Feds train to achieve Six Sigma results

Discipline has saved the Navy millions on 500 projects

Atypical motorist might need an entire afternoon to fill the car with gas, rotate the tires and change the oil. But a skilled pit crew on a raceway could carry out the same tasks in mere seconds.

Pit crews have pared the process down to only the necessary people and movements to achieve maximum efficiency. That concept of reducing wasted motion and eliminating mistakes is at the heart of a management style taking hold in some parts of government.

Six Sigma refers to a project management discipline that emerged about 20 years ago. Its name is derived from a statistical term for the number of standard deviations from the mean. Although it began as a method for improving manufacturing efficiency, federal agencies are applying it to projects such as e-mail administration and engine repair.

Six Sigma is a five-step method — define, measure, analyze, improve and control — that its proponents say should be used repeatedly to continually improve any project.

"It's a philosophy of continual process improvement, and it doesn't matter [which] process," said Dan Munson, a Six Sigma product development manager at Villanova University.

Six Sigma is catching on at the Defense Department, where it seems to fit the military culture, management experts say. Some DOD agencies are taking pieces of the approach and integrating them into an overall management discipline for eliminating waste and improving efficiency.

About a year ago, Naval Sea Systems Command created a program called Navsea Lean by taking concepts from several management techniques, including Six Sigma.

"Folks who started down a pure Six Sigma approach are migrating to a Lean Six Sigma integrated approach, so that is where we are going," said Jim Brice, director of Navsea's Task Force Lean.

For Navsea, responsible for maintaining naval ships and weapons, the Six Sigma-inspired approach encourages managers to closely examine a business operation, such as contracting or information technology support, and look for ways to streamline procedures and deliver better service.

Navsea has introduced Lean Six Sigma programs in 30 of its organizations. In the first year, Brice said, the program is producing tangible effects by saving a total of $200 million on 500 projects.

Mikel Harry, a Six Sigma principle architect, said the average Black Belt trained in Six Sigma can save $188,000 per project on projects of a certain size and can work on four or five projects a year. Black Belt refers to someone who has achieved a high level of Six Sigma management proficiency.

The Army depot in Anniston, Ala., adopted Six Sigma in January after hiring a contractor to offer the 80-hour training program to about 10 managers. The $30,000 classroom courses, added to the cost of missed work hours, were expensive, said Patti Sparks, Anniston's continuous improvement manager. But Army officials expect the training to pay off when they use Six Sigma concepts to redesign several IT and industrial projects, she said.

"It's not a program," Sparks said. "When people say that, it connotes a short run. This should be a way of life."

Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, said Six Sigma's success in the private sector is a good indicator that the federal government will eventually follow suit. But without some pressure on agencies to adopt the principles, many officials won't see it as worthwhile, he said.

Adopting a Six Sigma approach takes a significant amount of time and effort, particularly in the early stages, and officials need the support of agency leaders and the budget process, he added.

"My concern is that we provide our managers with very little incentive to save money," DeMaio said. Congress doesn't congratulate an agency for saving money and allow officials to spend it elsewhere. Rather, the overall funding is reduced in the next budget cycle, he said.

The Office of Management and Budget, DeMaio said, should provide guidance for agencies to begin redesigning projects according to Six Sigma principles.

Much like strategic sourcing, which matured in the private sector before taking off in the government, DeMaio said, the Six Sigma approach might eventually have mandates attached. The concepts can apply to any project, he added, including workforce management and e-government.

Like many new management ideas, Six Sigma requires cultural change. Agencies should expect to work hard and tackle smaller projects first, management experts say.

"Don't expect instant great things now, but do anticipate [them] soon," said Walt Bains, a Six Sigma Black Belt at Robbins-Gioia, a consulting firm that specializes in project and program management. "If you expect to solve all your problems right away, you will be disappointed."

Michael is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Six Sigma mantra: Improve, repeat

What is it?

Motorola executives developed Six Sigma in the 1980s, and General Electric popularized it. It is a reiterative, step-by-step discipline that proponents say can help government reduce waste and improve service. Its steps are define, measure, analyze, improve and control.

Who is using it?

Hundreds of companies have been using Six Sigma for years, and a handful of government agencies are integrating its principles into their project management procedures. At the local level, officials in Fort Wayne, Ind., became trendsetters five years ago by using Six Sigma principles to improve projects such as pothole repair, trash pickup and fire code inspections. City officials say they have saved more than $4 million.

At the federal level, several Defense Department agencies are adding Six Sigma concepts to their management arsenals. The Army and the Navy are incorporating them into acquisition procedures, logistics operations and budget planning, for example. Experts expect Six Sigma to gain popularity in civilian agencies in the next few years.

— Sara Michael

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