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Lean Fielding: Reducing Equipment Redundancy

When Soldiers reported that they were receiving duplicate equipment under the Rapid Fielding Initiative, Program Executive Office Soldier responded by developing a new process to ensure that they receive exactly what they need—no more and no less.

The Army created Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier to develop the best equipment for the best Soldiers in the world, and the central focus of PEO Soldier has always been exclusively on Soldier needs. Whether it is the mobility, survivability, or lethality equipment that PEO Soldier develops, tests, and procures, or the process PEO Soldier uses to field its equipment to meet force demand, it is the Soldiers who ultimately define quality in products and services. In Lean Six Sigma (LSS) terms, the “voice of the customer” is critical to PEO Soldier’s success in meeting Soldier requirements. PEO Soldier’s Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI) office, from the director to each member of each fielding team, follows this principle as it seeks to improve its services to Soldiers. The development of PEO Soldier’s new “Lean Fielding” process stems directly from adhering to the principle of listening to Soldiers.

Growth of RFI

In 2002, the Chief of Staff of the Army directed PEO Soldier to create a quick-fielding process for deploying units. PEO Soldier responded with a centralized rapid-fielding arm for critical modernization equipment—the RFI office. At the start of the Global War on Terrorism in Afghanistan, Soldiers and units bought equipment out of their own pockets to fill their required combat capabilities. From after-action reviews and lessons learned, Soldiers indicated that they wanted the most modern equipment made available through the supply system before they deployed. Their voice was the genesis of the RFI.

As part of its mission, the RFI has continually evolved to meet individual, unit, and Army requirements. Over time, the number of items fielded and the processes used by the RFI have changed to meet the dynamic requirements of the battlefield.

The initial RFI list consisted of 15 nonstandard items. Later, the Army Training and Doctrine Command identified and standardized 49 essential items of equipment required by forces in theater, and it continued to modify the RFI list through the Soldier-as-a-System Integrated Concept Team. Under the direction of Department of the Army headquarters, RFI streamlined the process for distributing equipment and ensuring that all deploying Soldiers—Active Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve—were equipped with the most advanced individual and unit equipment available.

In 2004, the Chief of Staff expanded the RFI mission to equip the operating Army by the end of fiscal year 2007. By December 2007, RFI had fielded items to over 1 million Soldiers, equipping the entire Active Army at least once and 60 percent of the Reserve component. The equipment list had grown to 84 items to meet the equipping and modernization requirements of our Soldiers to fight and win in the dynamic environment of full-spectrum military operations. The expansion of the RFI equipment list and its truly remarkable reception by Soldiers and units led to further evolution. RFI has been extended indefinitely beyond its scheduled completion date of the end of fiscal year 2007 to provide continuing support for the Global War on Terrorism.

Applying Lean Six Sigma to Process Improvement

While Soldiers have embraced the RFI process, they recently identified one noteworthy problem area in the RFI process: Their clothing records having duplicate items that were previously issued. In response to this message from Soldiers, RFI’s deputy director, and Lean Fielding Project sponsor, created an LSS team to identify the underlying problem that was causing redundancies in equipping Soldiers, especially with recoverable items. The methodology used by the RFI LSS team combines the principles of Lean (reducing and eliminating non-value activities) with Six Sigma (reducing variation and increasing quality) to improve process efficiency and effectiveness. This industry-proven process improvement methodology focuses on providing the customer with speed and quality, improving processes, working with stakeholders, and basing decisions on data and facts using the “DMAIC” (define, measure, analyze, improve, and control) roadmap.

The “define” phase establishes the foundation for the project and the path forward. RFI defined the underlying problem as, “Soldiers are receiving duplicate fieldings of serviceable equipment that they already possess. This problem begins with coordination with the unit receiving RFI and finishes at the completion of the fielding.” The goal was to reduce duplicate fielding of Soldier equipment, at an estimated savings of $18 million a year. RFI conducted stakeholder analyses, mapped out the process to determine all the steps involved in the RFI fielding process, and defined activities as “non-value,” “value-added,” and “required.” RFI then determined what was most important to the customer and the financial benefits.

The purpose of the “measure” phase is to find metrics that reflect the magnitude of the problem identified in the define phase. RFI also had to identify the starting point of the process. RFI determined the important inputs, the output variables (what we are trying to improve) such as the existing defects in the system, the cost of the current process, and the RFI fielding cycle-time and collected data from surveys and multiple fieldings.

In the “analyze” phase, RFI analyzed the data collected in the measure phase, studied the process flow, pinpointed and verified the causes affecting the key input and output variables tied to the project goals, and determined which process steps were value-added and which were non-value-added. The LSS team used tools, such as process mapping, SIPOC (suppliers, inputs, process, outputs, customers), value stream mapping, and cause-and-effect analysis, to narrow the potential contributors to the root cause, since the fixed, automated template no longer met the fielding requirements for some deploying Soldiers.

In the “improve” phase, the RFI office determined that the initial solution required a flexible template, additional coordination measures, key involvement by noncommissioned officers, and an automated global fielding system to facilitate distribution and accountability of individual Soldier equipment. The RFI office conducted three separate pilot programs, each producing significant results and key lessons learned. The lessons learned provided the basis that allowed the RFI to reduce the fielding of duplicate items and increase both customer satisfaction and dollar savings to the Army.

One of the keys to ensuring that process improvements are maintained is the last phase of the LSS DMAIC methodology, “control.” RFI took the lessons learned from the three pilots, developed training plans to ensure that RFI coordinators, fielding teams, and support elements were prepared for success, and implemented process changes and controls, such as standing operating procedures and pre-coordination, coordination, in-brief, and out-brief checklists.

Process Change: Lean Fielding

As a result of this LSS project, RFI recently implemented its improved Lean Fielding process to reduce duplicate distribution of RFI equipment to deploying Soldiers. Now units can elect to decline previously fielded RFI equipment items. Declining duplicate items is currently voluntary for both the gaining command and the individual Soldier.

During the coordination visit to the unit several months before actual fielding of equipment, RFI discusses the Lean Fielding process and the unit’s options for executing the fielding event. The gaining command may elect to mandate full distribution of an item or set of items (the unit may be a “new build”), mandate no distribution of an item or set of items it knows that everyone has on hand, permit individual Soldiers to decline any item during distribution, or implement any combination of those options. Whatever form of Lean Fielding the gaining command chooses, the PEO Soldier fielding team provides multiple control measures on site throughout the entire process to ensure that the commander’s request is met. To enable this process change to work, RFI modified existing software to allow the reduction of duplicate fielding of items to Soldiers.

Here is how the Lean Fielding process actually works. At the fielding event, a Soldier in-processes and hands off his common access card to be scanned into the system. The RFI fielding team explains the commander’s guidance on what equipment is optional and what is mandated, and the Soldier receives a bar code. The Soldier then is scanned at in-processing, the equipment stations, and finally at out-processing, where the RFI fielding team reviews the printout with the Soldier to confirm compliance with the command’s guidance and with the Soldier’s wishes. At the end of the fielding, the unit receives a list of all declined items, by Soldier, in addition to the normal joint inventory report detailing the RFI equipment fielded. For the individual Soldier, the whole process is quick, taking under 30 minutes from door to door.

Lean Fielding Results

RFI’s first official Lean Fielding was with the 3d Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 82d Airborne Division (Air Assault), in May 2008. The BCT’s participation in Lean Fielding allowed it to decline more than 20,000 Soldier equipment items it already had on hand, saving the Army over $2 million in future materiel procurements. This fielding event became the basis for future full-scale implementation of Lean Fielding and for changes to existing standing operating procedures and communications plans needed to institutionalize Lean Fielding throughout the Army.

Survey feedback from the 3d BCT showed that 82 percent of its Soldiers were either “very satisfied” or “extremely satisfied” with the Lean Fielding process; the brigade’s assessment of the original fielding process was only 29 percent “very satisfied” or “extremely satisfied.” The results demonstrated at a level of statistical significance that the Lean Fielding process constituted a definite improvement over the original process.

Lean Fielding with the brigade not only realized a cost avoidance of more than $2 million, but its broader application also achieved results over the en­tire month of $4.4 million. The RFI has already achieved a cost avoidance of $32 million—almost twice as much as the original project estimate of $18 million in the first 6 months. Of equal significance, the Lean Fielding process reduced the number of de­fects in the fielding process by almost 80 percent. The Sigma Quality Level (SQL), which is the official LSS measure of process performance, reflected significant improvement:  SQL went from 2.06 Sigma (71 per­cent yield) to 3.05 Sigma (94 percent yield).

The key for a materiel provider to maintaining strong ties with the warfighter can be as simple as listening to the voice of the customer, in this case the Soldier. RFI’s continuous process improvement mindset and attention to Soldier requirements are critical to effectively meeting the Army’s needs now and into the future. PEO Soldier’s RFI office will remain responsive and flexible to the equipping needs of Soldiers as they continue to fight the Global War on Terrorism.

Major Todd J. Wright currently works at the Program Executive Office Soldier as the Assistant Project Manager of the Rapid Fielding Initiative. He is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College. He holds a bachelor’s degree in science from the United States Military Academy and a master’s degree in education from the University of Virginia. He is a certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and a graduate of the Army Black Belt Lean Six Sigma course.