Coast Guard management practices get a makeover

It's chilly afternoon in April, and Adm. Thad Allen, the 23rd commandant of the Coast Guard, is explaining to a group of Coasties assigned to a small boat station in Rockland, Maine, how their work lives are going to change soon.

"Who handles procurement and supply here?" Allen asks. A hand goes up.

"Don't you love the fourth quarter? You try to close out and de-obligate obligations and when you're doing all that, your computer crashes, right?" Heads nod.

"You're dealing with a desktop application that's not very user-friendly, right? That ought to be easier and it's one of the things we're looking at," Allen says. A short discussion about the difficulty of reconciling the station's books clearly resonates with the young supply officer and Allen assures him, "There are things we can do to make it easier for you."

Allen switches the subject to maintenance. Nothing will make life easier for small stations like Rockland than a clearly prescribed, centrally managed, automated maintenance system - something Coast Guard aviators have had for years, but for some reason has never been a priority for tracking and maintaining parts and servicing small boats and cutters. "We rescued 32,000 people in New Orleans [after Katrina], over 13,000 of them from helicopters, and we never lost an aircraft because of maintenance and we never had a mishap," Allen tells them, ascribing that record to the fact that every helicopter in the Coast Guard is maintained according to strict procedures; parts and tools are tracked through a central computer system and everything is meticulously documented.

That's not the case with cutters and small boats, Allen says. "You go out to do a maintenance procedure on a boat and you come back and look around and you can't find a screwdriver. What do we do in the surface community? You steal one from the cutter pilot, or better yet, you go buy two more because you might lose another one." Those days are numbered, Allen tells them. Servicewide logistics procedures are being rolled out across the Coast Guard. In the future, when tools go missing during maintenance, the crew members will stop what they're doing and work their way back through all the steps they took until the tool is found.

Under the new system, all boats will be maintained to a proven standard, using parts from a centrally managed inventory. If that sounds bureaucratic to the rank and file, it is intended to be more reliable and efficient than the current system. Now boats are sometimes maintained using locally procured, nonstandard parts, occasionally creating a hash for future repair crews who find themselves dealing with uniquely configured boats. The idea behind the changes is to create a single point of accountability for each of the Coast Guard's assets - a product line management support structure, in business school parlance. That way, when one of the 47-foot boats in Rockland experiences a problem with its exhaust manifold, a manager at the new Surface Forces Logistics Center in Baltimore will know if the problem is a fluke or a trend. Such visibility into maintenance issues across the fleet will allow senior leaders to detect problems early and address them holistically, saving small unit commanders a lot of headaches. At least that's the idea.

The changes under way in financial management and logistics are part of a broader modernization plan Allen has spearheaded since becoming commandant. By the time his term is over next spring, much about the Coast Guard will be markedly different. The way the service buys boats, aircraft and other equipment and maintains those assets across the fleet and the way senior leaders are organized to manage those things are all evolving.

"It's going to require some cultural changes and we're facing this as a whole Coast Guard," Allen tells them. "It will require you to trust the system, and the system to trust you."

In the July 1 issue of Government Executive, Katherine McIntire Peters explores the sweeping reforms under way. Click here to read the full story.

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