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Lean Manufacturing
and the Army Industrial Base

It has been exciting to see Lean manufacturing concepts adopted widely in the Army and throughout the Department of Defense (DOD). In case Lean has not yet been introduced in your workplace, I will define it. Lean is a philosophy that, when appropriately applied to a production process, reduces or eliminates the expenditure of unnecessary time, materials, and effort. Now coupled with a concept called Six Sigma, Lean has evolved into a successful program instead of slipping into history like so many management fads.

Thanks to General Paul Kern, former Commander of the Army Materiel Command (AMC), all of AMC’s depots have implemented Lean Six Sigma. When Lean began at Red River Army Depot, Texas, in 2001, AMC was hesitant to get involved. But once Red River got the process up and running, AMC took note, and so did the Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM), Red River’s parent organization. [TACOM is now called the Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command.] The other Army depots were skeptical, but the Lean results at Red River were powerful and compelling.

Before 11 September 2001, Lean was an unknown concept in Army depots. However, it was on that date that the Red River Deputy Director for Operations and I, then the Commander of Red River, attended a Lockheed Martin Multiple-Launch Rocket System program review in Camden, Arkansas. During Lockheed Martin’s presentation, we were introduced to Lean manufacturing. The concept sparked our interest and resulted in a lengthy discussion of the feasibility and possibility of implementing something like Lean at Red River. We had been struggling to find ways to improve production and cycle time so that Red River could compete in the commercial market for more of the Army’s recapitalization workload. (Recapitalization is an Army program designed to bring an end item back up to a zero-miles-zero-hours standard.) Red River then would be better positioned to prevail before an upcoming Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission.

The Rise and Fall of the Depots

Historically, the workload of Army depots has been characterized by either feast or famine. All five of the Army’s major maintenance depots (Anniston Army Depot, Alabama; Corpus Christi Army Depot, Texas; Letterkenny Army Depot, Pennsylvania; Red River; and Tobyhanna Army Depot, Pennsylvania) share a beginning rooted in World War II. The depots were state-of-the-art complexes built to augment industry and provide the War Department with the capability to produce, repair, rebuild, and surge to meet wartime demands. The depots were a tremendous asset and made significant contributions to the war effort. However, after World War II and during the periods before the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Persian Gulf War, the depots often had little funding and were unable to keep up with industry standards and production improvement techniques. They became burdens to the Army with large, antiquated machinery, outdated production methods, and workloads too small to sustain an aging workforce.

By the mid-1980s, the Army had nearly ceased assigning military personnel to the depots. This fact has led to a general lack of knowledge and understanding of depot operations by Army officers, particularly Ordnance Soldiers. When the Depot System Command (DESCOM) at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, was disestablished in 1995, the Army stopped training Ordnance Soldiers in depot operations. The maintenance depots’ ability to interact with the field diminished, and they were no longer the “go to” level of maintenance for problem solving, equipment rebuilding, and expertise.

By the mid-1980s, fielding of the first high-tech weapons to divisional units started, and contractors began to make major inroads in providing the field maintenance and support that depots had provided in the past. In order to survive, the depots quickly attempted to increase their workloads by appealing to interested congressional leaders. Through the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, depots scavenged for work and got little or no budget funding for infrastructure, capital equipment, and workload. They also found it difficult to compete with weapon system program managers who were linked with the weapon systems’ original equipment manufacturers.

In some cases, weapon systems that were being fielded did not have a published depot support plan or depot-level maintenance task list. As a result, the depots got little sustainment work and often were not on an equal playing field with industry because of their antiquated business practices, lack of funds, and poor interface with program managers.

Lean to the Rescue

Innovation and the desire to be competitive in the looming 2005 BRAC deliberations led Red River to explore Lean and to discover a book called Lean Thinking, by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones. This book offered a great starting point and some valuable insights on how Lean thinking can improve production, eliminate waste, and save money. I asked my secretary to purchase a dozen or so copies of the book and then hosted a discussion group with key depot personnel to review the book, its ramifications, and its possibilities for Red River. Everyone was given a copy.

After reading the book, everyone agreed that, by using Lean production processes, Red River potentially could be developed into a competitive and efficient DOD industrial facility that would save taxpayers time and money. We formed an “Industrial Strike Force” that would help make us competitive and insulate us against the upcoming BRAC.

We continued to research Lean and learned that several firms provided Lean training. In the fall of 2001, we were fortunate to have an Installation Management Agency Reserve officer assigned to Red River. Second Lieutenant [now Captain] Dave Meyer’s civilian job with industry had exposed him to Lean, so we immediately assigned him to the Lean team. Later that fall, the team attended a Lean seminar conducted by Simpler Consulting, Inc., at Warner Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. The seminar provided us with a wealth of knowledge and convinced us that Lean could turn Red River around. Warner Robins had become the showcase for Lean in the Air Force, a fact that increased our commitment to pursue Lean at Red River. Now that the team was sold on Lean, we had to find a way to get TACOM, AMC, and the workforce to buy into our plan.

Applying Lean to Recapitalization

We set out to convince the TACOM and AMC leaders that Lean was worth the investment that would be required. Because we were unable to obtain funding from TACOM for a Lean event at Red River, we decided to fund the effort out of the depot budget. The team determined that the best candidate for Lean would be the recapitalization program for vehicles used by combat Soldiers in the field. We knew that, by using Lean techniques and processes, we could build a better product and save the customer money on the completed item.

We contracted with Simpler to introduce Lean to Red River at the first Lean event ever held in the Army. Before bringing in Simpler, we prepared the workforce using commander-sponsored Lean awareness briefings. It was essential for the workforce to understand Lean and buy into the concept.

After a few town hall meetings about Lean, we scheduled our first value stream mapping (VSM) event. It was also important to have the leaders of the depot participate and observe the employees who were completing the VSM. [Value stream mapping is a planning tool designed to help companies focus on when and where Lean concepts should be applied to make the most impact. The VSM process involves identifying value streams or product groups in the organization, mapping the current material and information flow, assessing inherent wastes, and designing an improved state of how the value stream or product group should perform.]

Lieutenant Meyer was tapped to lead the Lean effort for the small emplacement excavator (SEE) vehicle recapitalization program and the Lean process we called the “Red River Production System.” His knowledge and experience with Lean proved to be a superb catalyst for getting the program up and running. Lieutenant Meyer was tasked to develop an introductory briefing for the Deputy Commander of AMC. All who saw the presentation, including the Deputy Commander, seemed to be impressed with the benefits of Lean. We began to make progress in selling the merits of Lean to TACOM, and the TACOM commander soon saw the connection between Lean and efficiencies that could save the Army time and money. He later became a principle advocate and supporter of Lean Six Sigma and pushed the program throughout the depot system.

To validate our Lean thinking further, we contacted Stewart & Stevenson Tactical Vehicle Systems, the manufacturer of Army Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles trucks, which had incorporated Lean into its production line. We made several trips to their facilities and sent many mid-level managers and production-line workers there to view their Lean model. We continued to brief the workforce on Lean and established goals to implement Lean in other recapitalization programs.

Lean in AMC

In the spring of 2002, General Kern visited Red River for a briefing on the initial results of Lean in the SEE vehicle production process. He was pleased with the briefing and expressed interest in the Lean process. After his visit, I arranged for Simpler to present the introductory Lean briefing to General Kern and other senior AMC leaders. General Kern recognized the potential impact of Lean concepts in other Army depots and, within 6 months, started an AMC-wide Lean program. TACOM headquarters had already come on board and expanded Lean further by including the Six Sigma process into Lean thinking.

Today, Lean Six Sigma is practiced in all Army depots, arsenals, and ammunition plants. As a result, the state of the Army’s depots is changing slowly. They are again being used to perform the kind of missions they were intended to perform. They are gaining experience in operating in an environment in which they must compete with DOD contractors. Depots now operate forward in current areas of operations, augmenting and expediting programs such as up-armored high-mobility, multipurpose wheeled vehicles and working closely with forward AMC logistics support elements to handle battle losses and repair of battle-damaged equipment.

I have often thought that Lean Six Sigma is really a good dose of solid common sense that leads to careful examination of what you do and how you do it. When I look back on the Battalion Motor Officer Course that I attended in 1977, I see that the principles ingrained in young lieutenants by crusty old motor sergeants and warrant officers, though called by different names, are the same as Lean Six Sigma’s six principles: safety, sort, straighten, scrub (or shine), standardize, and sustain.

It is interesting to note that the Ordnance Corps has adopted the Lean Six Sigma concept. The Ordnance Corps should consider reintegrating the depots into the corps. The depots could prove to be valuable assets for training Ordnance Soldiers. It is time to reestablish the depots as national assets and again involve the Ordnance Corps in their manning, staffing, and officer assignments so that they can better serve the Soldier, the Army, DOD, and the Nation.

The Lean Six Sigma culture is transforming the DOD industrial base into a competitive “industrial strike force” that ensures that our Soldiers in the field have the highest quality products built in the most efficient manner possible without compromising standards along the way. Lean Six Sigma exemplifies the Red River motto, “Building it as if our lives depend on it—theirs do!” The wheels of progress continue to turn, bringing more changes throughout the Army. As these changes occur, I believe Lean Six Sigma will continue to play an integral role in making the Army more efficient and more accountable to itself and the Nation’s taxpayers.

Colonel Fred L. Hart, Jr., USA (Ret.), was the Commander of Red River Army Depot, Texas, from July 2000 to July 2002. During his tenure, he instituted the Lean Six Sigma program at the depot. Red River subsequently became the first Army depot to obtain International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 9001 certification. Colonel Hart retired from Active duty in 2004 as the Assistant Deputy G–4, U.S. Army Europe. He is currently a base realignment and closure strategic planner in the Directorate of Logistics at Fort Benning, Georgia.