Improving Process Improvement

By September 14, 2015September 3rd, 2018Best Practices
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The Army Office of Business Transformation aims to improve CPI to make sure the Army uses the right methodology for the right job, potentially saving billions

By MG Camille M. Nichols and LTC Jeremy Gwinn

The Army has employed a variety of techniques for continuous process improvement (CPI) for many years. Some have resulted in projects that saved the Army millions of dollars, while other efforts have not yielded the expected results. Improving the business processes of the Army is, in part, why the secretary of the Army established the Office of Business Transformation (OBT) in April 2009. By applying rigorous analytics and data mining and exploring the appropriate type of CPI methodology for a given problem, the Army will do much better in a fiscally restrained and challenged future. But we’re not there yet. CPI is still widely perceived through the lens of Lean Six Sigma (LSS). In that sense, it is a lengthy, formal, strictly implemented process that is too arduous to address many of the practical challenges we confront in the Army. Sometimes we need different tools for different problems.

The definition of CPI does not justify such a negative response. MITRE Corp.’s Systems Engineering Guide (2014) defines CPI as “the set of ongoing systems engineering and management activities used to select, tailor, implement and assess the processes used to achieve an organization’s business goals.” Simply stated, CPI embodies the methods that organizations use to solve problems and improve performance. CPI is about making an organization better. So, how have we missed the mark?
Today, we find many Army organizations reducing their CPI capabilities, ostensibly to decrease organizational operating costs and manning requirements—exactly what CPI is intended to do. That leaders are cutting such a capability indicates a conundrum. The problem is not with CPI itself, but rather its implementation in the Army over the last decade—almost exclusively via the LSS methodology. To achieve a true CPI capability for the Army, we must advance our approach on improvement strategies by implementing all of the CPI tools available and addressing how they apply to various challenges, while insisting that practitioners focus on results rather than adhering strictly to a particular methodology.

Efforts to implement CPI methods have existed in Army organizations since at least the late 1990s. Leadership at the HQDA level formally embraced CPI in 2005 by issuing memorandums establishing business transformation goals and specifying the adoption of Lean and Six Sigma methods. The establishment of an LSS Program Office and “LSS capability deployments” to select organizations followed. With program launch came high expectations that included goals of multibillion-dollar savings and operational benefits after the first few years. While some LSS deployments have achieved impressive financial and operational benefits, the early goals have not been met Armywide.

A review of the Army CPI program today reveals a mixed picture. Nearly 13,000 Soldiers and Army civilians have been trained as Green Belts (GB), Black Belts (BB) or Master Black Belts (MBB); however, the percentage of these candidates that actually completed an initial project and earned the certification is hovering below 30 percent for GB and BB and less than 50 percent (although trending upward) for MBB. This is not a good return on investment for the training of our personnel. Major reasons that projects are not completed includes the lack of supervision of the belt candidates as well as a lack of organizational interest in the projects identified; projects are seen as a means to get a candidate certified rather than being focused on solving real problems for the organization. Another source of frustration that senior leaders express is the inflexibility that certified practitioners often exhibit when working a project, because of the lengthy process that is unyielding and nonresponsive to urgent problem resolution.

Loading the Toolkit

LOADING THE TOOLKIT The Army approach to using LSS for CPI uses the five-phase DMAIC process, which instills a data-driven, empirical approach to problem-solving. Giving CPI practitioners access to training in a variety of problem-solving methodologies will translate into programs that yield better financial and operational benefits for the Army. LSS is not the only tool, however. Some Army organizations have successfully used others. (SOURCE: U.S. Army Office of Business Transformation)

There are stellar examples of programs that have reaped significant, concrete benefits, in organizations with missions that align well to the need for LSS techniques. During FY13, the U.S. Army Materiel Command (AMC) completed 342 LSS projects with an estimated financial benefit of $88 million, representing 4.6 percent of the command’s operations and maintenance budget and $441 million in various other programs, including the Army Working Capital Fund. (Such savings resulting from CPIs can only be projected until the period for which they are estimated has concluded and the projection is proven valid.)

The Army has focused on using LSS for CPI over the last decade. This approach uses a five-phase process: define, measure, analyze, improve and control (DMAIC). There is nothing particularly revolutionary about DMAIC. In fact, a variety of other common problem-solving methods, such as the military decision-making process or campaign design, follow roughly the same process. Generally, DMAIC starts by defining the current environment and the problem to be solved, analyzing causes and effects, and developing and implementing a course of action to achieve a desired end state.

The value of the Army’s approach is that it arms practitioners with a time-tested scientific methodology that is repeatable and auditable. It makes available a wide variety of problem-solving tools and instills a data-driven, empirical approach to solving nearly any problem. The breakdown between theory and practice occurs when practitioners attempt to follow the methodology in a lockstep manner every time, instead of adapting it to fit the complexity of real-world problems. This is not an indictment of our practitioners; it is more about the way in which we train and develop practitioners and one more reason that LSS has had limited impact in improving some of the Army’s most significant and recurring business process challenges.

While CPI is larger than LSS, the two often are spoken of as if synonymous. Lean and Six Sigma are just two sets of tools that an organization can apply to solving problems. There exist many more tools that, unlike Lean or Six Sigma, are not part of an Army-level program but nonetheless have been tremendously successful when applied appropriately in select Army organizations. Examples of other methodologies in use within the Army include value engineering, system dynamics, International Organization for Standardization certification, total quality management, the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and high reliability organization theory.

It is not possible for every organization to practice every possible CPI methodology, nor is it desirable. Organizations should develop an understanding of problem-solving fundamentals, selectively adopt CPI tools based on their unique requirements and acknowledge that every organization may benefit from at least one or two of the tools. In some cases, LSS may be the right methodology, but having concentrated all of our CPI expectations on LSS at the Army level, we should not now be surprised that our expectations are unmet.

Charting Progress

CHARTING PROGRESS The percentage of Green, Black and Master Black Belt candidates who completed an initial project and earned the certification hovers at 25 to 50 percent. Completed projects—with timely, tangible and measurable results—are the most effective way to demonstrate to leadership the benefits of investing in CPI. (SOURCE: U.S. Army Office of Business Transformation)

When an Army organization does find an effective solution to a CPI challenge, the solution often fails to propagate across the enterprise, even while other organizations are struggling with a nearly identical problem. This is essentially a matter of knowledge management, but simply creating an online repository is not enough.

The Army already possesses a repository in PowerSteering, the Army system for tracking LSS projects, which is available by invitation to LSS belt candidates. But the Army lacks a capability to identify successful, replicable projects and disseminate them across the service. Every year, the undersecretary of the Army recognizes outstanding business CPI project efforts through the Lean Six Sigma Excellence Awards Program (LEAP), based on the outcomes achieved. While LEAP serves to highlight excellence in CPI for the broader community and provides an additional incentive to achieve results, it is based on agency and command nominations—not on rigorous data mining using an effective knowledge management capability encompassing all completed projects. We need to do more to reap the benefits of real successes Armywide. As is the case with a lot of Army programs, there are many know­ledge management and capture tools, most of which have been developed independently, with different owners, and consequently are not interoperable. That’s one of the reasons it is very difficult to do rigorous data mining—and one of the reasons that OBT views this capability as critical to the success of truly lasting CPI.

Developing a CPI Culture

DEVELOPING A CPI CULTURE Members of a Lean integrated process team (IPT) at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), MD, work on developing a new “Lean for Contracting” course that will apply LSS techniques to contracting processes. Facilitating the meeting are A.D. Barksdale, center, CPI Deployment director for the U.S. Army Contracting Command (ACC), and Jennifer Staggs, left, ACC’s CPI procurement analyst. The IPT includes ACC-APG members Gloria Dent, left center, operations chief; Rob Perry, right center, Contracting Operations Division branch chief; and Kevin King, division procurement analyst. (Photo by Betsy Kozak-Howard)

The OBT is charged to “assist the Army in transforming its business operations across the Army enterprise to more effectively and efficiently use national resources.” OBT must assist the Army in moving beyond LSS to develop, integrate and support broad-spectrum CPI methodologies. To be successful, stakeholders across the enterprise must collaborate to accomplish these six objectives:

1. Ensure that practitioners have access to training in various problem-solving methodologies. After evaluating the vast number of CPI methods available and gaining input from the field, OBT needs to provide access to the training through in-sourced and out-sourced classroom and online instruction.

2. Arm practitioners with methods and means to advance CPI and embrace their role as change agents. Rather than simply training individuals from around the Army and sending them back to their organizations, OBT will serve as an integrator, point of collaboration and team builder. By fostering a community of practice, we can connect practitioners to share lessons learned, solve cross-functional challenges and, by implementing solutions, act as change agents.

3. Gain senior leader understanding of the requirement and support. By engaging directly at the level of HQDA principals and deputies and commanders and their deputies, we can better understand their needs for a CPI program and possible obstacles to successful implementation.

4. Help program directors improve their programs. Just as senior leader engagements will help to generate essential support and establish the vision required for needed change, regular two-way engagement with directors of organizational CPI programs can assist in implementing change.

5. Disseminate best practices Armywide to drive lasting change. While program directors and practitioners share lessons learned throughout the community of practice, OBT provides the knowledge management framework and data-mining function to identify candidates for scaling up or replication.

6. Deploy master CPI practitioners and teams to help identify and solve enterprise-level problems. In some cases, enterprise-level problems require cross-domain expertise (e.g., human capital, finance and information technology); therefore, OBT can support those efforts with Army-level coordination and advocacy.

Leaps of change

LEAPS OF CHANGE Recipients of the Army LEAP Awards for LSS excellence gather in the Pentagon Hall of Heroes in September 2014. Also pictured are Undersecretary of the Army Brad R. Carson (front row, third from left), Director of the Office of Business Transformation LTG Thomas W. Spoehr (front row, third from right), and then-Deputy Commanding General of AMC LTG Patricia E. McQuistion (front row, center). While programs like LEAP are effective in highlighting excellence in CPI, the Army lacks a capability whereby it can identify successful, replicable projects and disseminate them across the enterprise. (Photo by SSG Bernardo Fuller)

OBT’s efforts to reinvigorate the Army CPI program will succeed only with the full engagement of organization leaders and our practitioners as well as collaborative dialogue and continuous feedback. Most importantly, our practitioners must achieve results that are timely, tangible and measurable. The completed project is still, and will always be, the coin of the realm and the only true way to demonstrate return on investment for leadership.

By having an agile, responsive and focused cadre of CPI practitioners helping solve problems, the Army is poised to save billions of dollars and gain efficiency in leaning its processes. We can accomplish even greater results than we have achieved over the past decade by broadening the aperture to include the full suite of CPI methodologies and by prioritizing outcomes over process.

In doing so, we can achieve a broad-spectrum CPI capability for the Army business mission area. But this will not happen overnight, and it will not happen at all if we do not retain some CPI capability in our organizations. It is a multiyear undertaking and a team effort among the OBT, CPI practitioners and senior leaders across the Army. Our ability to maintain Army readiness at reduced funding levels will depend on our ability to decrease our operating costs through CPI efforts.

Leaning out

LEANING OUT Electronic Equipment Inspector Jim Mason, part of the CPI Directorate at Tobyhanna Army Depot, PA, inspects AN/VRC-92F radio system inventory at the depot’s In/Out Cell. A focused and responsive cadre of CPI practitioners could help the Army save billions of dollars and gain efficiency in leaning its processes. (Photo by Steve Grzezdzinski, U.S. Army Communications–Electronics Command)

For more information on the Office of Business Transformation, go to

  • MG CAMILLE M. NICHOLS is director, business operations in the Army OBT. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, she holds four advanced degrees, including a Ph.D. in engineering management from George Washington University. She is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps, having served in various acquisition positions over the past 25 years, and is Level III certified in project management and contracting.
  • LTC JEREMY GWINN is an infantry officer serving as a strategic planner in the Army OBT. He holds an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a B.A. in history from Pennsylvania State University. He is an LSS Black Belt candidate.

This article was originally published in the July – September 2015 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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