The U.S. Armed Services currently are miles ahead of the rest of the federal government in outsourcing non-core functions to the private sector. Still, the decision of what to outsource is not that plain.
Outsourcing decisions in any corporate setting are always complicated. But the military rules and regulations add another dimension of difficulty. Four star General Dick Hawley, who retired in 1999 as Commander of the Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Norfolk, says that making outsourcing decisions in the military has its unique challenges. Seemingly obvious solutions sometimes camouflage hidden problems.
General Hawley, who also retired as the Air Force Component Commander to the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, recalls the decision to outsource the Air Force’s librarians. Someone intimately familiar with the Dewey Decision System is not that crucial in war zones. So the Air Force contracted librarian services to a private firm.
Then troubles with Iraq started brewing. The U.S. Air Force had to enforce the United Nations sanctions concerning the “no fly” zone in Iraq. The mission, called Southern Watch, required airmen to spend 120 day tours in the desert. The Air Force personnel stationed far from home were interested in reading books between sorties (and sandstorms). And since the Air Force encourages continuing education and intellectual development while its men and women are on deployment, the service was committed to supplying books to the troops. But both parties to the outsourcing contract agreed that civilian librarians did not need to be put in harm’s way.
So the Air Force had to scramble to find blue suiters (military jargon for Air Force personnel) to shoulder the task. “We didn’t think things through,” General Hawley recalls. Fortunately, outsourcing was just a couple of years old when the Iraqi challenge occurred, so there were still some uniformed librarians in the Air Force. But the service also had to train new librarians for that particular deployment. “But this will be a long term problem,” says the General.
Outsourcing the grounds maintenance crew at Air Force bases had a similar effect. The brass felt it needed its enlisted personnel to do important tasks that contributed to combat readiness. Those tasks did not include mowing the lawn. So the service outsourced its base grounds maintenance.
That decision bombed one winter when a brutal snowstorm in Virginia dumped drifts of snow on Langley, paralyzing operations. Because the service had outsourced the grounds maintenance effort, there were no “pick and shovel” crews who could be instantly summoned to dig out the planes. Since snow wasn’t mentioned in the outsourcing contract, “it was much harder to call on them to shovel the snow at Langley,” notes General Hawley, an Air Force Academy graduate who flew combat missions in Viet Nam before being stationed at Langley.
To date, the General says the Air Force’s most successful outsourcing contract went to the print and design outfit that performed the base’s graphics work. General Hawley liked the outcome of this contract for many reasons. It saved the Air Force “quite a bit of money.” It was an appropriate thing to do because military leaders really couldn’t justify having blue suiters doing the work. At the same time, there were few, if any, degradations in the service. “”From my perspective this made sense, since it wasn’t something you did an awful lot of in the forward areas of a combat zone,” he says with a laugh.
Handing Off to the Experts
Another outsourcing project that is working is the service maintenance contracts for the KC-10, a tanker cargo airplane. Boeing converted its DC-10 into this cargo plane that can haul other airplanes and heavy tanks as well as cargo. The Air Force likes this plane because its mechanics can refuel the plane in mid-air. However, the Air Force has a very small fleet of KC-10s. That means its aircraft maintenance workers don’t get a chance to work on that plane very often.
On the other hand, maintenance crews abound in the commercial arena because the plane is widely used for civilian travel. General Hawley says there is a worldwide maintenance network already in place for the commercial planes. So the Air Force decided “to compete” the maintenance on its KC-10s, awarding the contract to private vendors.
On the other hand, core competencies must remain in-house. General Hawley says the Air Force has never outsourced its weapons systems, for example.
General Hawley believes there are many instances where the Air Force can successfully outsource to the civilian sector. But the military leader points out that Air Force managers must choreograph the contract as carefully as an air strike. The one thing you forgot can be the undoing of the entire operation. That’s good advice for the corporate sector, too.
Lessons from the Outsourcing Primer:
- When developing an outsourcing relationship, think through all details as thoroughly as possible. The details you forget may cause the system to crash.
- If you do a function rarely, it’s best to outsource it to a provider who does it day in and day out.
- One of the best metrics to determine if the outsourcing situation is working is when you can detect no degradation of service.
- As a buyer, do business with a flexible outsourcer. You may have to ask them to rise to the occasion when a special situation arises.