DOD gives big nod to Lean Six Sigma

Editor's note: This story was updated at 5 p.m. June 4, 2008. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England has ordered all Defense Department components to adopt Lean Six Sigma, a continuous improvement methodology derived from systems engineering and operations research.

In a departmentwide directive issued May 15, England instructed all components to use Lean Six Sigma to improve productivity, mission performance, safety, flexibility and energy efficiency. The process-improvement methodology seeks to reduce variability and eliminate waste.

In April 2007, England instructed the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Business Transformation to create the Continuous Process Improvement/Lean Six Sigma Program Office to expand the use of Lean Six Sigma throughout the department. The new directive signals the growing importance of Lean Six Sigma in DOD’s business transformation efforts.

“The May 15 directive institutionalized the deputy secretary of Defense's plan to make Continuous Process Improvement/Lean Six Sigma a permanent part of the DOD culture,” said Beth McGrath, the department's principal deputy undersecretary for business transformation.

The directive instructs all components to retain the savings generated by CPI/LSS improvements and use them to further enhance their operational capabilities. It also asks all components to offer career development opportunities related to CPI/LSS and include CPI/LSS in employee performance plans when appropriate.

Lean Six Sigma has two components. “The Lean part of Lean Six Sigma is really a systems engineering methodology; the Six Sigma piece is statistics,” said Vernon Bettencourt, the Army’s deputy chief information officer.

At Army arsenals that are refitting and refurbishing systems as they come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, Six Sigma is effective, Bettencourt said. However, for headquarters staff offices, the Lean piece is a better fit, he said. “We don’t do a lot of repetitive processes up here.”

An exception is the process of certifying information systems based on security risk assessments, Bettencourt said. “For that, we can apply some of the Six Sigma. But again, most of what we are looking at here is on the Lean side of Lean Six Sigma.”

One of the most ambitious Lean Six Sigma projects under way is a joint effort begun in June 2007 by DOD, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management to re-engineer the government’s security clearance process.

Some critics of  Six Sigma say it fosters a belief that all processes can be improved when the best solution might be to eliminate inefficient ones. With the Lean Six Sigma approach, organizations try to eliminate inefficient processes and use Six Sigma to reduce variation and defects in the remaining processes.

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