“If you’re just here to get a black belt, buy one in the gift shop and go home. If you are here to earn a black belt, class starts in 5 minutes.” This is what we used to say to new students who enrolled at the Tae Kwon Do school where I taught. We wanted students committed to learning and earning their next belt and not those looking to simply level up. The Air Force uses a level up model and it is up to us to make sure it is used properly.

Think about your first day out of tech school when your supervisor handed you your 623’s or showed you your TBA tasks required for 5-Level upgrade and gave you a time frame to complete it. Most people take this list as a challenge and try to learn all they can. It even becomes a competition between peers to see who has the most tasks or toughest tasks signed off first. It reminded me of playing a video game.

In video games, we look for the fastest and easiest route to level up. We all knew where the “warps” were in Mario and how to get extra lives in Contra and where all the Easter eggs are hidden in all of our favorite games. We wanted to beat the game. Why? We can quantify levels and victories. We can say, “I am 80% complete for my 5-Level tasks.”

It is much harder to articulate the quality of skills; however, we all intuitively know each others ability. For example, we talk about the person who is talented at their job by saying, “if you need a good panel guy, go grab Mike.” We don’t say, “ok we have a problem, I need someone with 99% of their 5-Level tasks completed.” We seek quality, but chase quantity.

This is a tough thing to beat as we all have to answer to our bosses about the status of our trainees. On a flip note, we all have to answer for the quality of our trainees too. I spent time each morning explaining a QA fail or mistake made in our workcenter to my boss. Many of which could be traced back to a level up mentality. I rarely was questioned when a true craftsman did something amazing that could only be accomplished after years of mastering their craft. Why? Because we are trained to think about things that can be measured.

If it’s measured, it matters. How else could our leaders manage a 500+ person squadron without metrics and watching trends? This is why it is up to us as to inspire our teams to value quality and recognize those mastering their craft. We need to be more involved in the development of our 3-Levels in upgrade to ensure they are learning the tasks and not just checking them off of the list. It is not likely our level up system will change anytime soon, but we can control the quality of those on our teams.

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