DOD rallies around Lean Six Sigma

The methodology has become the Defense Department's

A rankings guide

Much of the emphasis on Lean Six Sigma in the military has been on developing the various belt-color certifications, which Defense Department leaders say are useful for instilling the process improvement ethos of the methodology.

White Belt is the lowest ranked certification. People earn a White Belt after four hours of awareness training in Lean Six Sigma principles. They can work on problem- solving teams to support projects, but they typically don’t work directly on a Lean Six Sigma project.

People who earn Green and Black Belts are responsible for Lean Six Sigma projects. Green Belts typically receive a week or more of training to learn the methodology’s basic concepts and study the program management, team building and statistical analysis methods of Lean Six Sigma.

Black Belts, who manage the projects, receive as much as two years of training in math and statistics, which are part of Lean Six Sigma. They typically have several years’ experience working on projects as Green Belts.

Some consultants say DOD’s emphasis on Green and Black Belt training could have a negative effect.

“In industry, it’s now the Yellow Belts that are the major focus,” said Steve Hawald, an executive consultant at Robbins-Gioia.

“They get three days of training on the five Lean Six Sigma stages and then are put back into their organizations so they can get things done immediately,” Hawald said. “In DOD, it’s still all based on the old Green Belt/Black Belt way of thinking.”

— Brian Robinson

Improve a process in 5 steps

Lean Six Sigma is a rigorous methodology that combines the Lean concept, developed by Toyota to improve its car production system, with the Six Sigma approach developed by Motorola to increase the quality of its products.

Practitioners of Lean Six Sigma go through a series of steps to improve a process. They are:
DEFINE: Determine the problem and define metrics for measuring the problem.

MEASURE: Gather data about the problem and prepare it for analysis.

ANALYZE: Identify why people don’t do what they need to do or why a process fails to provide necessary controls.

IMPROVE: Decide on needed improvements and implement them.

CONTROL: Check to see that improvements are sustained and enhanced.

- Brian Robinson


Lean Six Sigma, a quality-improvement methodology, has taken hold at the Defense Department, where top leaders say it can eliminate inefficiencies in business operations. About two-thirds of DOD organizations, by some estimates, are committed to Lean Six Sigma.

But is it the best approach to solving business process problems? Can it solve all problems, or only some? And how does it contribute to DOD’s transformation efforts? Lean Six Sigma has been in use in various places in the military since the 1990s, but its use greatly expanded after 2000. Then last year, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England announced that Lean Six Sigma should be the basis of DOD’s Continuous Process Improvement plans.

In April 2007, England instructed the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Business Transformation to create a Continuous Process Improvement/Lean Six Sigma (CPI/LSS) Program Office to expand its use throughout the department.

Lean Six Sigma is simply a process-improvement method for reducing variability and eliminating waste. The method has proved successful in industry and the military services, said John Sicilia, director of the CPI/LSS Program Office. “It’s one of a number of tools that are available, but it’s [England’s] tool of choice,” he said.

Six Sigma stands for reducing variability in processes and increasing quality by making processes repeatable.

Six sigma quality refers to processes that produce fewer than 3.4 defects per 1 million. The Lean part refers to the principle of eliminating any steps that don’t add value to a process.

The method is widely practiced in all the services and many DOD agencies. DOD intends to train many people in Lean Six Sigma techniques with the goal of having 5 percent of its employees trained as Green Belts, entry-level practitioners who can apply Lean Six Sigma techniques and concepts in their daily work.

DOD also plans to train 1 percent of its workforce as Black Belts, expert practitioners with more advanced skills in applying that methodology to more complex problems.

The Army is implementing one of the most extensive servicewide deployments. By the end of last year, two years from the official start of the program, the Army had completed about 770 Lean Six Sigma projects, from which it estimated a savings of $1.2 billion in 2007.

“It’s a forcing function for our business transformation,” said Mike Kirby, the Army’s deputy undersecretary for business transformation.

“It’s a readily adaptable commercial best practice that requires very little in the way of human resources, maybe several weeks of people’s attention, and it takes up very little computer time.”

People at the top and bottom of the command chain are using Lean Six Sigma to solve some big problems, Kirby said.

Finding success stories is not difficult. They include:

  • The use of Lean Six Sigma by the Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center. which helped it win the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s 2007 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, one of the top national prizes for performance management and business quality. More than a third of ARDEC employees have at least Green Belt training.
  • The Army’s Red River Army Depot, which used Lean Six Sigma to revamp its Humvee refitting operation. That operation now averages about 23 rebuilds daily compared with three a day previously. In 2007, the depot won one of three Gold Shingo Public Sector Awards given by Utah State University’s College of Business for excellence in manufacturing.
  • The Naval Air Systems Command, which developed a new approach to the Joint Standoff Weapon Block II program by using Lean Six Sigma, generating savings of more than $133 million in fiscal 2006 and more than $420 million for the life of the Navy/Air Force program.
  • One of the most ambitious Lean Six Sigma projects — 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 completely re-engineer the government’s security clearance process.


Despite successes, some critics find fault with DOD’s use of Lean Six Sigma.

Many people have been trained in Lean Six Sigma in the military, but most of them don’t have much to do, said Steve Hawald, executive consultant for process refinement and optimization at Robbins-Gioia, a program and project management company.

“There’s been no deep thinking around deployment,” Hawald said. “You have offices with lots of Green Belts, but no projects are getting done. No one knows how to take expertise and people from the classroom to do real projects, and that’s where things start to break down.”

Hawald said DOD has placed too much emphasis on the Six Sigma part of the methodology when Lean might be all that’s needed for most business transformation projects.

“They should forget about Six Sigma because Lean will get them 99 percent of what they need,” Hawald said.

Jon Desenberg, consulting director at the Performance Institute, said he wonders if the attention paid to Lean Six Sigma and the effort to train people are misplaced.

“The focus so far seems to have been on people getting a colored belt,” Desenberg said. “You can have any color of belt you want, but if the organization you go back to once you have it is not ready for this, then you just have another thing to put on the cork board.”

Desenberg said Lean Six Sigma has shifted some of the attention on DOD business transformation away from where it belongs.

The real success of Lean Six Sigma, he added, might simply be that is has forced people to think about process improvements.

“That has been very helpful,” Desenberg said, “particularly in thinking about how to change very repetitive processes, such as dealing with thousands of pieces of paper a month.”

Robert Carey, chief information officer of the Navy and a big proponent of Lean Six Sigma, said the method empowers people who are closest to a particular business process to improve it.

“It promotes teamwork, and I am a big fan of that,” Carey said.

However, he said, people must not think of Lean Six Sigma as a cure-all. “You have to be careful not to get involved in Lean Six Sigma if it’s not needed. “You can get wrapped around the axle, and then you become more worried about Lean Six Sigma than about process improvement.”

Some management experts agree that Lean Six Sigma does not work well with processes that are at least partially outside the control of an organization that wants to make improvements. For example, budget processes are not a good match because of legal requirements and other congressional mandates that agencies can’t control.

Lean Six Sigma is not a silver bullet for process improvement, said Capt. Robert Kamensky, director of transformation management at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. Good program management is as valuable as Lean Six Sigma, he said.

“You can use the first elements of the Lean Six Sigma methodology and then decide if you need another tool to complete a project,” Kamensky said.

Before launching into Lean Six Sigma, people need to determine whether it is appropriate by asking questions, Kamensky said. Does the problem involve a repeatable process under the organization’s control? Does data exist that explains the problem to be solved? Is the problem real or is it a minor complaint heard around the water cooler? The Navy is implementing various large transformation efforts, such as the Navy Enterprise Resource Planning program and Capability Maturity Model Integration. Each requires establishing a set of servicewide processes. Selective use of Lean Six Sigma could prove useful for those programs, Kamensky said.

However, Kamensky does not see Lean Six Sigma as a long-term answer to needed process im rovements in DOD. “Probably more will be needed,” he said.

One of the primary weaknesses of Lean Six Sigma is that it often leads to a belief that all processes can be improved when the best solution might be to eliminate the process, Desenberg said.

And yet Desenberg is not ready to dismiss the methodology. If Lean Six Sigma were to be successfully applied in government, the military would be the most likely place for that to occur, he said.

“Particularly on the uniform side, the mind-set in the military is that if you are not working, then you’re training and learning,” Desenberg said. “There’s an understanding that to move forward you need to continually learn new ways of doing things, and that’s likely to make Lean Six Sigma more successful in the military than elsewhere.”

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.


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