A Conversation with ... Cathy Contreras

By DLA Public Affairs

PRINT  |  E-MAIL
For the non-Department of Defense or non-acquisition DLA employee, what is your role as DLA Aviation’s acquisition executive and head of contracting activity?

I see my role as having three components: acquisition workforce development, acquisition compliance and tactical and strategic procurement execution. I’m involved with all aspects of the acquisition process, from helping develop and approve acquisition strategies, to working supplier incentives/disincentives to link to customer desired outcomes, to approving tactical or strategic contract awards based on the dollar value and criticality of the contract.

In addition, one of my primary responsibilities is to ensure we have a well-trained workforce and are providing them the tools they need to execute our missions.

How do you ensure a well-trained workforce?

I’m focused on both entry-level and journeyman-level training. While we have a robust DLA Pathways to Career Excellence Program [also known as PaCE] for training entry-level contracting professionals, I believe there are always opportunities for improvement. I’ve tasked a cross-organizational team to look at the PaCE program from end-to-end and come up with recommendations to refresh the material and delivery mechanisms. As part of that process, we’re working collaboratively across DLA’s field activities to leverage best practices in workforce development.

We’re also working on ways to develop more tailored training to meet the specific needs of our journeyman workforce. Once on the floor, our buyers may have different needs, depending on the type of buys they routinely make. For example, acquisition specialists working in an area buying bearings may need to be more familiar with the process to obtain a domestic non-availability determination than a buyer working in chemicals and petroleum. My goal is to make training time as meaningful as possible. We’re evaluating a number of different delivery mechanisms — from using an embedded subject matter expert network to creating on-demand desktop videos.

How do you make sure you are meeting the compliance end of the balancing act?

I’m frequently asked the question, “What is more important — speed or quality?” The answer is, they are equally important. Let me expound a bit on what I mean by that. As leaders, we need to make sure our folks are doing things the right way and as efficiently as possible. We should not skip required steps in order to do things more quickly. Nevertheless, if there are steps in the process that are not value-added or necessary, we need to identify those and “lean out” the process. It’s my job to help the workforce meet both goals by giving them the tools and systems they need, and by being their advocate in getting the improvements they need to provide quality products.

We regularly conduct in-house reviews on our processes, asking ourselves: Was the contract properly written? Did we follow Department of Defense regulations, DLA policy and guidance? As the agency went down an audit-readiness road over the past couple of years, we focused on our internal processes quite a bit. In addition to reviewing ourselves, DLA Aviation was the first agency activity to participate in an Agency Management Review conducted by DLA headquarters in February, and we did great! The review was a way of “checking the checker.” I never look at these reviews as a way of criticizing actions taken. Reviews help us understand the landscape we operate in, ways we can improve our processes and are part of our DLA Aviation Process Excellence culture.

What is the difference between tactical and strategic acquisition execution?

I would categorize our tactical workload as our day-in and day-out procurement processing necessary to meet our customer needs. At DLA Aviation, we process approximately 7,500 manual actions a month across our consumable and depot-level reparable procurement sites. We handle over 16,000 post-award actions a month. In addition to our manual execution, we process over 20,000 delivery orders on long-term contracts and 2,000 automated purchase orders. We run a huge acquisition machine.

Increasing our long-term strategic contract coverage is critical to continuing to improve acquisition lead-time. However, that strategic engagement is not possible if the tactical workload is not moving. The remaining tactical workload becomes more difficult to execute as we move more of the work with recurring demand to strategic vehicles. I say that to point out that in order to provide effective support to the warfighter, we need to execute both bodies of work successfully.

Over the last several years, we have continued to drive down our overall administrative lead time. We streamlined processes in both strategic and tactical execution and those efforts have really moved the needle. We also focused on building agile, long-term, performance-based logistics contracting strategies, which we called our Captains of Industry Supplier Capability Contracts. Our strategies increased customer support, at a greatly reduced cost to the department, and created an ability to quickly respond to emergent customer requirements and deliver results.

Whether the buys are tactical or strategic, part of my job is to help foster positive working relationships with our [military] service requirement communities to make sure we execute acquisition strategies that meet their needs.

What are some actions senior leadership can take to ensure future acquisition success?

I think in any field, acquisition or otherwise, senior leaders can help ensure success by investing in their people. We at DLA Aviation have a diverse workforce — culturally and generationally. As we work to develop our employees, we need to realize one size doesn’t fit all, and tailor our approach. We also need to encourage critical thinking. It’s important to understand policies and regulations, and if necessary, question the “why” behind the actions we take.

We need to foster external and internal relationships with our retail and wholesale customers, with our suppliers and with our co-workers. It is critical for our employees to see and understand the role they fulfill daily and the results of their efforts. We try to do this by bringing warfighters and aircraft to Defense Supply Center Richmond, Virginia, and having employees go on field trips to customer locations or visit our industrial support activities to see firsthand the weapon systems they support and meet the mechanics who maintain them. Our workforce’s close connection to our military services, through being retirees themselves or other family members serving, is also without a doubt the basis of our success.

As leaders, we need to bring the right people into discussions through joint integrated process teams. We need to emphasize cross-process collaboration because acquisition is truly a team sport. For example, when determining how a buy should be executed, the acquisition specialist will have unique insight into industry capabilities and capacities, the product specialist will understand potential challenges in the technical requirements, and the planning community will best understand customer demand patterns and DLA’s supply posture to support. It takes all of these elements working together to be most effective.

DLA Aviation employees are committed to serving the needs of our warfighters and other customers, but as former DLA Aviation Commander Air Force Brig. Gen. Allan Day recently said at our 2017 senior leadership conference, “Are we letting good enough be the enemy of getting better?” We always need to look for ways to improve.

DLA Aviation has embarked on a process improvement journey we are calling DLA Aviation Process Excellence, or Apex. For improvements to take place, leadership and employees both need to continue looking for and be open to new ways of doing things. Leadership needs to support innovation, understanding there is some risk and failure is sometimes an opportunity to learn. We are the ones who can empower our people to make decisions and make it clear that they have our support in the decisions they make. For example, as we embark upon innovative strategic acquisition approaches to deliver improved customer support, we are pushing the capabilities of our existing systems and processes. Even when we make every effort to engage all functional areas up front, there are times when we miss a secondary or tertiary effect of a process or system change. When that happens, we circle the wagons, get the right folks in the room and figure out how to resolve the problem. We don’t try to Monday morning quarterback or figure out who shot John. At this point, it is most critical to learn from the experience and move ahead. If we want our workforce to take risk, we have to be willing to accept that we will make mistakes.

With the changes in leadership at the highest DoD levels, what changes do you see for DoD acquisition?

I think there will be a continued focus on efficiency in the acquisition process. Our years of implementing the Better Buying Power initiative may come under a different name with changes in the administration, but the focus on finding efficiencies will remain. I think we will also see increased focus on cost. The challenge will be to continually improve effectiveness across the department while driving cost down. We need to create vehicles that leverage the best of both government and industry capabilities. Another big part of my position is industry engagement. We need to understand the capabilities that our industry partners bring to the table and leverage those capabilities to deliver sustainment solutions that are both more effective and more affordable. In my opinion, we need to think holistically and outside of our typical agency swim lanes to ensure we leverage the power of the department. I think there will be an increased focus on driving costs down through negotiation, offering incentives, and linking supplier profitability to performance even more than before. I think our Captains of Industry Supplier Capability Contracts will continue to grow because of the agility in these contracts to create tailored solutions and their ability to provide end-to-end sustainment support.