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Army Improves Equipment Management with Lean Six Sigma

With increased budget cuts and dwindling funding, Army organizations are examining how best to manage budgets and stretch dollars to provide the best logistical support to soldiers. Army organizations at Natick, Mass., USA, are using Lean Six Sigma to establish a joint process to improve the accuracy of the soldier equipment support budget proposals by 50 percent.

Making Requirements Forecasting More Accurate

The Army uses Sustainment System Technical Support (SSTS) funds to modify or upgrade existing equipment during its life cycle. SSTS funds pay for the technical support required to sustain weapons systems through configuration changes, modifications and upgrades. SSTS, a multi-million dollar funding stream, pays for a variety of technical support functions – engineering change proposals, technical data packages, technical support, technical publications, etc.

SSTS-funded requirements are listed in a program objective memorandum (POM). The POM is a comprehensive, detailed description of proposed programs and the resources required to support them for at least six years. Once developed, the POM requirements are fed into a central database and Department of the Army representatives certify the requirements and disseminate the funds based on the current and future needs of the Army.

At the U. S. Army Soldier Systems Center, the TACOM Life Cycle Management Command (LCMC) and the Research Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) partnered on a continuous improvement project to develop a joint, standardized process to improve the accuracy of forecasting SSTS requirements. The sponsors for this project were Lt. Col. Craig Rettie, a product manager from Force Sustainment Systems and Matthew Taylor a Soldier Support Systems group leader with the Integrated Logistics Support Center. They asked Dan Galarza (the author), the Lean Six Sigma deployment director of the Soldier, Readiness and Sustainment Directorate, to lead this Black Belt-level project. The project team consisted of representatives from the:

  • Soldier-Product Support Integration Directorate (TACOM LCMC)
  • Product Manager Force Sustainment Systems (Program Executive Office Combat Support/Combat Service Support)
  • Combat Feeding Directorate (RDECOM)
  • Shelters, Technology, Engineering and Fabrication Directorate (RDECOM)
  • Warfighter Protection & Aerial Delivery Directorate (RDECOM)
  • Logistics Integration Directorate (TACOM LCMC)
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Defining the Problem and Setting the Goals

Co-sponsor Taylor addressed the anticipated results of the process improvemen,t noting that funding for known sustainment needs was critical to providing quality sustainment support for current and future operations. By developing a standardized process to collect, estimate and submit the sustainment requirements, the team would collect empirical data to validate and strengthen the support cost requests.

The sponsors defined the problem as, “The lack of a standardized process for developing the Natick SSTS POM submission results in the failure to capture all true SSTS requirements from a total system viewpoint to include a POM submission accuracy rate of 39 percent.” The failure to capture all of the requirements impacted the POM in two ways:

  1. The POM submissions did not always include all SSTS requirements.
  2. There was an inherent inability to justify SSTS requirements.

After the sponsors defined the problem and determined its impacts, they set project goals: standardize the process and increase the accuracy by at least 30 percent. In addition, during the Define stage, voice of the customer surveys revealed the customer’s requirement and helped validate the problem statement. Three critical customer requirements were identified:

  • Standardize the process
  • Develop credible data to substantiate POM requirements
  • Reflect 100 percent of funding requirements in POM
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Measure

The team then gathered data to measure the SSTS process and develop a baseline related to the problem and its impacts. Below are highlights of the data captured during the Measure phase:

  • Ten systems supported by SSTS funding were not listed in the POM.
  • Only 6 percent of organizational elements maintained an adequate method of tracking and sustaining data on SSTS activities.
  • The average rate of accuracy for developing the POM submission was 39 percent.
  • A survey of POM data-gathering methods indicated that experience was the primary method used to develop the POM.

Analysis and Root Causes

After collecting and analyzing the quantitative and qualitative data, the project team discovered many sub-systems had been overlooked and not included in previous POM submissions. In addition, after examining the various methods among the organizations used to capture historical data for tasks and labor in support of SSTS, the team determined that, in the aggregate, the data was insufficient to justify SSTS requirements as stated in the POM. While the data may have met an internal need, it was of less value in justifying SSTS requirements.

A lack of data can create a challenge when determining the root causes after conducting the analysis. In this case, however, the team used Lean Six Sigma tools, including a fishbone diagram, failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) and measurement system analysis (MSA), to make the root cause determination straightforward and uncomplicated. The root causes of the SSTS problem were:

  • Lack of operational definitions – During roundtable discussions with organizational representatives, there was an evident difference of opinion when defining each of the categories listed in the POM. For example, when discussing request for waivers, organizations listed them under categories varying from “technical data package” to “other,” or did not include them in the POM submission.
  • Lack of historical data – Because the type of data being tracked was not directly related to the POM submission, it was difficult to utilize the information as a planning tool for future projections or to justify SSTS requirements.
  • Lack of standardized procedures to collect and submit data – The MSA indicated that reproducibility and repeatability among the SSTS POM differed based on which organization prepared it. This variation was a significant factor in reducing the accuracy of the POM.
  • Lack of input from subject matter experts (SMEs) – In some cases, SMEs were not asked to provide input for the specialized categories listed in the POM. Someone else determined the input on the expert’s behalf. As a means of crosschecking, the project team asked the SMEs whether the input (provided by someone else) reflected a true assessment of future SSTS requirements. The response by the SMEs confirmed that the information submitted without their input did not represent a true picture of SSTS requirements.
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Improvements/Solutions

After completing the analysis and determining root causes, the team focused on developing solutions to the problem of SSTS POM submission accuracy. Although each root cause was addressed individually during the improvement phase, the solutions were interrelated, and each played a valuable role in resolving the accuracy problem. Following are the solutions implemented:

  • Developed Operational Definitions – A common understanding of the categories and terms was necessary to standardize the process. The team established universal definitions of terms and written descriptions for each category.
  • Developed a Data Tracking System – The team examined the root cause issue of a lack of historical data, as well as the lack of a common process for collecting and submitting SSTS data. The goal was to reduce the amount of variation among the methods used to gather information and forecast SSTS requirements. After extensive research and investigation, the team looked to industry for a technology “best practice” solution to the problem. Using inexpensive, commercial software, the team developed a user friendly, intuitive, web-based, cost accounting tool: SSTS On-Line System. The system allows users to enter a secure website where they record their activities in support of SSTS. Persuading the Natick organizations to use the system and achieving buy-in was easy because it out-performed existing tracking systems. Additionally, it provided a uniform method of capturing data. Users make specific choices ranging from weapon system, type of activity and number of hours. The choices are directly correlated to information required on the SSTS POM submission.
  • Developed Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) – Reducing variation in a process is a goal of any continuous improvement initiative, and the SOP reduced the variations in this project. The SOP captures the details and the agreements on how the Natick-based organizations will collect and submit SSTS requirements as a single entity.
  • Solicited Input from SMEs – In concert with the development of the SSTS On-Line System, SMEs were identified and assigned as users of the web-based system, ensuring that their input was captured. SME input was essential to improving the overall accuracy of the SSTS data.
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Control and Results

The results of the implemented solutions were favorable. Systems previously not identified in the POM have been added and are now tracked and monitored. The accuracy rate has risen from 39 percent to 89 percent. The sigma quality level rose from .78 to 2.60, representing a dramatic improvement in the accuracy of the SSTS forecast. To leverage this information technology tool, transfer of the SSTS On-Line System is being considered for deployment throughout TACOM LCMC.

Commitment to Responsible Use

The ability of the TACOM LCMC and RDECOM organizations to gain better control of their funding streams represents a staunch commitment to using every dollar wisely and responsibly. With the development of operational definitions, the leveraging of information technology, a SOP and the inclusion of SME input, these organizations now have the ability to capture, track, validate and justify their SSTS requirements.

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As a small but vital cog in the wheel of the Army, Natick organizations are working to make every dollar count. According to Rettie, co-sponsor of the project, “As the Natick acquisition community moves forward with the complete inculcation of total life cycle management teaming, projects such as this SSTS submission process represent the fruits of that effort that can be harvested for the gain of the taxpayer, Army and soldier.”

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