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NEWS | April 3, 2009

Paying attention to detail: It's the small things that count

By Brig. Gen. Joe Lengyel Air National Guard Readiness Center commander

Everybody remembers the "big event", whether good or bad - the touchdown pass to win the game, the 3-pointer at the buzzer to win the national championship, the perfect landing in the Hudson River that saved 155 lives, or the fighter that dropped the perfect ordnance and rid the world of some bad guy someplace.

We also recall the pictures from Abu Ghraib, special weapon fuses that ended up in the wrong zip code, or any number of other "Titanic-like" events that were ultimately avoidable.

What most folks don't think about are the thousands or millions of details that had to happen just right to make the big event actually happen. That's why I want to talk about the small things --the details that we neglect or forget about when endeavoring to do great things. I want to emphasize and celebrate the importance of details. Small things matter! When we pay attention to details, we cultivate a culture of greatness and foster a spirit of doing things right and speaking up when we see things going wrong.

Here's a true story to illustrate my point. Roughly 20 years ago, I was playing golf with some friends at Ramstein AB. We were four fighter pilots just out enjoying the day, on the number 10 tee box right by the clubhouse. It's a short par 3 about 130 yards long. Well, three of us hit our shots and for the most part all were OK golf shots, but really were nothing special. When our fourth guy got up, something special happened as he took a wicked whack at the small white ball! The ball launched with ample energy and sufficient loft but it went left and missed the green by a wide margin going into a big tree. We could all hear it rattling around in the tree for what seemed like a long time, and we thought it might be a lost ball. But then, finally, the ball popped out and landed on the green. The club house crowd started to laugh and tease my buddy ... and then, ever so slowly, it started to roll down from the upper green to the lower green - toward the pin! You could feel the surge of excitement from the crowd. Everyone started to stand up, and then - you guessed it - the ball went in the hole. It was hysterical! Folks were high fiving, laughing, and it really was amazing. It was a great day for duffers everywhere.

I've thought about this shot many times since, replaying it in my head. Just between us, I've wondered why I have never had a hole in one and how this goofball hits it in the trees and gets an Ace! I've wondered how many things had to come together just perfectly to correct this wayward shot and make it the most memorable shot I've ever seen. It was a million little things and had any one of them been altered , the outcome would have changed so dramatically so as to make that hole, that day, and that shot not so memorable.

OK, so how does this apply to us and our great Air Force? We are in the business of "doing details" and people count on us to do them well. That's what makes us the greatest Air and Space Force on the planet. The moral of the story is simple - big things happen because of all the small things that occur along the way. Mistakes and errors can be corrected. Vectors can be changed.

A prominent general in our Air Force likes to say if you take care of the small things; the big things take care of themselves. I find much wisdom in this philosophy. In our line of work, our greatest national resource, the lives of our people, are at stake. Our national interests depend on us doing the small things right-all the time.

Here at the Air National Guard Readiness Center, we are in the midst of preparation for a Unit Compliance Inspection in May. Just the fact that I say "preparation" suggests we don't always do the small things the way we should. We all try and tidy up before the Inspector General arrives and to some degree, that's why they come to inspect. I have conveyed to the folks I work with that if we do the small things right all of the time, the UCI will take care of itself. I'm sure we will do just fine!

The next time you see Tiger Woods step up to a par three, you can rest assured he's making every effort to get the ball in that hole on his first shot. And, if he does get that Ace, you can bet that it was the culmination of thousands of balls hit during endless practice sessions...taking the proper stance and using the right grip over and over again. And really, if he does hit it in the hole on the first shot, should you be surprised? No - because he's Tiger Woods and he does all the small things right. And, the small things you do, or don't do, make a difference ever day.