TOBYHANNA ARMY DEPOT, Pa. (Nov. 27, 2012) -- Sensors Branch employees here did one better when tasked to reduce the direct labor hours (DLH) to repair and test the AN/PSS-14 mine detector.

Program Office Countermine leadership (Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.) required that Tobyhanna Army Depot reduce the DLH for repairing and testing the detector by 15 percent. Independent efforts by branch employees and a formal Lean event exceeded that goal for a reduction of 16 percent and reduced the repair cycle time (RCT) by 6 percent. The Sensors Branch is part of the depot's Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Directorate's (ISR).

Lean Six Sigma is a quality improvement program in which an organization eliminates unnecessary steps in a process. Eliminations range from clearing clutter in an office to reorganizing a workshop to make work flow easier and faster.

The AN/PSS-14 Handheld Standoff Mine Detection System detects metallic and nonmetallic antitank and antipersonnel mines. If a mine is detected, an audio cue alerts the operator. Built-in warning and test equipment also alerts the operator of potential system malfunctions and assists unit maintenance personnel in locating the problem. The system is used by the Army and Marine Corps.

Working with Program Office and U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command representatives, members of the ISR, Productivity Improvement and Innovation (PII), Production Engineering, and Systems Integration and Support directorates and the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1647, branch employees reduced DLHs from 16.07 to 13.5 and RCT from 49.3 to 46.4 hours, said Process Improvement Specialist Clark Ross, PII.

"We're going to see a workload increase of more than 50 percent for fiscal 2013," he noted. "Sensor Branch employees will be repairing and testing well over 1,000 of these systems."

The Sensors Branch is part of ISR's Air Traffic Control and Landing Systems Division.

"We began implementing Lean techniques for this mission and the entire branch on our own because we knew we could be better," said Neil Altieri, electronics mechanic leader. "We wanted process improvements and a clutter-free work environment."

"Prior to this event, one of the Sensors Branch employees made a suggestion to use a steam cleaner [rather than cleaning by hand with cleaning solution and rags]," said Branch Chief Shelly Sherman. "We borrowed one from our sister shop in the division and adopted this practice. It saved the customer time and money and saved the shop indirect costs on cleaning supplies. I believe it earned us a great deal more respect and trust from our already satisfied customers."

The switch decreased cleaning time from 90 minutes to 15 minutes, and cut hazardous material usage as well as costs because there was no need to use cleaning solvent, rags and the detailed brush cleaning. "This alone cut their DLH time down from 20 hours," Ross said.

They also improved process flow in the shop to further reduce the DLH for a projected cost savings of more than $340,000 per year.

The formal Lean event, a Value Stream Analysis, was held in September and several improvements were identified. Mapping the process revealed that plating was unnecessary, which cut RCT per system by 15 minutes.

"That may sound like a small improvement, but when you factor in hundreds of systems, it becomes a large chunk of time," Ross said.

The system was tested outdoors by using a known good mine detector to verify the test piece, called a "swing test". Technicians made sure detectors were calibrated correctly and that a ground penetrating return tone was heard while swinging them over the test piece.

"This process would take an average of 35 minutes per unit and by adopting the new process, we cut that 35 minutes to about one minute," Sherman said. "It was one of the great accomplishments of our event that led to the elimination of the swing test. It incorporated a process into our current electrical test fixture which allows a verification of the test piece as well as the entire Mine Detector System. We implemented this improvement within one week of the completion of this event."

"Program Office representatives contacted the original equipment manufacturer to determine if the swing test was required on the mine detectors; it was not," said Chris Simko, lead process improvement specialist, PII. "We eliminated this by incorporating the test into the electrical test process, reducing the direct labor hours by an additional 35 minutes."

VSA participants also found there was no need to keep a parts consumption database.

"Technicians were entering data three times a day per asset, which was taking 30 minutes per asset," Ross said. "It was one of those things that had been done for years and nobody questioned it until now."

"This was my first Lean event," said Jeffrey Purdy, a program officer with the Project Manager Countermine office at Fort Belvoir, Va. "I came away with a much greater understanding of the Reset/Overhaul process for the PSS-14 system. Additionally, I felt that the event strengthened the relationship of the (team) members with each other. There was a positive team building aspect that I never anticipated prior to the event."

Purdy said that he was concerned that the team would not be as open and willing as they were to making changes.

"It was clear from day one that this was not going to be an issue," he said. "The team was genuinely open to improving the process and making changes wherever practical. This event far exceeded my expectations. Every team member substantially participated to make the event successful. We will continue to work the AN/PSS-14 Lean Six Sigma project with Tobyhanna over the next several months."

Tobyhanna Army Depot is the Defense Department's largest center for the repair, overhaul and fabrication of a wide variety of electronics systems and components from tactical field radios to the ground terminals for the defense satellite communications network. Tobyhanna's missions support all branches of the Armed Forces.

About 5,400 personnel are employed at Tobyhanna, which is located in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. Tobyhanna Army Depot is part of the U.S. Army CECOM. Headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., the command's mission is to research, develop, acquire, field and sustain communications, command, control computer, intelligence, electronic warfare and sensors capabilities for the Armed Forces.