Unfortunately, Out of the Blue is out of print, but you might be able to find a copy on ebay or at Amazon.
Out of the Blue is about my 34 years working for the U.S. Air Force. Many times, you’ve probably said to yourself “I could write a book about that.” You didn’t because you forgot all the details. Well, I kept writing down all the little things that happened to me over those 34 years. Out of the Blue is a collection of little stories, but with a theme: thriving in a bureaucracy. Many people have a low tolerance for bureaucrats, and I can’t blame them. The U.S. Government is about as big a bureaucracy as you’ll find. It’s not that I enjoyed working with bureaucrats, but I learned how to work with them, and in most cases I got them on my side. Throughout the book, I tell you how to do it, too.
I was an aerospace engineer, working in a laboratory. I could have spent my career sitting at a desk, but I didn’t. I flew on test flights, worked with astronauts, and traveled the world. I even flew to England on the Concorde! All the time, I kept writing things down in my notebook.
Unless you’re self employed and work solo, you work in a bureaucracy. Any organization, as it grows, becomes bureaucratic because it has to standardize its operation. Thus, everyone has rules to comply with, but problems start because every rule doesn’t apply every time. If you work in industry, don't for a second think that you don't have your own bureaucrats! You’ll relate to many of the incidents I bring up because you’ve encountered similar situations. You can learn by seeing how I dealt with them.
Now that I’m retired, I can tell these stories. None of them are to embarrass anyone, nor to criticize being a civil servant. In fact, I consistently make the point that serving my government and the defense of my country is a high calling. But I’m not above poking a little fun where a few jabs are deserved. By the way, the subtitle is Memoirs of a Baffled Bureaucrat - Curbing Crises, Circumventing the System, and Keeping My Pants on in Russia. Sorry, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened with my pants in Russia.
Here is a short extract from the chapter called "The Face-to-Face Meeting." I was the program manager for my lab's research aircraft, and this portion talks about how I got the logistics bureaucrats at one of the Air Force depots to expedite shipping spare parts for what they considered to be a low priority program. I hope you'll see the value added by a handshake, eye contact, and chit-chat over a cup of coffee.
Most of us hate office meetings. I sure did! Who enjoys sitting for an hour while the boss explains the latest rule changes, harasses everyone for missed deadlines, or begs for someone to organize the office Christmas party? But, some meetings are essential to keep programs running. I loved them if they resolved problems or kept the gears of my program lubricated.
In today’s environment of a global economy, we tend to take instant communications for granted. One has to wonder or try to remember how business was conducted in the days before e-mail, telefax, telephone, and even telegrams. The written letter was all there was. A trip to visit clients or suppliers, especially if they were overseas, could tie up a busy executive for weeks or even months, but it gave a message: You are important to me.
In dealing with people all around the country, I relied on the telephone and e-mail for most of my communications. Then, if something needed to be documented or requested formally, I backed it up with a letter. But, over the years, I’ve found that there are many times when nothing replaces the face-to-face meeting. It tells the other party that my problem is big enough, and that what I need from them is important enough, that I not only blocked days out of my schedule but also used some of my travel budget to visit them personally.
There were many times when I simply could not work out a problem over the phone, yet a short face-to-face meeting quickly resolved the impasse. I have two good examples of this. There certainly were more, but these get my point across.
The first had to do with getting the Air Force depots to use express shipping in order to send spare parts for my aircraft. But, first you need to know a little background. To operate aircraft, it is essential to have a ready supply of spare parts. The Air Force has avast system of depots that stock everything from shoe laces to spare jet engines. This system obviously was set up to support a vast fleet of combat aircraft. Being a laboratory, we never exactly fit into this system. I often had to spend hours on the phone to beg for help, explaining that I had a legitimate Air Force need. I made a point of visiting each depot every few years to meet its managers because they tended to rotate out of their positions often. When an Air Force outfit submits an order, the Air Force depot assigns a priority between one and twelve. Naturally, combat aircraft that should be on alert but are out of service because they lack parts get top priority. That makes sense. Then come aircraft in various other levels of alert, routine service, training, etc. Consideration also is given to whether a substitute aircraft is available for the mission. The lowest priority, called routine, is assigned to parts that will replenish shelves when the base has fewer than the specified quantity of an item on hand.
It often seemed that spare-parts requisitions for research aircraft operated by contractors fell below the lowest priority. Someone at one of the depots once told me that, to them, “routine” really means that we don’t need the part and don’t care whether it ever arrives, and that I should use a much higher priority, even though this violates the regulations.
The fact that I had a grounded research aircraft in the middle of a test program, or thatit was deployed to a remote operating location with an entire support crew, usually made little difference in how the depots perceived our priority. However, each part stocked by the Air Force has what is called an Item Manager. This person monitors the use of numerous parts under his or her control, watches the quantity of requisitions, and ensures that new items are ordered from the manufacturer in sufficient quantity to meet demand. Sometimes a call to the Item Manager would lead to a little sympathy. Although that manager could not assign a higher priority, he would hand-carry the requisition through the system if time permitted, just as he would for a requisition with a very high priority. The part then would be in the mail on the same working day.
Although the part would be mailed on the same day, it usually was sent via regular mail because of the low priority number. I was told that the special treatment stopped at that point because of the added expense of overnight mail. But, we noticed that from time to time, a part that we ordered as a routine item with a low priority code would arrive for some reason by overnight mail. I could never get an explanation for why this backward-priority system sometimes was used. I could only assume that the depot had to keep some minimum quantity of express shipments to qualify for discounts with the shipper.
At some point I finally visited one of the depots to resolve a long list of problems, including the shipping issue. When I asked, one of the customer-service guys in the meeting confirmed my suspicion about why some routine requisitions sometimes are shipped by express mail. He then added, “This isn’t in the instruction book, but if you put code umptiump in block such and such on the requisition form, the item will ship overnight, regardless of the priority. But, please don’t abuse it because it costs us extra.” That one bit of information paid for the entire trip, many times over, by decreasing wasted time when one of the aircraft was grounded. And, we never abused the inside information.
I'm working hard to get Out of the Blue into book stores. If you can't find it, ask your favorite book store special order it for you. Or, you can order it at Borders.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com, or directly from the publisher at www.rockpublishing.com.