FORT BELVOIR, Va. (Army News Service, April 10, 2009) -- Col. Patricia Ryan expected an uphill climb last spring when, as a lieutenant colonel, she volunteered to deploy to Kuwait to oversee the Rapid Fielding Initiative's staging and fielding facility operations in Kuwait and Afghanistan.

After all, she was an MP, and by no means a logistician.

Only a week later, she ranked her job as the assignment of a lifetime.

"You can't help but love coming to work every day," said Ryan, a member of the Rhode Island Army National Guard, just before her return to the States last fall. "Soldiers are aware that they're getting the most modern, most effective, best equipment in the world. We are kind of their last stop on the way forward."

That same month, the entire Rapid Fielding Initiative team, led by Col. Mark Conley and headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Va., was honored for its work by the Army Acquisition Corps. The RFI team received the Army Acquisition Excellence Team Award for Transforming the Way We Do Business. The honor was one of two prestigious annual awards that the acquisition community bestowed on Program Executive Office Soldier in 2008.

PEO Soldier is an Army organization that develops, acquires, fields, and sustains virtually everything a Soldier wears or carries. PEO Soldier's mission is to provide mission-essential equipment that helps Soldiers perform well in combat, keeps them safe, and enhances their quality of life. The Acquisition Excellence Team Award recognizes an Army acquisition work-force team whose performance and contributions set them apart from their peers.

Formed in 2002 to support the Army in waging the Global War on Terrorism, RFI delivers to each and every Soldier and unit deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq - more than 196,000 Soldiers in fiscal 2008 - a list of equipment items that Soldiers themselves have said are vital to their safety, well-being, and effectiveness, from fire-resistant clothing to goggles and ballistic spectacles, improved first-aid kits to knee and elbow pads, and from weapon sights to grenadier accessories.

Tailor-made for Soldiers

The reason RFI was created, Conley said, was that "the chief of staff of the Army looked at Soldiers who were deployed to Afghanistan, and learned that units lacked essential clothing and equipment to perform assigned missions. Soldiers were purchasing commercial-off-the-shelf items to alleviate those deficiencies. So a team of folks assembled from PEO Soldier to do a survey of what the Soldiers' missions were in Afghanistan and what type of equipment they had, and to talk to them about what their shortfalls were."

The result was a list of about 15 items for the early deployers, which ultimately led to the standard package currently fielded to deploying Soldiers. "That list evolved with Soldier input over time," Conley said. Since the RFI process began, Soldiers have been the driving force behind the fielding list, with new items added every year and sometimes deleted if they are provided elsewhere. The current list contains 73 small-unit and individual Soldier items.

"Soldiers are constantly providing us, PEO Soldier, great insight," said Maj. T.J. Wright of the RFI team. "They really define what quality is - quality in product, quality in service."

It is that customer focus that Wright, a West Pointer and member of Special Forces who enjoys the challenges of thinking "outside the box," said he finds so satisfying in his RFI job. As Wright described it, "Everyone's looking at, 'Hey, how can we improve what we're doing'' And you have to be - and I think RFI is, really - on the cutting edge of transforming the way we do business, because it focuses on the Soldier. I've never seen a focus on process improvement like I've seen at RFI, from planning to logistics to the scheduling, the fielding teams, from the director all the way through the organization."

Steeped in terms such as "statistical significance" and "Lean Six Sigma," Wright provides an inside look at the professional, results-oriented culture of RFI. Lean Six Sigma is a school of process improvement that encourages detailed scrutiny of every function and level of activity in an organization with the goal of reducing those that don't contribute value, eliminating unnecessary overlap, and cutting waste.

"RFI, from the director, the leadership and everybody in it, when they work on something, every activity's got to be value-added. We don't want to add waste to the process," Wright said.

Yet RFI, for all its focus on process methodology, is always about the Soldier. "You listen to them, and you listen to enough of them, and you take notes. You can get some statistical significance from a pretty smart population of people," Wright said.

RFI also listens to its other customers: Department of the Army headquarters, U.S. Army Forces Command, and individual Army schools and commands.

RFI itself is a lean organization. The staff, headquartered at Fort Belvoir, consists of Col. Conley; his deputy, Sam Parrish, an Army civilian employee; two other Army civilians; Maj. Wright; three National Guard personnel; and about 15 contractors.

This small cadre of professionals coordinates fielding events with the gaining commands throughout the Army and directs the world-wide fielding operations of the 200-plus individuals who comprise the fixed-site and mobile CONUS fielding teams and the OCONUS fielding teams in Kuwait and Afghanistan.

Master Sgt. Stanley Melvin, a Texas Army National Guard Soldier who is serving his second stint with RFI, was drawn to the organization in 2004 after seeing RFI in action at Fort Hood. He became RFI's adviser in Afghanistan for about a year. Then, in 2007, he was assigned to Fort Belvoir. His assignment is due to end in July, but he hopes to stay until 2010, at least.

"This is where I want to be," Melvin said, "going out there and talking with the Soldiers, introducing the new products. What excites me is dealing personally with the units. You're excited because you're helping troops who are going to deploy to some hostile zones. And doing the coordination, getting this equipment out to them, getting everything set up, just knowing that you're helping your brother Soldiers - I think there's no better feeling."

Melvin tells a story about his work in opening RFI's Kandahar office in Afghanistan to illustrate the RFI team's never-say-never spirit.

"We were at a forward operating base that's near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. We flew in a Chinook and made several stops. When we left it, was a nice day out, I'd say in the high 70s, and when we landed it was just beautiful," Melvin said.

Then nightfall came, "and the temperature dropped, and we were trying to size the Soldiers for their gear. The temperature dropped like 40 degrees over a couple hours' span. No matter what you do, that quick of a drop, you're just going to get cold. But the Soldiers kept coming, and we kept serving them. It doesn't matter, 24 hours, rain, sleet, snow, we're like the mail. We're always going to deliver."

An 'Open Environment'

Back at headquarters, members of the RFI team tease one another good-naturedly as they confer on a problem. The office consists of two rows of cubicles with Conley's and Parrish's offices at the end. "It is a very open work environment," Wright said, in which Conley and Parrish keep the pulse of the organization. "You'll find them walking around, seeing what people need help, talking about ideas and visions, where RFI needs to go. They'll pull people in and get input, and act on insightful input. And they'll give credit, too. It's probably one of the best cultures I've been in in the Army, and I've been in a lot" in 15 years of service.

"The director, Conley, and Sam Parrish, the deputy, want everybody to think in an open way," Wright said. "They say, 'Hey, I understand this is a great process we have, but guess what, requirements are going to change, especially in a time when we're at war, and you have different operational requirements. As the war changes, the enemy adapts.'

"It's all about being effective and efficient, and it's not an individual-run organization. It's been very successful because it's a very team-focused culture."

"They all have a passion for what they're doing," said Conley of his team, most of whom, if they're not in the Army, are retired military. "Most of us went 20 years with the same old load-bearing equipment that the Army had during Vietnam or Korea. And to see the new items come out ... knowing it's the best gear we could possibly give to them, they're doing something good for the Soldiers."

Col. Ryan saw the same dedication among the staff of three National Guard Soldiers and 29 contractors currently stationed in Kuwait and Afghanistan with RFI. Those contractors have more than 370 years of collective military service. "They have the experience," Ryan said. "They all know their jobs so well. They take pride every day in helping Soldiers, taking time to shake their hands, to make a joke, to make them feel good."

Of course, there are skeptics. Ryan has heard the question many times: Is RFI really rapid' "A lot of people say that tongue-in-cheek, you know, that supply always takes a long time," Ryan said. "Before I volunteered for this position, I'd never even heard of RFI. But this really is rapid."

During a visit last fall to RFI's Kuwait facility, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, too, asked Ryan several questions about how RFI worked. In the end, he was convinced.

"I have a newfound understanding of what goes on here," Geren said in Kuwait. "It's done so well that people take it for granted."

(Debi Dawson serves as PEO Soldier Strategic Communications Officer)