Army uses Lean yardstick
Measuring and analyzing service bottlenecks improved the Army’s reputation with veterans
- By Brian Robinson
- May 02, 2008
Soldiers handle many pieces of paper while in the Army, but probably none is more important to them than their discharge papers. Without discharge form DD214, veterans cannot receive health benefits and other services.
It was troublesome for soldiers and embarrassing for the Army when the process for moving that form through channels started backing up. By early 2006, it took an average of 37 days to get a DD214 into a soldier’s file, and about 25 percent of the forms were missing from the Army’s active service records at any one time. The delays created an impression that the Army didn’t care about its soldiers.
Those delays became one of the first targets of a Lean Six Sigma project under Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, Army deputy chief of staff for personnel. Rochelle challenged the service’s human resources directorate to use process improvement techniques to tackle the problems that were affecting soldiers.
The use of Lean Six Sigma, a technique taken from the manufacturing industry, was the answer. Slightly more than a year after the DD214 project began in early 2006, the Army was getting discharge forms into soldiers’ files no more than 13 days after beginning the discharge process. In some cases, the forms were in the files after several hours, and the percentage of missing files decreased to 1 percent.
The processing problems were known before the Army employed Lean Six Sigma, said Brig. Gen. Reuben Jones, the Army’s adjutant general, but no one could precisely identify the causes.
“We didn’t have the mathematical rigor that LSS offered,” Reuben said. “We couldn’t show with the data what the problems were and how they could be handled step by step.”
The methodology is a combination of the Lean concept, which Toyota developed to improve its vehicle manufacturing process, and Six Sigma, a process Motorola used to raise the quality of its products. It employs a series of steps — define, measure, analyze, improve and control — to methodically work through a problem and develop a solution.
The Army is one of the federal government’s leading practitioners of the methodology. In 2007, officials said, the service completed more than 770 projects that saved $1.23 billion.
The Army Human Resources Command has tackled 58 projects in the past two years to fix a variety of problems affecting order processing, data accuracy and mobilization support. It has completed 16 of the 58.
The most difficult part of adopting Lean Six Sigma was the time and effort it took to get people trained to the level of black belt, the highest measure of competency in the Lean Six Sigma methodology, Jones said. Black belts are the managers who led the process improvement projects and who have mastered the necessary math and statistics. That training can take as along as two years.
“A lot of this was new to our employees,” Jones said. “LSS employs mathematical techniques many of them hadn’t used since college, so for everyone involved in these projects it was both enlightening and a challenge.”
Theresa McGuire, now chief of plans and operations for the Adjutant General Directorate at the Army Human Resources Command, was one of the first in the command to be trained as a black belt. She headed the team of seven people who tackled the DD214 problem. At first, she found the methodology confusing.
“I had difficulty learning the terminology and I dropped statistics in college, but finally the light bulb came on,” McGuire said. “I was the test dummy. It could all have been done in six months if I knew then what I know now.”
McGuire said the first step was the easiest because the Army had recognized and defined the problem before the project began. The hardest step was the one centered on measuring, she said. And it didn’t help that the instructors in her black belt classes had used the examples of “widgets and car parts” taken from industry.
Those examples don’t resonate with human resources managers because there are no direct comparisons for the products and cost savings used in industry, McGuire said. Lean Six Sigma training now includes appropriate examples of the types of data that human resources managers use.
“The ‘measure’ step required many meetings,” McGuire said, although in most cases the DD214 project was simply an agenda item at meetings that were necessary for taking care of other Army business.
For the DD214 project, the measurement and analysis phases occurred more or less at the same time, McGuire said. Typically, those are separate and consecutive phases in the methodology, and leaders typically provide the results of the measurement phase before beginning the analysis phase. However, with her detailed knowledge of the DD214 process, McGuire found herself analyzing as she was measuring.
The analysis phase identified delays in receiving mail, which McGuire suspected might be a cause, as the major culprit. Once the Army completed the analysis phase, the improvement phase went quickly, McGuire said. The Army streamlined a procedure that initially required more than 20 steps and ended up with a nine-step procedure. Project managers recommended using a Web-based approach for uploading and distributing the DD214 form for processing. A test program confirmed the validity of that
The final control step was easy, McGuire said. The Army already had plenty of regulations and operating procedures. Someone had to simply update them.
A continuing part of the project’s control phase requires managers to produce a monthly report on how well the DD214 process is running. If cycle times extend past a 13-day limit set by the Army, a workflow system flags people to take another look for possible snags in the process.
McGuire said the DD214 project has changed how she views business operations and organizational processes. McGuire constantly looks for ways to improve procedures, although she leans more toward cutting steps out altogether rather than modifying them. “More Lean than Six Sigma,” she said.
Jones said the experience with Lean Six Sigma changed the way his organization tackles problems. Now, whenever an operation doesn’t seem to be working, the Army’s first response, figuratively speaking, is to put a black belt around it, he said. Leaders plan to train at least 25 percent of the Adjutant General Directorate at a black-belt level.
The intangible benefits are something that Jones also values, particularly the way he sees the methodology building confident employees responsible for various processes and projects, he said. Previous industry-based improvement regimes such as Total Quality Management failed to deliver the results the Army needed, he said.
“Now I have people knocking down my door to be a part” of these Lean Six Sigma projects, he said, adding that it has become the “tool of first resort.”
Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.