ATC improves business processes through Lean Six Sigma

By MIKE CAST, DTCAugust 6, 2009

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

By applying a business model developed in the mid 1980s by engineers at Motorola and adopted by the Department of Defense in 2006, the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center has found the means to make its vehicle-maintenance operations more cost effective and efficient while providing superior service to customers.

A methodology known as Lean Six Sigma made it possible for ATC to realize "a forty-percent improvement over the current process as far as cycle time, which means the time span from when a vehicle comes into the shop to the time it leaves the shop," said ATC's Deborah Furnari, who was responsible for the project. "By improving that process, we reduced the amount of money we are spending on it."

"ATC submitted their fleet vehicle maintenance LSS project to be placed on a storyboard for display at the annual DoD [Department of Defense] LSS Symposium," said Cindy Sheppard, chief of the U.S. Army Developmental Test Command Process Improvement Office. "We did not know until we got there that we, the attendees, approximately seven hundred folks, would actually vote on the different LSS projects across DoD that were on display. ATC's project was voted as the best project in the maintenance category. Deb Furnari, the Lean Six Sigma Black Belt who ran the program, accepted a blue ribbon for the project."

As a token of appreciation for a job well done, Maj. Gen. Roger Nadeau, commander of the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, presented Furnari with his coin and with the coin of ATEC's technical director, Dr. James Streilein, during a ceremony at DTC headquarters June 12.

"When the process is completed, you put together a storyboard, which is all of the steps a process went through," said Thea Fowler, who heads ATC's Lean Six Sigma Division. "So we had to submit a storyboard to the Department of the Army in their Lean Six Sigma area and get it approved as a project for the conference. Deb completed the project, and I took her storyboard and submitted it through DTC to ATEC. They were both approved, and I submitted it to the Department of the Army."

Lean Six Sigma combines two methodologies that have merged over the past couple of decades. In essence, Lean Six Sigma is focused on precision and accuracy, applying analytical methods that lead to data-driven decisions that improve business processes. Lean incorporates the principles of speed and efficiency. Proponents of the Six Sigma methodology assert that "continuous efforts to achieve stable and predictable process results are of vital importance to business success." Furthermore, according to the proponents of this model, "manufacturing and business processes have characteristics that can be measured, analyzed, improved and controlled." But there must be a total commitment within the organization, from junior employees to top-level management, for this methodology to be successful.

Like the practitioners of eastern martial arts, the people responsible for the Lean Six Sigma process improvements become Green Belts and later Black Belts as they master the methodology, which increasingly is helping the Army to marshal its resources more effectively and do more with less, according to Fowler.

By attending four weeks of specialized training and completing her project, Furnari became a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, Fowler added. Among other things, the training focused on the five steps of the Lean Six Sigma methodology - which are define, measure, analyze, improve and control.

"It's a data-driven process-improvement methodology," Fowler said. "At the end, you also look at data, or statistics, to determine that you've actually improved the process."

The cost avoidance from the fleet vehicle maintenance project enabled money to be reallocated to other operations within ATC, Furnari said.

"This is just a major reallocation so we can accomplish more work," Furnari added. "In the first year alone, the value was about three hundred ninety thousand dollars, but looking across the POM (Program Objective Memorandum) that value increases to $3.4 million."

The process improvement also reduced the backlog of vehicles in the shop for maintenance, she said.

"During any given month we had eighty five to one hundred of them," Furnari explained. "The fleet vehicle maintenance process not only takes care of non-tactical vehicles but it takes care of anything from weed whackers all the way up to cranes. It's an ever-changing number. We also looked at how we utilize our fleet. We're working on ways to increase utilization and to also look at where there is some under-utilization and reallocate those assets so we can better use them. So we're looking at right-sizing our fleet and improving it as far as getting rid of some of the old clunkers that cost us a lot of money."

Rather than using Lean Six Sigma as a tool to cut manpower, the Fleet Vehicle Maintenance Shop used it to allocate manpower in the most effective way, she added. The project also examined how maintenance personnel could be transferred from one location at ATC to another, to further improve the efficiency of operations, Furnari said. By shifting some employees from one part of the maintenance pipeline to another, ATC realized additional manpower and cost savings, she added. While there were bottlenecks in some places, employees in other parts of the process were underutilized, she said.

"So you move folks and put them where they are more efficient," she explained. "They are not over-tasked and they are not under-tasked. There is a concept called level loading, meaning there are so many assets that we have every month for scheduled maintenance, but then you've got to consider incidents and accidents such as blown tires and worn items that are unscheduled maintenance. We went in and tracked how much scheduled maintenance we did over a year as well as unscheduled maintenance. We're working with our equipment manager to get it to a point where we have seventy percent scheduled, so we can have thirty percent of the time for unscheduled maintenance, which would inevitably reduce our overtime. Fully utilizing everyone in the shop helped to reduce the vehicle turnaround time. We also looked at our parts inventory. That's always a big cost drain, and we reduced that by twenty thousand dollars. We looked at how can we improve our process of purchasing parts, and we improved that. We looked at the process of getting parts, to try to get them in here faster."

Furnari said the Lean Six Sigma project also examined the advantage of conducting onsite repairs because limited shop space is one of the challenges confronting ATC, and hauling a vehicle into the shop for repairs and then sending it back out to the range was an inefficient use of resources.

"ATC has a very large range, so if you have to go out to the range and pick something up, then take it all the way back to the shop, that is a lot of non-value-added time," she explained. "So it's easier and more efficient to send a mechanic out there, have him fix a problem on site and be done with it."

To underscore its commitment to the Lean Six Sigma methodology, ATC's leadership decided to stand up a Lean Six Sigma Division in May 2007, an organization which Fowler heads. Helping employees master the methodology and become Black Belts has been a command priority, Fowler added.

"We communicate with our senior leaders. They are very involved and very interested," she said. "Because of their interest, other people are taking on that interest. We have a monthly in-process review . . . and a weekly meeting with our technical director, where a belt who is working on a project presents the project to him. It's got a lot of visibility, and people are held accountable for getting things done. We may expand the training so we get as many people as we can trained to be Green Belts. They're not expected to do that full time. They work a project and then go back to their original duties. One indicator that we're having some success is that in people's regular duties they may find something that regularly irritates them, so they will call us and say, 'Hey, can we get this as a Lean Six Sigma project because it needs to be fixed. It is good to hear that communication from regular workers."