Coming up with a cost-cutting plan to save NATO millions of dollars may seem daunting. But not for a team of five students enrolled in the Executive M.B.A. Program (EMBA) at the Anderson School who were tasked with developing an in-depth strategic business plan for the NATO Air Training Command in Afghanistan.

The Anderson team included (from the left) Saigovind Dandapani, Richard Smith, Guy Cohen, Peter McKeever and Andreas Neuman.

That’s because this intrepid team included a Navy fighter pilot, a former infantry Marine, a U.S. Air Force pilot, a former member of the Israeli army — and a medical device engineer. These students jumped at the chance to help the NATO command group in Afghanistan with this mission: set the conditions for a professional, fully independent and operationally capable Afghan Air Force that meets the security requirements of Afghanistan today and tomorrow.

Their task was just one of the complex projects run through EMBA's Strategic Management Research (SMR) Program which provides organizations around the world with an opportunity to engage a consulting team of experienced professionals who are UCLA Anderson EMBA students. NATO was one of 13 organizations and companies that each worked with teams of five students who were charged with finding solutions to diverse strategic business challenges. Typically, students have an average of 14 years professional experience and collectively contribute an estimated 2,000 hours to the strategic plan for each company.

The task for this particular group of students involved finding ways for the NATO Air Training Command in Afghanistan (NATC-A) to cut costs, increase training productivity and improve the current contract procurement process.

The bottom line: Create a sustainable cost structure for the Afghan Air Force by reducing operating costs $50 million to $150 million annually without sacrificing the organization’s ability to train its personnel and operate effectively. All of this amid complicating factors that include illiteracy, lack of qualified Afghan Air Force instructors, fiscal constraints, operating in a war zone and reduced support from the international community. And the task came with a deadline — a 2014 implementation target date.

Brigadier General John Michel

NATC-A’s commander Brigadier General John Michel, a senior US Air Force officer with a track record for successfully leading large-scale, institutional-improvement efforts, determined that this project proposed a set of “business problems.” Following a discussion with Anderson student and former Air Force pilot Andreas Neuman, Michel turned to UCLA Anderson as a means of tapping thought leadership and perspectives from more places “than the deep recesses of government,” Michel said.

“A business school is a great place to go to get fresh ideas and unique perspectives,” Michel observed. “Often, organizations fail to explore opportunities and seek solutions outside their immediate span of control or influence. Our reaching out to the Anderson School and creating what we playfully term ‘a coalition of the unlikely’ enabled us to bring new talent, relevant experience and innovative insights into our decision space,” he added.

Why was this project so appealing to this team?

For engineer Sai Dandapani, the only team member with no military background, the project would add diversity to his career profile. “It was the most unique among all the projects that were offered and as far away from the tech sector as possible,” he said. “It was a pure business issue that centered around logistics, supply chain, choice of suppliers, contract negotiations and a tiny bit of finance — all things that I wanted to work more on and the reason I was at Anderson.

“It was also my first opportunity to work closely with veterans and active military members,” Dandapani added. “I took that as a privilege, as I learned a lot from them and respect their sacrifices for home and country.”

As a former Marine and military adviser to the Iraqi Army while deployed in 2004, team member Rick Smith found that this project utilized his military operational experience along with his business experience and education, an ideal combination to assist in an important national mission.

“It's not every day that you get the opportunity to work on a project that has elements of business, military operations and geopolitics all wrapped into one,” Smith explained.

The project was not without its trials. Student Peter McKeever recognized that cultural differences would affect some of their proposed recommendations. Neuman found that, as a student group, it was difficult to establish legitimacy with some primary research sources.

According to team member Guy Cohen, “It was challenging to find professionals in various fields to substantiate and validate our research and hypotheses, as we needed experts from the federal government, defense contracting and even from the educational system.”

Perhaps the most significant challenge was “wading through the layers of the federal government to get to people and information that was at the core of the issue we were examining,” admitted Smith. “It took a lot of persistence and significant research, but we also had the pleasure of working with a lot of very dedicated professionals in government, which was helpful.”

Having military experience served the team well, especially when navigating the levels of bureaucracy when requesting material and access to key personnel outside of NATC-A’s direct control.

“We fast became a cohesive crew that tackled specific issues in sub-teams of two or three who would then report back to the group weekly,” said Neuman. “Traveling together and spending some social time with each other also was instrumental in bonding quickly.”

Despite the few obstacles along the way, the team developed and produced recommendations that would best support the project’s objective. Their plan included making improvements to the contracting and acquisition processes, incorporating a set of key performance indicators; providing English literacy courses for pilots and mechanics; and outsourcing helicopter and fixed wing pilot training.

Team members estimated that the latter recommendation alone would eliminate the expenses of aircraft ownership and maintenance by as much as $50 million annually, the project’s floor for success.

The results so far have been positive. The recommendation to move the Mi-17 helicopter training out of Afghanistan will be enacted, and other proposals are going to be evaluated. A few recommendations may be presented to organizations outside of NATC-A, and one of the main implementers of performance-based service acquisition of the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon has asked to be briefed on the findings. The team’s findings may also be included in the next Congressional report.

For McKeever, a Navy F/A-18 pilot who experienced three deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, “this project was a way for me to help the people of Afghanistan with a 'pen' instead of a 'sword.’”

For more on SMR, head to the program's homepage. This piece originally was posted on UCLA Anderson's blog.