By John B. Snyder, Watervliet ArsenalFebruary 11, 2016
WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- A senior Army leader is seeking ways to improve the business practices of the Army and what better place for him to find a high performing organization as an example for the rest of the Army than to come to the Army's oldest, continuously operated arsenal --the Watervliet Arsenal.
"I'm always in the hunt for people and organizations who are really doing things well," said Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Spoehr, the director of the Army's Office of Business Transformation who visited the Arsenal on Feb. 10. "I need to tell you that when I talk about high performance organizations in the Army I talk about the Watervliet Arsenal."
Spoehr highlighted that he had been approached by several Army leaders, to include Maj. Gen. Gwendolyn Bingham, the commander of the TACOM Life Cycle Management Command, about the great work the Arsenal is doing in the manufacturing of large caliber weapons and especially, in its continuous improvement program.
"I want to take the great things I learn today and cross-pollinate what you (Watervliet Arsenal) are doing with the rest of the Army," Spoehr said.
Arsenal Commander Col. Lee H. Schiller Jr. provided a command overview and a tour of the Arsenal's manufacturing center highlighting the very competitive challenge that defense manufacturers face today.
Schiller explained the challenges of the holding the cost of operations, as well as the cost of products, down when defense budgets get reduced. But then offered several examples of how the workforce is seeking to improve its business practices through such programs as Lean and Six Sigma, as ways to counter today's challenges.
Schiller also spoke to the important role that an Army arsenal has today.
"We truly believe that the Army's readiness depends on an uninterrupted flow of support to our troops," Schiller said. "As the nation's national security insurance policy, our warm base of manufacturing capability here ensures that Soldiers receive the weapon systems they need, when they need them."
But beyond systems and processes Schiller highlighted, he touched on what really matters here.
"Although the heart and soul of my command are my machinists, nothing gets done without a great workforce all working together toward a common goal," Schiller said.
Spoehr was provided a firsthand look at forging operations where howitzer tubes were heated up to 2,000 degrees, a tube straightening process where thousands of tons of pressure made tubes bend like a blade of grass in the wind, and multi-tasking machines that have cut the production time on mortar baseplates by more than 50 percent.
So, given Spoehr's visit here to capture some of the Army's great business practices, does it mean the Arsenal should be perceived as a business?
After all, if the Watervliet Arsenal seeks to retain international quality standards like a business, conducts research and development like a business, has a customer base like a business, and has concerns with controlling costs like a business, is it a business?
The answer is no, Spoehr said during a 2014 presentation to the Association of the U.S. Army.
Although he was not directly talking about the Watervliet Arsenal during his speech, his understanding of the unique nature of the Army profession -- warfighters protecting our nation's interests -- would not allow for the Army to transcend from that sacred role into something as impersonal as a business.
Schiller agrees with Spoehr.
"Although we are not a business, we kind of act like one in regards to our focus on quality, efficiency, and on our customers," Schiller said.
Near the end of the tour, Spoehr said something that the Arsenal workforce already knew.
"This place is really cool," Spoehr said.
The Watervliet Arsenal is an Army-owned-and-operated manufacturing facility and is the oldest, continuously active arsenal in the United States having begun operations during the War of 1812. It celebrated its 200th anniversary on July 14, 2013.
Today's Arsenal is relied upon by U.S. and foreign militaries to produce the most advanced, high-tech, high-powered weaponry for cannon, howitzer, and mortar systems. This National Historic Registered Landmark had revenue in fiscal year 2015 that exceeded $138 million and provides an annual economic benefit to the local community in excess of $100 million.