By Joseph M. O'Connell, Army Contracting Command -- WarrenApril 3, 2019
Army Contracting Command -- Warren (ACC-WRN) realized it had a problem … a Justification and Approval (J&A) processing problem. This became apparent when ACC-WRN submitted a high priority, urgent J&A to the Department of Army (DA) for Senior Procurement Executive (SPE) approval. However, the length of time for the J&A to be prepared and processed raised questions about how truly urgent the requirement was. The issues in that particular J&A were resolved but it was clear that process improvements were necessary. While the J&A is ultimately a contracting document, several stakeholders contribute to the document preparation and are involved in the approval process. The requirements office, contracting office, legal, and competition management office are all involved with each J&A. Additionally, numerous individuals from each office play a role in drafting or reviewing the document. Each of these stakeholders could potentially cause a preventable delay in the document approval. So the focus turned to how each of these stakeholders could collectively reduce the overall time for document creation and approval.
What is a J&A?
It may seem strange to hear this with all of the publicized, high dollar value sole source actions, but competition is the law of the land in Government contracting.So how are these non-competitive actions awarded? By utilizing an exception to the law. For DOD, these exceptions are codified at 10 U.S.C 2304(c) and implemented in Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) Subpart 6.3 and corresponding DOD/agency regulations. The FAR lists seven exceptions to competition, with the one responsible source exception being most frequently used at ACC-WRN. The J&A is the document used to justify that the circumstances require other than full and open competition and to approve the justification at the required level. At the highest dollar threshold, the Senior Procurement Executive is the approval authority.
One of the first steps in reducing J&A processing time was creation of an informal Integrated Product Team (IPT) initiated by members of Program Executive Office Combat Support and Combat Service Support (PEO CS&CSS). The goal of this IPT was to achieve the quick wins--those process improvements that could be made at lower levels and could be implemented quickly. One of the first quick wins was to communicate to all stakeholders that the typical J&A processing time was unacceptably high. This wasn't a complete surprise; most that were involved in the process knew anecdotally--and often complained about--how long the entire process took from start to finish. Once the scope of the problem was identified and communicated, the remaining quick wins involved updating local organizational guidance. Even in the early stages of the improvement process, it was apparent that much of the processing time was due to the back and forth of submitting the J&A for review and making revisions, repeat, repeat, repeat. So the local guidance encouraged early collaboration for large dollar J&As, since those would receive the most scrutiny and layers of review.
Full Scale Effort
The Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) Commanding General at the time, MG LeMasters, was aware of the issue with the SPE-level J&A described in the opening paragraph. MG LeMasters required an in-depth analysis of the problem and expected solutions. Therefore, senior leaders from ACC-WRN, PEO CS&CSS, PEO Ground Combat Systems (GCS), TACOM Competition Management Office (CMO), and the Army Materiel Command Legal Center -- Warren (AMCLC-W) chartered a formal IPT to study this further. Instrumental to the formal IPT was the involvement of the TACOM Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) office, which provided resources and guidance to document findings and recommendations. While not an official Black Belt project, the IPT was structured as so. Team members gathered historical processing time data by reviewing the Paperless Contract File (PCF) system to extract key milestone dates from a sample of previously approved J&As. The average days between the milestone dates provided the historical baseline from which to improve upon.
The IPT team members analyzed this data and confirmed the many days wasted by routing and re-routing the J&A each time a reviewer revised the document. To eliminate this back and forth, the IPT proposed a White Board process, where all local reviewers and approvers would meet to discuss any recommended changes or updates to the J&A. The White Board process would be accomplished through two meetings, Phase 1 and Phase 2. Phase 1 would be the discussion regarding the path forward in general. Topics include whether this is a new requirement or if a previous J&A was issued, the specific exception to full and open competition in FAR 6.302 that will be utilized, and the rationale for restricting competition. At the conclusion of Phase 1, the initial draft J&A will be prepared.
The draft J&A is sent to all reviewers/approvers and other stakeholders for each individual acquisition. This is the opportunity for everyone involved to provide edits, comments, and address any potential issues. Once all stakeholders have reviewed the draft J&A, the drafter compiles the revisions and Phase 2 is scheduled. During Phase 2, all edits, comments, and issues are discussed. Therefore, by the end of Phase 2 or shortly after, the vetted J&A is ready for final review/approval. Reviewers that are unable to make the White Board meetings either designate a representative or waive review.
The IPT determined that this White Board process would be used for all PARC-level and SPE-level J&As. All reviewers except the ACC-WRN Directors and PARC would be part of the White Board meetings. Due to the frequency of White Boards and scheduling conflicts, the ACC-WRN Directors and PARC review the final J&A outside the White Board process. This new process was briefed to the TACOM Deputy to the Commanding General and was well received and given immediate approval. Several J&As were selected to use the White Board process as part of a pilot in order to streamline the changes and allow for training to be provided to the workforce. This improved process has now been fully implemented by ACC-WRN and stakeholders.
Whenever feasible, get everyone in the same room. Technology provides numerous ways to communicate but there are benefits to face to face communication that cannot be replicated by other means. The more personal interaction improves credibility among team members. Non-verbal communication can be displayed and read. And yes, it sounds like a simple concept. However, part of the challenge is gathering key individuals that have the detailed process knowledge, but also have the strategic vision to develop feasible solutions. If individuals with both of those traits aren't available, then team members from across that spectrum should be involved. A top level analysis of a problem when the detailed process is not understood probably won't develop feasible solutions. Likewise, a detailed process analysis may not result in the big picture ideas needed in order to improve upon the current process.
Buy-in from all levels is vital, especially when using cross-organizational teams. A senior leader promoting a project automatically provides leverage and motivates the team to show results. There are two pitfalls if the team cannot point to an executive or officer as championing the pro-ject. The first is that representatives from different organizations, or sometimes even within an organization, have competing interests. The big picture can get overlooked and meetings can turn into blame game sessions. The second is accountability. Being accountable to a senior leader expecting results prevents the effort from stagnating among numerous proposed changes that are never fully implemented. Buy-in from the functional level is equally important so that changes are effectively implemented. Process changes are easy to sell if they benefit everyone. Much more communication down to the functional level is required if changes benefit the organization as a whole but require additional resources or challenges to implement.
It was tempting to title this section Lessons Learned (to be continued). It's easy at the end of a comprehensive IPT or Black Belt project to implement and finalize the course of action and be done, but the continuous process improvement method is, well … continuous. And improvements continue to be made to further refine the White Board process. A major, relatively new improvement is that there is now one draft document, stored on the ACC-WRN SharePoint portal. The White Board team members for each J&A are given read/write permission to edit the document using track changes and by adding comments in real time. Then the changes are accepted or rejected during the Phase 2 meeting. This eliminates the need to consolidate multiple draft versions into one final version. Creating a SharePoint page did require collaboration with the local SharePoint managers, but is an example of utilizing resources in a new way to improve efficiencies.
Don't forget to train the workforce on new processes, especially with a large-scale process change such as the J&A White Boards. This process changed the way that several organizations and hundreds of people conducted business. Numerous training classes were given so that the workforce understood the new process, as well as the expectations derived from the use of the new process.
It's hard to argue the success of the White Board program in reducing J&A processing time. Previously, the average time from J&A creation to receiving all ACC-WRN reviews and approvals was 180 days. The average time now for the same result is 101 days. That's a 44% reduction. This framework can be applied to any process or document that has multiple layers of review, especially those that require input from different organizations. Even if a full Black Belt project isn't utilized, a collaborative effort from all stakeholders can achieve similar results. Identify the problem, gather the group/achieve buy-in, address any quick wins, tackle the longer term solutions, and continue improving.
Ms. Capaldi and Mr. O'Connell each have over 10 years of government contracting experience, having started their Army civilian careers on the same day. Ms. Capaldi is the Alternate Command Advocate for Competition at the Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, MI. Mr. O'Connell is a Procurement Analyst at Army Contracting Command -- Warren and is an attorney.
This article is a winner in the 2018 Maj. Gen. Harold J. "Harry" Green Awards for Acquisition Writing competition. A special supplement featuring the winning entries is online now, and will accompany the print version of the April -- June 2019 issue of Army AL&T magazine.