Practicing Quality in Kabul

by Ted Bernhard

When I was deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Free-dom (OEF) in April 2005, I knew it would have an incredible impact on my life and family. I would be gone for a year, and my whole purpose would be uniquely different.

I was a reservist, so from a job perspective, I would transition from being a quality process and configuration management engineer at Ray-theon to a base camp engineer in the Middle East.

My focus would change from software configuration and quality to the war on terrorism. My daily routine would change from software team meetings to battle update briefings, software configuration control boards to base camp planning boards, software management reviews to maintenance and repair work order reviews.

While deployed, I had some time to reflect on what I do from a quality perspective. As a recently certified software quality engineer now a deployed soldier, I had to reconcile a 180-degree change in my occupation. I discovered a few common threads of quality that can be applied to the two seemingly different roles.

Focusing on the Customer

Upon arrival in Afghanistan, I was assigned the position of director of public works for a three-star general headquarters in Kabul. My role in the camp centered on maintenance, infrastructure and new facility construction.

Our office could make a very positive impact on OEF and the morale and welfare of the service members. They were our customers, and we did anything we could to improve their operational mission and quality of life. Staying customer focused was one of our top goals.

Consider these customer friendly ideas that have worked for us:

  • Lessen your customer’s load. If customers know they are being taken care of, they can spend their time and energies on other concerns.
  • Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Other issues must wait until the customer’s immediate needs are met.
  • Ensure your customers know how your capabilities can help them. This is done through basic marketing.

Understanding Customer Requirements

Soliciting and developing good requirements was also paramount to the type of work we did in camp. It seemed the same principles for developing engineering requirements also applied to base camp construction in a contingency environment. If we could meet the customer’s intent and ask the right questions up front, we would ultimately save resources and achieve a better solution.

This approach worked on a small scale, such as building a shelving unit for a colonel, and a large scale, such as designing and building a new fitness center for the camp tenants.

The burden of defining customer requirements, it seemed, shifted toward us. However, if we took the responsibility of extracting exactly what the customer wanted and needed, we helped eliminate guesswork or fuzzy requirements. We found the following guidelines useful:

  • Understand the customer’s intent and concept of operations.
  • Make an informed build vs. buy decision. Do the requirements match what we can provide the customer?
  • Make an effort to speak the same language, whether it is literal, technical or industrial.


Deciding what to work on and when to work on it can be a major challenge in the military. There is often a shift in priorities at both the macro and micro levels. For example, at one time, the high level OEF focus was to eliminate the threat of Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces. We still mitigate those threats today but have started to execute a more subtle form of security assistance with our presence. With the threat lessened, we have started to facilitate a stable economy, free elections and independence.

In the department of public works, we dealt with constant mission change, but at a lower level. Daily missions might swing from fixing a high voltage utility line to making sure the commanding general got his washer/dryer unit installed. Both were required tasks with different priorities. However, when the general wanted something done, we shifted priorities to accommodate him.

With your own work environment in mind, consider these suggestions:

  • Execute to the customer’s priorities, not yours.
  • Focus on anticipating and understanding your customer’s shifting priorities.
  • Automate your workflow to better balance competing priorities.

How are you meeting your customers’ expectations? Take a look at the three common quality principles I’ve illustrated from the perspective of your own operations.

As I return to the States after my yearlong deployment and transition back into my civilian career at Raytheon, I’ll carry forward an even sharper concentration on quality and meeting the needs of all my customers. Part of Raytheon’s strategy is to “develop and provide superior customer solutions.”1 I plan to carry that out with a new focus.


  1. 1. Raytheon’s Vision, Strategy, Goal and Values, www.raytheon.com/about/vsgv.

TED BERNHARD is a major in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is returning after serving a year in Operation Enduring Freedom in Bagram Airfield and Kabul, Afghanistan. He is assigned to the U.S. Army Facility Engineer Group, Facility Engineer Center-Southwest, facility engineer team #12 in Grand Prairie, TX. Bernhard is also a software configuration manager for Raytheon in McKinney, TX. He has a master’s degree in applied science-engineering management from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Bernhard is a member of ASQ and a certified software quality engineer.

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