The ECN IMPACT Awards made a significant, *ahem*, impact at the 2014 EDS conference, and the awards ceremony’s keynote speaker could teach us all a lesson or two on leadership. Formerly a Major General in the United States Air Force, Steve Sargeant parlayed his impressive military career into a top leadership role with a prestigious test and measurement company that deals with million-dollar Department of Defense (DoD) contracts.
After honorably serving his country for more than 30 years, Major General Steve Sargeant transitioned from the battlefield to the boardroom, from flag officer to CEO of Marvin Test Solutions (MTS). The company’s history stretches back to the Army’s Hellfire Missile system in 1992 and includes modern fifth-generation stealth fighters like the F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Indeed, MTS is a perfect fit for Sargeant, who’d previously logged 3,100 flight hours in aircraft ranging from the A-10 “Warthog” to the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The former two-star General applied many of the leadership lessons he learned in the Air Force to the private sector.
Sargeant applied the “lean” and “standard work” concepts he learned as Commandant of USAF Weapons School, Wing Commander of the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base, and Commander of the Air Force Operations Test and Evaluation Center and tailored them to fit his latest assignment which, in its own way, is every bit as challenging as managing thousands of Airmen and more than half a billion dollars of sensitive equipment.
Using lean principles, Sargeant trimmed the turnaround time for repainting and retrofitting aircraft from more than a week to two days. Instead of focusing solely on the paint shop, Sargeant solicited input from maintenance, the clinic, and even human resources, creating a more efficient and productive workflow. He also applied the lean fundamentals to paperwork processes that he resolved to optimize at the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
“Lean and six sigma are all about culture change and continuous improvement,” he says. “Not everyone realizes that, and some people may find it foreign. Leaders need to show why change is needed.”
Sargeant also adopted the idea of “standard work” in his quest to create a better process flow. This involves homogenizing the processes so inefficiencies can be rooted out.
Air Force pilots are familiar with a checklist approach, and this helps with standardizing the process. But this doesn’t mean mindless repetition or micro-managing, both of which can be poison to any organization.
“Standard work does not mean that you do the same thing every day,” Sargeant adds. “While you are striving for methods you can readily teach, to achieve lower cost and a predictable result, you’re continually looking for a better way.”
Sargeant stresses that leaders need to engage people throughout the organization. The military fosters a deeply ingrained culture of effective delegation, and in this vein, he encourages subordinates to take the initiative — and this means asking the right questions. Instead of describing how he wants something done, Sargeant expresses his expectations and what he wants to accomplish. This, in turn, forces decisions further down in the organization, empowering the staff to propel the company forward.