performance of the United States Air Force solely according to the business model misses the mark. While it can be a tool for measuring efficiency and productivity, it cannot be the only tool used to determine how well the Air Force functions. In my particular example, the business model does not adequately let me know how well we are caring for our patients, if they are satisfied, or if we are building a healthier force. Other tools and measurements, such as the success of disease prevention programs, must be incorporated to yield a complete picture. 

In his Monograph to Accompany Good to Great, author Jim Collins states, "...we need to reject the naïve imposition of the 'language of business' on the social sectors, and instead jointly embrace a language of greatness." I couldn't agree more. Let's move away from the assumption that the business model is the only effective way to prove the value of our Air Force and focus on greatness instead. Given the importance of our Air Force mission, greatness must be our singular goal.

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