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Lean Six Sigma at Anniston Army Depot

In recent years, conversations about management issues, in both the Army and the private sector, often have included two terms: “Lean” and “Six Sigma.” Although both terms originated in the private sector as managerial concepts, they quickly coalesced into a philosophy to live by—and, more important, survive by—throughout the Department of Defense.

Commanders, officers, noncommissioned officers, Soldiers, managers, shop-floor workers, administrators, secretaries, clerks, mechanics, drivers, equipment specialists—literally everyone in every Army organization—now are, or ultimately will become, involved in Lean Six Sigma activities.

Implementation of Lean Six Sigma is not easy, nor will it ever be, because these processes involve new and different ways of thinking. A “business as usual” attitude cannot be tolerated by any organization wishing to remain competitive in the 21st century. The changing of long-established and deeply ingrained habits is the most difficult challenge any organization faces in adopting Lean Six Sigma. Fortunately, the Army has had some success in meeting the challenges of implementing Lean Six Sigma, and one of its success stories can be found at Anniston Army Depot, Alabama.

Depot Operations

Army Materiel Command (AMC) organizations such as Anniston Army Depot do not receive appropriations to fund their operations. Instead, they must pay their way using the revenues they generate from the missions they are assigned.

Anniston’s primary missions are maintaining and upgrading both heavy and light combat vehicles and their components and individual and crew-served weapons, land combat missiles, and small arms. Receiving, storing, and shipping conventional munitions are also key components of the depot’s overall activities.

Ultimately, the depot’s bottom line is a process that continually produces a high-quality product, on time and within or below established budgets, so that equipment can be returned to the warfighter quickly and at the lowest possible cost to the taxpayer.

Because of the extensive support the depot is providing for our Nation’s ongoing conflicts, Anniston‘s workload is greater than ever. For instance, in 2004 the depot was given the task of completing 4 million direct labor hours of mission-essential work. This workload increased to 5.5 million hours in 2005 and is projected to be 6.3 million hours in 2006. The ongoing conflicts in Southwest Asia also have created a need to shorten repair-cycle times to ensure that readiness is maintained.

As the depot has increased the size of its workforce in recent years to handle its expanding workload, the expansion has been managed to maintain the right mix of worker skills. Normal attrition and potential future retirements have been considered in developing long-range hiring plans. Such planning has been essential to ensuring that a capable core workforce continues to be available and that, when a workload decrease does occur, no reduction-in-force actions will be necessary.

Anniston Starts Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement—the operational philosophy underlying Lean Six Sigma—is nothing new at Anniston Army Depot. In the spring of 2002, the depot began implementing a new way of doing business called the Process Optimization Initiative (POI). This is a holistic approach to improving all depot processes, whether in production or administration. POI encompasses several improvement strategies, but its major components are Lean manufacturing and the tools of Six Sigma.

Continuous improvement concepts also have been applied to the depot’s organizational structure. As in most industries, the depot was organized by departments such as Planning, Material Handling, Production Continuous Improvement, and so forth. Early on, depot managers realized that each department had different objectives, which often led to conflicts within the overall depot production operation. Organization by departments also did not create a single process owner for what the depot did.

Today, Anniston is organized by value streams, with each value stream having a process optimization manager who has total control over the resources needed to accomplish its mission. [For definitions of such Lean Six Sigma terms as “value stream,” see page 10.] Each day, depot personnel recognize the benefits provided by this structure, which allows them to focus on a common goal in each industrial process.

Working Smarter, Not Harder

Lean manufacturing is based on a commonsense approach to improving efficiency. It does this by identifying and removing waste from various processes and by adding or streamlining organization, standard work, and visual aids. In other words, it is based on working smarter, not harder.

Six Sigma tools are not new. They are just a matter of taking many of the improvement tools that have been around for years and packaging them into a single toolbox. Six Sigma is a structured approach to improving overall effectiveness by implementing the “define, measure, analyze, improve, and control” process.

Implementing Six Sigma projects follows a more rigid approach because each project must be presented to the depot’s Lean Six Sigma Review Board. The board, composed of top-level managers, reviews all proposed projects for their impact on depot operations and return on investment before it approves implementation. The board also reviews projects periodically to determine if they should continue or be cancelled. Completed projects ultimately are presented to the board for final approval and permanent implementation.

All of Anniston’s improvement efforts are focused on the things that are important to its customers. For instance, troops in the field do not care about costs; they just want to receive quality products in a timely manner. Bill-paying customers, such as AMC’s major subordinate commands and program managers, want to get the most for the dollars they are spending. So the depot’s day-to-day focus continues to be on all factors that affect cost, quality, and schedule.

The depot’s plan is to continue to use Lean manufacturing principles to increase efficiency and Six Sigma tools to provide further improvements in identified processes. By using an aggressive approach within all production value streams and administrative areas, the depot anticipates that it will achieve additional cost-avoidances and savings. This will benefit not only the depot and the taxpayer but, most important, the military forces who are the ultimate users of depot products.

The Hardest Part: Change

The hardest part of a continuous improvement effort is change since the initial reaction of almost everyone involved is resistance. To be successful, however, everyone has to buy into the recommended improvements, from the hands-on worker on the shop floor to upper-level managers and everyone in between. It is essential that any improvements that are implemented are not viewed simply as a program but become a way of life for all parties.

Too many times, proposed improvements in an organization fail because individuals resist or do not buy into the need for change. Attitudes such as “But we’ve always done it this way,” “If it’s not broken, why fix it?” and “If I hold out long enough, they’ll go away and leave me alone” reflect mindsets that often are found in the workplace.

Implementing Lean Six Sigma Processes

A continuous improvement process starts with a brainstorming session called a “value stream analysis.” This is where process owners map out the current process and identify the wastes and inefficiencies of that process. The next step is to develop an “ideal state map” that lays out what the perfect process would look like if there were no constraints. A “future improved process map” then is developed that fits in somewhere between the current and ideal states. This future map identifies what is (or might be) achievable within 6 to 12 months. Finally, an action plan is developed that identifies all of the activities that must take place to achieve the future improved process. This plan includes things to do, projects, “kaizen” (continuous improvement) events, and Six Sigma projects, complete with identification of action officers and due dates.

The kaizen events follow a standard 7-week cycle. During the first week, the process management group develops a kaizen team profile that includes the scope, measurable objectives, and team members for the event. Kaizen teams are made up of floor-level workers, managers, upstream and downstream customers, and process support personnel. Team members then use the next 2 weeks to collect and process data and plan the specific improvements that will occur in the fourth week, which is the actual kaizen event week and the time when dramatic changes take place. On the Friday of the kaizen event week, the kaizen team briefs top-level managers on the results of their efforts. Briefing top-level managers conveys to all floor-level workers the importance of the improvements.

The data-collection phase is critical because data not only are needed to determine success or failure but are vital to determining what the new process will be. The last 3 weeks of the cycle are used for follow-ups to ensure that the new process is working as intended and to hand off the new process from the kaizen team to the first-line supervisor.

The important thing to note in this process is that, while the kaizen team is presented with objectives, it also is empowered to find ways to achieve them. Management provides guidance and pulse checks, but only in rare cases do the workers have to be told what to do, for they truly are the experts on their processes.

Transforming to a One-Piece Flow Operation

Even with this very structured process, success is not always immediately achievable and persistence is required. Anniston Army Depot’s most successful work cell—the AGT–1500 M1 tank turbine engine rear module assembly line—probably was the hardest to transform.

Before implementation of Lean, assembly of the module was performed “bay style,” with each employee assembling an entire module from start to finish. The objective of the kaizen event was to install a balanced, one-piece flow process in which the work of assembling a module is broken down into balanced segments.

The team members worked on the cell’s operations and made some improvements. They organized the work area and eliminated unneeded work steps. However, they said that a one-piece flow operation would not work in their area. They then were asked to go back and try again, but they again returned with the same negative answer. On their third attempt, they decided to prove to management that implementation of the one-piece flow system would not work. However, what actually happened was that team members proved to themselves that the one-piece flow process really did work. This change reduced the assembly time by 2.2 man-hours for each module and the staffing requirement from five to four workers.

Today, the members of this team would fight long and hard before going back to the bay-style assembly process. They recognize the benefits of the one-piece flow process and are some of the strongest advocates of Lean at the depot. One heavy mobile equipment mechanic in the module cell said recently that “breaking down the production line into stages along a single line makes it easier to train new employees and simplifies the operation for all concerned.”

An added benefit of the one-piece flow process is that, if a quality problem arises, there are fewer variables to consider, which makes it easier to identify and fix the problem quickly. Mechanics also use toolkits that contain only the exact number of tools and kits needed, which has cut the cost of tools contained in each toolkit by about $3,000. Multiply this number by 65 toolkits, and immediate savings of $195,000 are realized.

Lean Six Sigma Across the Depot

Another of the depot’s Lean Six Sigma success stories involved the M2 machinegun assembly line. This project eliminated waste and transformed work cells from batch processing to a continuous, one-piece flow system. Assembly time for this weapon went from 2.5 man-hours to 1 and required staffing from 18 to 15; production increased from 50 to more than 100 machineguns per month. Projected savings for fiscal year 2006 are $1.1 million, and these savings will continue in the future. Similar improvements on the M16 rifle process allowed the depot to produce an additional 1,200 weapons—a 25-percent improvement.

As indicated earlier, one of the depot’s primary missions is the disassembly, refurbishment, and reassembly of light and heavy combat vehicles. Under the refurbishment process, the depot brings old equipment back to a like-new condition before returning it to service. Although refurbishment often produces additional challenges, Anniston’s continuous improvement activities ease those challenges significantly. By going to a one-piece flow process with point-of-use tools and standardized work, the M1 Abrams tank disassembly line process time was reduced from 260 to 230 hours—a 12 percent improvement.

Before the implementation of Lean Six Sigma in the depot’s reassembly operations, mechanics often spent a significant amount of time chasing down needed parts; this obviously was not part of the mechanics’ job. Now, parts are configured by workstation requirements and are placed at the point of use by materials handlers. This allows the mechanics to continue “turning wrenches” and produce a refurbished combat vehicle in a shorter timeframe.

To improve efficiency, signals have been put into use in the assembly area. If a mechanic encounters a problem, such as a missing or defective part, a “red flag” is raised—literally—and help is soon on the way.

Another recently completed Six Sigma project improved the first-pass yield for the M1 tank’s AVDS (air-cooled, V-engine-configuration, diesel, superturbocharged) 1790 engine by 10 percent. This success is expected to have a return on investment of $1 million over the next 3 years.

Anniston Army Depot has an aggressive improvement plan. In 2006, the depot expects to complete 186 kaizen events and 42 Six Sigma projects. The goal is to achieve efficiencies that save at least 900,000 direct-labor hours. A reduction in hours creates increased capacity and shorter repair-cycle times.

But users of Lean Six sigma should be warned: At times, the multifaceted Lean Six Sigma processes can be very frustrating. This is particularly true in the beginning, when employees often are very reluctant to actually buy into the processes.

Lean Six Sigma also can be soul-searching and gut-wrenching when nothing seems to be going according to plan. It is extremely challenging to try to make all the pieces of depot operations fit together logically and logistically. However, it is very satisfying when positive things happen and results are apparent to all participants. Ultimately, it is exhilarating when the final product is delivered and goals once thought unachievable have been accomplished.

Today, throughout the depot, workers are encouraged to come up with solutions to problems. The person doing the hands-on work is usually the best one to devise a solution to a problem. Unfortunately, before the implementation of Lean Six Sigma, workers often were not asked to provide input or their ideas were dismissed out of hand by managers.

Continuous improvement is a never-ending journey and has now become a way of life at the depot. Lean Six Sigma is a fast-moving train and ultimately a great ride.

For additional information on Anniston Army Depot’s Lean Six Sigma activities, contact Patti Sparks at patti.sparks@us.army.mil.

Colonel Alexander B. Raulerson is the Commander of Anniston Army Depot in Alabama. Previously, he served as the Chief of Plans, Programs, and Exercises (G–4) at Third Army at Fort McPherson, Georgia. He has an M.S. degree in logistics management from the Florida Institute of Technology.

Patti Sparks is Anniston Army Depot’s Continuous Improvement Manager and has been involved in the depot’s Lean Six Sigma activities since their inception. She is a graduate of Gadsden State Community College in Alabama and the Quality Assurance Intern Program.