In today’s U.S. Army, it’s not caissons that are rolling along. It’s Lean Six Sigma.

From the mess hall at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, to the recruiting command at Fort Knox, Ky., to the Texas depot where beat-up Humvees are rebuilt to go back into combat, the sweeping rollout of Lean Six Sigma is helping the Army transform its business practices and free up resources – all to better equip and support the soldier.

The deployment is Army wide, making it the largest Lean Six Sigma deployment ever attempted, eventually encompassing 1.3 million employees across the globe.

With war being fought on more than one front, the stakes for process improvement have never been higher.

A Need for Change

Michael A. Kirby, deputy under secretary of the Army for Business Transformation, said there was a compelling need to do business differently. The Army is “a highly efficient, ultra-modern 21st century war-fighting machine,” he said, “but…our business practices are mired in mid-20th century practices.” Lean Six Sigma is a main focus in the Army’s transformation efforts.

Six Sigma in the US Army
Lt. Col. Marko J.E.Nikituk, Army program director of Lean Six Sigma; Michael A. Kirby, deputy under secretary of the Army for Business Transformation; and Ronald E. Rezek, special assistant to the acting secretary of the Army.

The goal of the Lean Six Sigma deployment, which includes civilians and contractors as well as active duty, Army Reserve and National Guard personnel, is to “make the business side of the Army as efficient as the war-fighting side is effective,” according to Ronald E. Rezek, special assistant to the acting secretary of the Army.

“On the war-fighting side, they make adjustments in the operations area each and every day,” Rezek said. “When they come back from a mission, the first thing they do is debrief, update and adjust. We don’t have that rapidity on the business side of the Army.”

On the contrary, the business or institutional side of the Army has long been notorious for bureaucracy.

Kirby pointed out that business practices in government are identical to those in the private sector. “All those warfighter-generating activities, not things done on the battlefield but all those things that get an army ready to go into the battlefield – purchasing, logistics, healthcare, human resources, etc. – those things are ripe for the application of modern business practices,” he said. “We can benefit by taking right off the shelf those things that work in the private sector and applying them to our business practices.”

A civilian who has held his post since it was created in 2006, Kirby is uniquely qualified for the job. Not only does he have an MBA from the Harvard Business School and worked for Northrop Grumman prior to this position, his background also includes military service. He was educated at West Point and the National War College and commanded a tank battalion in the first Gulf War, as well as serving a stint in the office of the Army chief of staff.

Broad Deployment Followed Successes

Organization Profile

Organization: U.S. Army (includes the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard)
Founded: 1775
Number of members: 1.3 million
Number of operations worldwide: 4,100
Number of countries: 120
2006 budget: $175.8 billion (includes supplemental)
2006 spending: $175.8 billion (includes supplemental)

The Army-wide deployment of Lean Six Sigma began in late 2005, under Francis J. Harvey, then secretary of the Army, who was appointed in 2004. Lt. Col. Marko J.E. Nikituk, Army program director for Lean Six Sigma, office of the deputy under secretary of the Army for business transformation, said the deployment grew out of Harvey’s transitional team looking at where they could improve the organization during their watch.

Smaller Army deployments of Lean Six Sigma had already begun and those successes pointed the way. Lean Six Sigma was drafted into the Army in 2002 through the Army Materiel Command (AMC). The command’s critical support function is best explained by the description on AMC’s website: “If a soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, communicates with it, or eats it – AMC provides it.”

Lt. Gen. N. Ross Thompson III, who is currently serving as military deputy/director, Army Acquisition Corps, office of the assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, was at that time the commanding general of the Tank-automotive and Armament Command (TACOM) which falls under AMC. Thompson knew, in his first months at TACOM, that a major change in day-to-day operations had to be made.

“Our demands, what we were being asked to do, were up significantly because this was immediately post-9/11,” he said. “The command had a lot of additional missions that were coming its way, but additional dollars and people to do those missions were not forthcoming. So we needed a way to get more productivity out of all of our business areas and out of our people.”

Thompson and his command began looking at what options were available and began benchmarking against various organizations and methodologies.

“We discovered some very good examples outside the government, and inside with a couple of Air Force depots,” Thompson said. “Warner Robins Air Logistics Center…was putting mostly Lean in place and getting good results. So we had an example that said, yes, this can work in a government organization. That helped reinforce the decision to try to do this in the Tank-automotive and Armament Command.”

Red River Army Depot near Texarkana, Texas, one of TACOM’s repair and maintenance facilities, was the first Army depot to implement Lean Six Sigma. It achieved dramatic results in continual stages of improvement and led the way for other depots. (See “Building It as If Their Lives Depend on It”).

The Order to Move Forward

The leap from deploying Lean Six Sigma in the manufacturing arena to deploying it throughout the entire Army was not as daunting a task as it might seem. “It followed the military model, which is centrally plan and de-centrally execute,” Nikituk said.

Six Sigma Snapshot

Deployed: 2005
Number of Belts trained:
> Green Belts: 1,240
> Black Belts: 446
> Master Black Belts: 15
Number of projects: 1,069
completed, 1,681 active
Financial benefit/savings:
Nearly $2 billion

“We asked for all the commands and staff to identify the processes that were giving them problems in October 2005 and to identify the brightest and best people with the sensitivity for learning the tools,” he said.

Nikituk explained that the Army brought an outside group on board to provide training to Army personnel, with the goal of becoming self-sustaining by fiscal year 2008. The Army also decided on a software tracking tool that would not only track progress and projects, but also allow all commands in the Army to use the data from any command’s projects.

Training began in June 2006. In addition to Champion training through executive leadership workshops, the Army has trained 446 Black Belts and more than 1,200 Green Belts to date. Those figures do not include personnel who came to the Army with Six Sigma certification.

“We are striving to achieve in the thousands of Black Belts and Green Belts this year,” Nikituk said.

In an Aug. 3 ceremony, the Army celebrated the graduation of 15 Master Black Belts, who will now pursue certification.

Similarities to the Private Sector

As in private industry, the Army is using Lean Six Sigma to create a culture of continuous process improvement. Lean provides speed and efficiency by eliminating waste and non-value-added activities; Six Sigma reduces variation and defects. One of the big weapons in the Army’s new arsenal is value stream analysis, which is helping identify where there are redundancies in effort and resources. By reducing the cycle time in a particular process, productivity is increased and costs are decreased. For the warfighter, this translates into dollars that can be used for other priority needs.

The Army’s Lean Six Sigma deployment is also similar to civilian deployments in regard to issues like resistance and buy-in. Although resistance in a command structure like the Army’s is less of a problem than in a private sector enterprise, it was still a consideration.

“The application of Lean Six Sigma in the Army was revolutionary,” Rezek said. “When you do something revolutionary, you have to start at the top.”

Rezek explained that during 2005 and early 2006 the Army’s generals and members of the Senior Executive Service (a corps of men and women charged with leading the continuing transformation of government) all went into classrooms for two days of executive awareness training to get acquainted with Lean Six Sigma and with their responsibilities in the deployment. These upper-level training classes were conducted in various places around the country and the globe.

“The resistance was far less than anticipated,” Rezek said. “There’s always some with the mindset that say I can wait this thing out – I’ve been through it before. But once you do projects and everyone sees tangible, provable, data-driven results, people want to be a part of the team.”

Kirby emphasizes that the Army is following a top-down, bottom-up approach, with the leaders soliciting the input of the people who perform a process in order to help make the process leaner and more efficient. Everyone is being asked to look at their own work space daily and think how to do business better.

Rewriting the Metrics

One of the differences between the Army’s deployment and a deployment in the private sector is in the metrics.

“We used industry best practices to lay out a plan,” Kirby said, “but what we are finding is that we are rewriting the metrics for somebody our size. We are still benchmarking this, but we are probably in the neighborhood of a 10-times greater return on a given Black Belt or Master Black Belt project than the industry-wide metric.”

The use of a web portal for sharing project data plays a key role in this level of success. If one command completes a successful project, another command performing the same function can make use of that information to achieve the same results without having to undertake the project itself.

According to Thompson, the pivotal Army metrics on any given project are cost avoidance/cost savings, cycle time improvement, and improvement in the quality of the product or service. “At least one of those has got to be significantly improved as a result of doing a project,” he said. “I maintain that all three can be improved – if you do this right, you can get all three.”

Proof Positive

Things already appear to be going in the right direction. Army leaders expect to reach a $2 billion savings mark this year.

Green Belt Dennis Dean Kirk, associate Army general counsel for strategic integration/business transformation, has worked on several Lean Six Sigma projects, one which saved the Army more than $400 million. That project was aimed at the Army’s Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif. The center was supposed to be providing foreign language instruction primarily to Army personnel – at an 80 percent to 20 percent ratio, with the 20 percent made up of personnel from other branches of the armed services, plus employees from the CIA and other agencies.

Kirk’s project revealed that far more personnel from outside the Army were taking classes. “People don’t understand that when you do something for another agency, it comes out of your own hide,” he said. “Money that is supposed to go for uniforms, bullets and tanks goes for training someone else.”

The project required a team of Department of Defense (DoD) people and the writing of a new rule for the defense review that is conducted every four years by the DoD. It put the language training facility back in balance, specifying that the non-Army agencies taking advantage of the language classes will “share and equate the burden” of cost.

“Lean Six Sigma empowered me to do what people would normally say is a bridge too far,” Kirk said.

What Other Armed Forces Are Doing
with Continuous Process Improvement

The Army is not the only branch of the armed forces with a renewed focus on continuous process improvement:

Department of the Navy, comprising the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps: The Department of the Navy’s Lean Six Sigma efforts started about five years ago, but the full-blown deployment happened in 2006, after Donald Winter came on board as the secretary of the Navy. Like the Army’s Kirby, he also worked at Northrop Grumman Corp. and TRW Automotive and was familiar with Lean Six Sigma.

So far, the Department of the Navy has trained or is training 30 Master Black Belts, 1,001 Black Belts and 4,221 Green Belts. More than 7,900 Champions also have been trained. The Department of the Navy offers an online White Belt course, which more than 29,000 personnel have taken. Nicholas Kunesh, special assistant to the secretary of the Navy, estimates savings for 2006 and 2007 to be $450 million. The return on investment: 4-to-1.

U.S. Air Force: Launched this year, Air Force Smart Operations 21 (AFSO 21) is the Air Force’s organization-wide continuous improvement effort. Headed by Gen. T. Michael
Mosley, Air Force chief of staff; and Michael Wynne, secretary of the Air
Force. The effort uses primarily Lean Six Sigma and elements of Six Sigma, the theory of constraints and business process reengineering.

More than 400 Green Belts, 110 Black Belts and 13 Master Black Belts have been or are being trained. Another 50 Black Belts and 50 Master Black Belts are scheduled for training. While project-tracking software lists 65 projects completed and 128 in progress, “there are many more projects and initiatives that have been accomplished,” said Lt. Col. Jim Schaefer with Air Force media relations. He said the Air Force is building on several years of experience in its Air Logistics Centers, which received two Shingo Prizes last year.

Lt. Col. Schaefer did not provide savings figures, but he said the “Air Force has already committed to a 40,000-manpower reduction without impairing its operational capabilities due in part to efficiencies gained using AFSO 21 tools and principles.” The Air Force recently awarded a $99 million blanket purchase agreement for consulting to support the program.

Other Army Lean Six Sigma project improvements include:

> Streamlining the recruiting process – The U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox used value stream analysis to analyze and improve the Army’s recruiting process to better meet recruiting goals. The previous process for recruits to enter the Army required 32 steps, 27 approvals and 47 handoffs of information or applicants. With the new process in place, only 11 steps, 14 approvals and 14 handoffs will be required.

> Preventing food waste at West Point – Five young cadets at West Point focused a project on what are known as “voluntary meals” at the academy. “Cadets don’t have to go to supper on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays,” Rezek explained. Using DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control), the five Green Belt candidates determined how to forecast how many students will show up for a given voluntary meal, making food planning easier and more cost efficient.

> Improving foreign military sales – The Army Security Assistance Command has used Lean Six Sigma to improve the processes involved in foreign military sales. Project results reduced lead times by 25 percent, raised the quality of the processes and cut administrative costs by $3.2 million.

Marketable Skills

As an all-volunteer force, today’s Army is acutely aware of the recruitment potential of providing its personnel with skills that will be marketable in civilian life.

“We are certainly using the ability to gain skills, Lean Six Sigma among them, as part of professional development enhancements, which the Army does very well,” Kirby said. The Army has even developed its own program for certifying Belts.

Although it is too early in the deployment to see a significant number of Army-trained Lean Six Sigma personnel taking their skills back to civilian life, Thompson could cite one example.

“An Army colonel I knew very well personally and professionally at Letterkenny Army Depot, Col. Bill Guinn, is very sought after in the consulting business today – not just in the military but with private companies,” he said. “Letterkenny was sort of a model we held up for a while on how to do this.” It was the first Army depot to win a Shingo Prize.

Looking to the Future

Along with the Army, the Air Force and Navy also are doing a full deployment to change the way their departments do business. (See “Other Armed Forces at a Glance.”)

In fact, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England recently issued a Department of Defense-wide memo stating that he wants to use Lean Six Sigma for the basis of continuous improvement across the DoD.

“If we are using Lean Six Sigma to solve complex problems, we need people on the same wavelength we’re on, speaking the same language throughout the enterprise,” Kirby said.

Thompson added, “Without [DoD] understanding of where we’re trying to go, it’ll be a little harder for us to make some of the changes we want to make.”

Thompson pointed out that Lean Six Sigma also is currently being used in some parts of the Internal Revenue Service and the CIA, adding that he thinks it is a positive thing that the methodology is taking root in other areas of government.

“Those who are in government service are beholden to the taxpayers,” Thompson said, “And this is a better deal for taxpayers.”

But foremost, the Army is banking on Lean Six Sigma to provide a better deal for the soldier.

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