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Biloxi Days: Morning Standup

Every morning at eight o'clock sharp each of the six maintenance organization chiefs had to appear at the morning status briefing in the cramped, table-less headquarters conference room. The chiefs were joined by a supply rep and a senior pilot.  The purpose of the meeting was to review the status of all maintenance activity in each organization, point out (and complain) about problems in other organizations, provide estimates of when projects and repairs would be complete, summarize the previous day's work and what was on that day’s schedule.

During my first year as Field Maintenance Squadron Commander, the morning standups were run by the Chief of Maintenance, Lt. Col. James M. Slaughter, a grizzled ex-fighter pilot who didn't like long or evasive answers to his questions. If Colonel Slaughter was not available, Major Smith, the Maintenance Control Officer, ran the meetings. If Major Smith wasn't available, Maintenance Control was represented by the Assistant Maintenance Control Chief, Captain Newman.

When Colonel Slaughter ran the meetings, they were short and right to the point. Matters were handled quickly, almost rudely. When Major Smith or Captain Newman ran them, they frequently drifted off into rambling lectures or irrelevant show-off technical details about things the rest of us were already quite familiar with or proposals that were beyond impractical and into fantasy.

Assistant Maintenance Control Chief was not a real job because Maintenance Control was primarily run by Senior Master Sergeant Buckheister who didn't need much supervision from a maintenance officer, much less an assistant maintenance officer.

There was a competitive undertone to the meetings because nobody wanted to look bad in front of Colonel Slaughter, and every effort was made to blame problems on another organization. If you could convince Col. Slaughter that the problem was elsewhere — Maintenance Control dropped the ball, supply mixed up the part order, the flight-line was late bringing the plane in, etc. — not only were you off the hook, but you put the guy/organization you were aiming at on the spot. But that guy also got a chance to dispute your blame-shifting. Colonel Slaughter was a hard sell either way.

At the time, I was moonlighting at a downtown Biloxi nightclub as piano player in a small dance band. Late nights didn't allow me to get a good night’s sleep before morning standup. Sometimes I didn't have time to prepare for the meeting and had to wing it when issues came up. A few times I nodded off while standing up when others were speaking. Colonel Slaughter, in his raspy voice of doom, would shout, “Scaramella!”

On one particular morning both Colonel Slaughter and Major Smith were away; Captain Newman was leading the meeting.

The night before, an aircraft had come in to the hangar for routine inspection. The hangar maintenance crew discovered that there was an engine problem, but after having removed the engine and propeller they decided that the problem was more likely in the fuel system.  To pressurize the fuel system and check for leaks, the aircraft had to be defueled, which meant that it had to be towed out to the "defuel pad," a special safety zone across the runway designated for that process far from any other building, with an underground fuel tank, fuel hoses, and lots of grounding wires. 

The problem was that since the T-28 aircraft engine is mounted in the front, when the engine is removed the center of gravity shifts to the tail. This meant that towing the aircraft out to the defuel pad without its engine would scrape the tail on the tarmac. The mechanics had solved this minor problem by lifting the tail and putting a wheeled maintenance stand with an old mattress on top to hold up the tail as they slowly pulled the airplane out to the fuel area as several mechanics pushed the maintenance stand along under the tail. The lines were drained of fuel and then they brought it back in similar fashion for fuel system inspection.

Captain Newman was very unhappy with this crude method of towing and defueling and asked me to have our aircraft welding shop construct a 700-pound deadweight with steel attaching rods and mounting bolts in the approximate shape of an engine. Captain Newman thought the new counterweight apparatus could be hung on the nose of the aircraft whenever an aircraft without an engine needed to be towed to the defueling area.

Like everyone else in the room, I thought that was a crazy idea and somewhat angrily blurted out sarcastically, "Oh great! Let's get everything upside down and have Field Maintenance waste a lot of time and money on a dummy engine instead of training your maintenance control people to anticipate the possibility of the defueling before the aircraft is even brought into the hangar."

Captain Newman was not happy, but fortunately everyone else in the room kind of laughed and agreed with me and Newman's silly proposal was nipped in the bud.

Needless to say, Captain Newman and I didn't get along very well after that, which made it much harder for us to get the flight line to do more of their own work since Maintenance Control was passing along flightline dispatch requests for shop technicians to do trivial tasks such as tire changing, aeleron adjustment, minor fluid leaks, and such, instead of telling the flight line people to take more responsibility and lower the workload of our already understaffed shops.

Morning standup meetings with their finger-pointing, impromptu issues, and competitive tone, were a stark contrast to the much more mundane meetings I later encountered in government and private industry where it was bad form to complain about another organization’s problems.

The difference between the two kinds of meetings was that in morning military standup meetings, managers stayed on top of things, problems got solved, things got done, and managers were held accountable to fellow managers and their boss when they didn't. You were on the imaginary hot-seat almost every day. The private business meetings with their comfortable chairs, coffee bars, luncheon set-ups, etc. were rambling and tended to zero accountability, much like Mendocino County supervisor's meetings actually.

The military experience of strict accountability served me well in the rest of my bureaucratic career because I became better at focusing on problems, clearly defining them and raising them to the responsible party, and staying on top of them until they were fixed.

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