Lab Without a Mask

Getting value from inspections

by Craig Niemann

Recently, the U.S. Air Force took a hard look at its inspection program. For those of you who have served in any branch of the military, you probably had a time when you were "spit-polishing" the building so when the inspector came in, everything shined. While this approach has been ingrained in the military for generations, there is a better way to do business.

Now, the internal inspection agencies are not looking for the spit-shine, they are instead focusing on the internal programs used to detect and correct noncompliance.

In the latest issue of Air Force Instruction 90-201, The Air Force Inspection System (AFIS), the focus is clear:

Inspection is an inherent function of command exercised at every level to evaluate the state of discipline, economy, efficiency, readiness and resource management. Inspection preparation is inherently wasteful if not directly aligned with mission readiness. Units are inspection-ready when commanders focus on mission readiness and on building a culture of disciplined compliance in which every airman does his or her job right the first time and when no one is looking. The intent of the inspector general is to continuously improve the AFIS so there is an ever-shrinking difference—both real and perceived—between mission readiness and inspection readiness. Airmen and commanders must stay focused on the mission and not the inspection.1

Broader application

By now you may be asking, "What does this have to do with measurement?" This same focus is necessary in your calibration laboratory for increased performance.

One of the most important tools used in the Air Force metrology system is an over-the-shoulder evaluation called a process review (PR). Each calibration technician will receive at least two of these evaluations every year to establish confidence in his or her competence. Additionally, there is a requirement to perform a PR on the various measurement disciplines in the laboratory, such as capacitance, resistance, voltage, frequency, power, phase noise, pressure (air and oil), vacuum, force, dimensional, mass, temperature, torque, tension and flow.

Too often, however, the technician is prepared for the PR instead of using the tool as it was intended. Air Force Technical Order 00-20-14 states the PR is used as "an observation of the technician or process to identify noncompliance and other opportunities for improvement."2 A problem will not be addressed until it is identified, so preparing someone for a PR will only mask the underlying issues.

Instead, managers should focus on training the technicians not to pass an inspection, but to perform the calibration. Train them on the deeper aspects of the science in metrology. If trainers and supervisors focus on the mission, the inspection success will be a byproduct. Additionally, any deficiencies noted during the PR will shore up the training program and ultimately improve the laboratory. This approach will not only work for an internal quality program, but also for external inspections.

Periodically, a team of experts from the Air Force metrology program inspects all Air Force calibration laboratories. The idea of less inspection preparation and more mission-driven focus is influencing this program, as well. The constant practice of building up to an inspection and relaxing requirements is not an efficient or effective use of resources for any organization. Instead, the inspection agency now gives limited notice as to when it will be coming, effectively eliminating the chance to prepare.

In addition, the focus now is on the effectiveness of the internal controls. Inspectors are there to ensure that if a laboratory has already identified a problem, it is actively working on a solution.

So as you look around your laboratory, look at your inspections. Are you using them as intended—to measure your performance—or are you masking the deeper issues?


  1. U.S. Department of Defense, Air Force Instruction 90-201, The Air Force Inspection System, 2015.
  2. U.S. Air Force, Air Force Technical Order 00-20-14, 2014.

Craig Niemann is a chief master sergeant with the U.S. Air Force stationed in Virginia. He is currently the Air Combat Command Precision Measurement Equipment Laboratory Functional Manager and has served as the chief of the U.S. Air Force Laboratory Certification Team. He received his bachelor’s degree from the American Military University in Charles Town, WV, in 2013. Niemann is a senior member of ASQ and an ASQ-certified calibration technician.

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