AMC blazes trail for Lean Six Sigma in DOD

Advocates contend methodology has universal applicability, but critics warn it can inadvertently limit the ability to respond to changing circumstances

Supporters of Lean Six Sigma had reason to celebrate after a May 15 directive signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England. The directive ordered the full range of Defense Department organizations to adopt the process improvement methodology.

Earlier this decade, LSS had yet to spring from the minds of consultants as a mashup of two existing methodologies, Lean and Six Sigma. Now, DOD is deploying the process improvement method.

Proponents did not start telling skeptics that resistance is futile, but they did reference everything from repairing Humvees to selling weapons abroad to argue for LSS’ almost universal applicability.

“I’ve been at [the job of] of improving process for 20 years, and I’ve never seen a phenomenon like this,”  said Ron Davis, Army Materiel Command deputy chief of staff for business transformation.

AMC is leading the way with Lean Six Sigma at DOD. The command first applied LSS techniques in 2002. Its successes helped convince Army officials to implement the methodology in 2005, a precedent for this spring’s departmentwide adoption.

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The DMAIC Methodology

The Red River Depot in Texarkana, Texas, is one of AMC’s most notable LSS successes. The facility repairs war-battered vehicles, including Humvees. When managers started applying LSS in 2004, workers repaired one Humvee every two days, said Mike Lochard, the depot’s maintenance production director.

Fourteen months and several value stream analyses later, the depot was repairing about 27 vehicles a day, with the capacity to go to 32 or maybe even 64 with more LSS analysis, Lochard said, adding that only LSS could yield such a dramatic turnaround. The depot could have increased production using other methodologies that have adherents in the private sector – Total Quality Management, ISO 9000, Quality Circles – but none would have produced that leap in quality within such a short time, he said.

At AMC’s headquarters in Fort Belvoir, Va., Davis said experiences such as the Red River Depot’s are proof that LSS works. But he has a different opinion on whether LSS is better than all other process improvement methods. Even the Red River Depot did not start as a textbook example of LSS implementation, he said. Textbook LSS typically requires practitioners to go through a process called DMAIC, an acronym for define, measure, analyze, improve and control.

“They are using DMAIC now, but the foundation of their success was some complementary tools they were using,” Davis said.

And that’s fine, he said. The phrase Lean Six Sigma can mean different things to different organizations.

“The big lesson for AMC is that Lean Six Sigma is not limited to DMAIC or any other set of tools,” he said. He agreed that if AMC had adopted another methodology in 2002, it could have worked as well as LSS did.

Army leaders have emphasized continuity between LSS and its antecedents.

“Back in 1982, it was called Quality and Productivity Improvement,” said then Army Secretary Francis Harvey at a 2005 press briefing. “Then we called it Total Quality Management. Then we called it Business Process Re-engineering. We’ve had several different names for the same thing.”

The Army official charged with implementing LSS across the service warns against focusing too much on LSS’ particularities.

“The disadvantage is that people tend to get dogmatic about it,” said Army Col. Nick Amodeo, director of the Army Lean Six Sigma Program. That’s a trait he discourages.

Those thoughts raise some questions. What exactly is LSS, and is it necessary if any process methodology would do? Why not just demand better results and leave the flavor of the method to individual organizations, meaning they’d be free to pick up or ignore LSS’ propensity for Bhagwan-like adulation by advocates. Davis simultaneously recognized and dismissed that aspect of LSS by saying he didn’t “want to get into the cult-like status of some of these tools.”

Couldn’t DOD push for efficiency without adopting a methodology that borrows imagery from karate schools, calling novices green belts and trainers master black belts?

Origin of the term
Lean Six Sigma is a combination of the Lean manufacturing process developed by Toyota and Six Sigma, a quality methodology developed by Motorola in the 1980s.

As its name suggests, Lean focuses on reducing waste while Six Sigma targets variability to ensure that processes produce consistently predictable results.

About six or seven years ago — in one of those chocolate-meets-peanut butter encounters — consultants decided a combination of the two offers the most comprehensive approach to process improvement.

“There’s no advantages to embracing one and not the other,” said David Lengacher, a senior analyst at consulting firm ICF International and an LSS master black belt.

Most proponents will say there’s no process – with the exception of pure research or creative endeavors – not suitable for LSS. Projects can range from the tactical, such as a production line, to the strategic, such as mapping how different commands interact and assigning their responsibilities, Lengacher said. Big projects often go the DMAIC route – each step has many subprocesses, of course – but smaller projects can be the subject of a kaizen-blitz, which targets simpler problems for quick turnaround. Kaizen is the Japanese word for improvement.

The Army 21st Theater Support Command, the logistics organization for the U.S. Army in Europe, conducted a tactical DMAIC project. The command’s duties include accepting and processing hazardous material and reusing whatever is suitable for redeployment. Something as mundane as a pen could be a hazardous material.

“That process was not in control,” said Markus Müller, an industrial engineer at the command. The average turnaround time from receiving materials to making them available for order was 48 days. That included “all the weekends, but from a customer perspective, you don’t care if you work five days, you care about when can I order the material,” he added.

The LSS team started by measuring the extent of the problem. The team found that the command moved hazardous materials several times before inspectors began sorting through them.

By documenting the processes in a control chart, which is part of the measure phase in DMAIC, the LSS team realized the command wasted a lot of time just shuffling materials. So the team started brainstorming, which is part of the analyze phase, for solutions. They decided to demonstrate, part of the improve phase, that integrating the sorting facility with the receiving facility would produce considerable results.

“We had to put trip lines on the conveyor lines in case something spilled,” Müller said. “Emergency showers had to be repaired.” Those improvements cost about $2,000, he added.

A 22-day test implementation, which is a step of the control phase, showed the proposed solution, with some tweaks, was doable. The result was the 48-day process was trimmed to 1.85 days, with cost avoidance estimated at $143,000 in the first fiscal year.

But could the command have produced the same results using another methodology? “We can just use common sense and improve processes, that’s no problem at all,” said Thomas Gruhn, a quality management representative.

Gruhn and Müller said LSS brought two things to the table. First, statistical rigor – although LSS is hardly unique in using analytical statistics.

But the other thing was different from previous attempts at process improvement. Namely, more hands-on involvement, both from workers and leadership. ISO 9000, for example, tends to be a “management-style look at processes,” Gruhn said. “Now with LSS, we go into the process, talk to the process people,” he added.

Amodeo said brainstorming with workers also is not new – Total Quality Management calls for it, too. But with LSS, workers are more intimately involved in creating the solutions and discussing the problem at their work place, not in an off-site office or classroom where people might strain to remember revealing details. In essence, LSS allows senior managers who are determined to use top-down clout to make changes that come from the bottom up.

AMC’s Davis concurs. “That’s the genie in the bottle — we’ve got people excited about what they’re doing.” Davis makes it sound as if LSS were almost a bystander to the real revolution: the culture of improving processes is finally taking root. LSS “has seized the imagination and the support of the workforce as well as the leadership. I’ve never seen that happen before,” he said.

A big reason for that is the continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Davis added. With troops on the front line, members of the rear guard know why their work is important. Those conflicts have “provided a clear reason for everybody to understand why getting business is important.”

As a prominent sign at the Red River Depot reminds its workers, “We build it as if our lives depend on it. Theirs do!”

No free lunch
Nevertheless, critics have doubts about the methodology. Rand Senior Economist Frank Camm doesn’t consider himself a critic, but he does leaven LSS appreciation with skepticism. “Lean Six Sigma is an extraordinarily powerful tool,” he said. “You have to be careful what you ask for.”

LSS can lead to solutions that might look good on a small scale but aren’t optimal at the enterprisewide level, Camm said. For example, if a depot decides to maximize its productivity, it might do so at the expense of a quick turnaround time for in-demand items. Yes, workers are busy, but for the entire Army, it could be better to let some of the workforce be partially idle so they could maximize turnaround time, he said.

Davis said AMC has means of ensuring that tension between the local and larger level doesn’t occur. For example, the command has a universal set of metrics for its depots so that a single installation can’t craft counterproductive improvements.

ICF’s Lengacher dismissed Camm’s scenario as outside the realm of LSS implementation. The methodology is supposed to create a holistic look at processes that take into account systematic repercussions, he said. “Those previous methodologies would say optimize this or that. Lean Six Sigma looks end to end.”

However, don’t look to retired Army Col. Christopher Paparone to defend LSS. He considers himself to be a full-throated critic. The associate professor of the Army Command and General Staff College’s logistics and resource operations department said he thinks LSS is one of a long line of management techniques that attempt to foretell the future at the expense of an organization’s ability to respond to unforeseen circumstances. Latent resources within the system allow for flexibility, which is antithetical to a methodology that seeks to maximize as much as possible, he said. Some fat in an organization is good, Paparone said.

When presented with this argument, many LSS advocates disagreed. “A lot of people hide things, save things in case of an emergency – that’s old school,” Amodeo said. “If you have to do that, obviously the process is not working at its highest capacity.” A lean organization reacts better to unexpected circumstances, he added.

Organizations might need some slack, Lengacher said, but LSS at least lets them make that trade-off methodically.

“There is no free lunch here, there is a cost to holding excess inventory of anything,” Lengacher said. LSS doesn’t automatically require an organization to shed that inventory; it just gives them quantitative tools to make an opportunity cost decision.

Lengacher said he knows a sure-fire way to provoke silence when debating LSS’ practicality.

“If you’re not going to try to continuously improve and you’re badmouthing the way the best organizations are doing it today — that’s fair, you can badmouth it and you can raise great doubts about it. But my question is: What’s the alternative?”

Reader Comments

Mon, Dec 29, 2008 Eric Melton HQ NETCOM

LSS and Business Process Improvement should be used as an ENABLER of drawdown and streamlining for effectiveness. Unfortunately, many are married to DMAIC, fixing processes, when sometimes a defined process doesn't really even exist. LSS also includes DESIGN methodologies (DMEDI, DfLSS) that can help CREATE (or even help automate) a process, and this could often be used instead of stubbornly checking DMAIC boxes. The beauty of these is that the LSS principles of taking into account the VOC (Voice Of the Customer), or perspective of anyone who will touch/use the process, and that aspect is usually absent when processes or automation are created initially (thus we do have some broken or incomplete processes to fix). I agree with the "use what works" philosophy, but there are more possibilities in the LSS toolkit that need further exploration. LSS certainly does help workers take ownership and pride in their work, and that's a great thing.

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