How to be ‘Outstanding’ during inspection

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jonathan Wright
  • 81st Mission Support Group
Several assignments ago, I was an inspector on a major command inspector general team. On my first inspection, I volunteered to be the narrator at the wing's inspection out-brief.

As soon as I stepped on stage, I saw pandemonium. The base theater was sizzling with electricity as 500 people were anxiously awaiting my announcement of their Excellent and Outstanding results.

The attendees of this out-brief couldn't wait for me to deliver great news for their wing, groups, squadrons, teams and individuals.
As the briefing started, the audience cheered and applauded when I announced an "Excellent" rating. But when I announced an "Outstanding" rating, the theater actually shook since people were literally jumping out of their chairs with exuberance. I'm looking forward to that kind of experience this October.

I can still see six people who were specifically called up on stage to receive personal recognition as professional performers from the actual inspector general.

Since this was my first inspection, I was very curious to find out what kind of things these people, out of an entire wing, did to warrant such recognition. I was also inquisitive to find out how can a unit excel to an "Excellent" or "Outstanding" level when compliance really equates to a "Satisfactory" rating. I mean, what extra miles do units run in order to warrant the above and beyond recognition?

Throughout the next two years on that assignment, I learned what it takes to get to that level and how the inspection team really thinks.

The first aspect toward success is attitude leading up to the inspection. While we have the "We're inspection ready every day" motto, a reality quickly approaches: we're having an inspection. The difference between WIRED and an inspection is that an inspection is an opportunity to showcase your awesomeness, receive validation feedback, and if it's worthy, capture recognition for individuals and units at all levels. With a proactive attitude toward the inspection, now is the time to accentuate the strengths and best practices.

For starters, merely compliance with checklists is only half way to the goal. Strengths and best practices demonstrate to the IG that the unit is unlike other units among the command.

As I inspected units, I came across "satisfactory" units that proudly complied with policies. I also came across "excellent" units that complied with policies and had strengths to boast and even requested that I validate certain strengths as "best practices."

And then I came across a unit that complied with policies, had strengths in every section of the unit, obviously read previous IG reports to take care of deficiencies that were found elsewhere, and submitted initiatives months before the inspection to receive "best practice" distinctions. In fact, I knew some other units had benefitted from this unit's "best practice" initiatives.

Cautiously, I always knew that as soon as I labeled one unit as "outstanding," other units at other wings will look to this unit as the lead role model. However, it was easy for me to conclude that this role model unit was by far the best unit I have come across out of the entire major command. In short, they deserved the "outstanding" rating.

Another factor in separating the great from the average is quality within the process. As an inspector, of course I looked for compliance. However, as I evaluated beyond the checklist, I was looking for sustained, repeatable processes. In other words, was the compliance the result of one or two experts, or, was compliance the result of a solid process that yielded excellence no matter who performed the task?

To look beyond satisfactory compliance, I wanted to recognize units that had a solid training program and implemented effective tools so that their processes consistently delivered results.

For example, when I first arrived at Keesler, one of the finance specialists at the 81st Comptroller Squadron assisted me with my travel voucher. When I finished completing the form, the specialist pulled out a checklist and went over approximately 20 questions with me to ensure that we captured everything. Not only did he give me the impression that he cared about my voucher, but he demonstrated to me that I was going to receive every entitlement that was in accordance with the Joint Federal Travel Regulation for my travel. I can tell that they have a sustained, repeatable process and the result is compliance no matter who completes the task.

After combining the factors of strengths and "best practices with sustained, repeatable processes, I looked at attitude to further draw the line. As an inspector, I received several attitudes ranging from intimidation, arrogance, shock and even appreciation for my feedback.

The first attitude I wanted to see is how excited the unit was about their mission. Over time, I saw a subtle difference between those units who cared about their mission and those who were excited about it. Caring about the mission was basically doing the mission. Being excited about the mission vibrantly reflected the excellence in all we do core value: How much did the unit invest to make things better? What did they try to improve? Where are the next innovations that the unit is going to explore?

Next, I noted the unit's attitude toward the inspection itself. I'll admit that my Christmas card list was short for my two years on an inspection team, but I wasn't trying to win friends anyway. As an inspector, I wore the same Air Force uniform as the units I inspected. For the good of the Air Force, I wanted their mission to succeed. I also wanted the units to succeed in the inspection. When I found a non-compliance issue, I earnestly brought it to the attention of the unit's leadership.

Interestingly, I received several reactions. Arguments in response to "clean kill" deficiencies weren't helpful and were actually disrespecting my job. On the contrary, some other units would say thank you for the feedback or, "we discovered that deficiency through self-inspection and had implemented effective correction action. Please let me show you how we prevented the non-compliance from recurring."

Sometimes I ran across areas of disagreement--for example, two ways to interpret the same policy. On one hand, a unit had professionally and courteously raised their points. On the other hand, the "argumentative unit" lost credibility on the issues that could be debated. In the end, there was a difference between a healthy rebuttal and a disrespectful one.

Finally, I looked at the attitude among individuals and probably enjoyed this aspect the most. People showed their attitude in a variety of ways, such as sense of urgency, aggressiveness, initiative, and ownership.

On an individual level, I saw people who dreaded me visiting with them. It made me think there was something to hide, and sure enough, I wanted to see what it was. On the flip side, I saw people who eagerly wanted me to visit. They had everything laid out, tabbed, annotated, documented--you name it, it was there.
So I came up with the phrase, "the five-minute test." In five minutes, these kinds of people made it very easy for me to determine that their program was on-point. If it's taking me more than 5 minutes to conclude "greatness" then it's probably not a conclusion that I'll make.

Put it this way, put everything together for the IG, have the checklists answered, and annotate where he can find the documentation instead of making the IG pull teeth to get it. Remember, if it's not documented, it doesn't exist.

Inspectors pay attention to the littlest details; that's why even customs and courtesies are important. It's not that they are egomaniacs and require pomp and circumstance. They actually pay attention to the customs and courtesies as an evaluation of that Airman's pride. For example, when they ask a question, some may think of it as a knowledge drill. Others see it as an opportunity to shine--to be an expert and impress the IG.

This coming fall, we will have an inspection. As they say in the business, "It's the IG's way to stop us from what we were doing just to validate that we can do what we were just doing." Yet believe it or not, they are on the same team.

They want us to succeed. They look forward to hearing how excited you are about your mission and your strengths and "best practices" that you eagerly showcase to demonstrate how you make the mission better. They won't just take the checklist and run, they'll look for consistency from a sustained, repeatable process.

Above all, your attitude toward the inspection, over the next two months and during the big week, will result in positive feedback, validation, and recognition. Let's gear up to make "outstanding" pandemonium!