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Lean six sigma, a management term with a cult-like following in the private sector, is quickly gaining converts among Defense and civilian agencies. It started as a tool to improve how work gets done in Japanese car factories in the 1940s and morphed into a symbol of corporate efficiency in the 1990s. Now lean six sigma has turned into the latest government catchphrase for eliminating waste and reducing errors.

"In the next two to five years, there will be a significant increased push in the [civilian agencies] to adopt these approaches," says Peter Banfield, senior associate at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and director of its Lean Six Sigma Center of Excellence in Atlanta. It's common to find that 80 percent to 90 percent of manufacturing or back-office processes don't add value to the final product, he says. Lean six sigma can help identify waste through its systematic way of looking at problem areas such as defects and wait times.

The technical definition of six sigma-sigma refers to standard deviation-is enough to make almost anyone's eyelids droop. In everyday language, it means reducing the number of errors in a process. Lean is more intuitive; it's defined as reducing waste. Lean six sigma refers to the application of both philosophies to create a less wasteful, more streamlined process with fewer errors. Central principles include: defining a problem area, mapping out the current process, measuring inputs and outputs, analyzing the impact of particular steps in the process on output, and experimenting with possible solutions, such as eliminating steps and making sure all participants follow the same steps.

Most organizations implementing lean six sigma focus on training leaders early with the expectation of getting them on board before rolling out a broader initiative. Training levels are usually described through the martial arts belt system, where a black belt signifies seniority.

"This is not a fad that will die out. It's been tried, it's been tested, it's true. If you look at the best-run companies in industry, this is part of the heart and soul that's making them successful," says Mark Price, president of George Group Federal Services, part of Dallas-based George Group Consulting.

Federal agencies are quickly following suit. Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Stanley A. Sieg, program director at the FAA Logistics Center in Oklahoma City, is in the midst of applying lean six sigma to his center's acquisition process. The approach helped him realize that the current method of passing paper from the acquisition office to technicians to program managers and eventually on to buyers was slow and costly, and the center was making too many purchase requests when it should have been consolidating them.

Sieg says lean six sigma forced him to focus on the process and collecting data about it, instead of just starting on a solution, such as immediately making the process electronic. "My whole training has been to jump to a solution and then try to implement it," says Sieg. He thinks the technique could save the center about $3 million a year, or 2 percent of its annual revenues. "It's very applicable throughout the government, because it applies not only in the blue-collar environment but also to white-collar work to reduce cycle time and the flow of paperwork," says Sieg.

The armed services were among the first to embrace the concept. Janet Hassan, acting chief process officer for Air Force acquisition, says the application of lean six sigma to the purchase of C-17 aircraft reduced the time it took to award a contract to 10 months from 20 months. The Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in Georgia recently won the Shingo Gold Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing, named after a Japanese lean leader, after it used lean principles to reduce repair times for C-5 aircraft to an average of 210 days from 390 days. James F. Brice, director of the Naval Sea Systems Command's lean task force, says lean and six sigma will help NAVSEA save $116 million this fiscal year. In September, Kenneth Krieg, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics told the National Defense Industrial Association that he is working to institutionalize lean six sigma across the department.

Lean six sigma is already deeply ingrained in the big defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co. "We approach every problem, every opportunity, every instance we're involved in with the methodologies of Raytheon Six Sigma," says Rusty Patterson, vice president of the Raytheon Six Sigma Institute. Raytheon Six Sigma is the company's own mix of lean, six sigma and other quality improvement methodologies.

In 2000, Lockheed Martin began requiring senior employees above the director level to be trained in lean six sigma. "We're working to get it embedded in every program that we touch," says Michael Joyce, vice president of operating excellence at Lockheed. His company already applies lean six sigma to finance, engineering and human resources. Kraig Scheyer, Northrop Grumman's vice president of administrative services, says the company has documented millions of dollars in cost savings since it adopted the method about four years ago.

Some see the process as so useful that they apply it to their lives outside work. The son of a Raytheon employee credits the method with helping him earn his Eagle Scout award. "It's a big theory of life-it affects you tremendously," says Howard S. Gitlow, co-author of Six Sigma for Green Belts and Champions (Prentice Hall, 2004). He says when he applied the systematic way of thinking to a friend's unsuccessful quest for a wife, the friend realized he was repeating the same mistakes in relationships. Lean six sigma taught him to look for a pattern instead of looking at only one example. That friend, says Gitlow, is now happily married with two kids.

Chris Chen, co-author of The Big Book of Six Sigma Training Games (McGraw-Hill, 2004), says six sigma's emphasis on data collection helped his Bible study group define spiritual apathy and think about how to measure it, such as how long people pray, or whether they teach Sunday school.

Like any movement, this one faces resistance from employees who don't want to change the way they operate. "Some people simply don't want to think about it hard enough," says Gitlow. Blaise J. Durante, Air Force deputy assistant secretary for acquisition integration quotes 15th century politician Niccolo Machiavelli when asked about employees' resistance to lean six sigma. "You have to get hearts and minds in change mode. Most people are in comfort zones," Durante says. One way to get employees on board is to remind them that efficiency improvements from lean six sigma could prevent their jobs from being outsourced, he says. To alleviate anxiety, NAVSEA and Lockheed have promised employees that nobody will be eliminated because of lean six sigma projects.

NAVSEA has trained more than 100 black belts. Raytheon has trained more than half its employees in six sigma techniques, and more than 1 percent of Lockheed's 135,000 employees are black belts. "We'd like to see black belts become the next generation of leaders in the company," says Northrop Grumman's Scheyer, who holds a green belt.

 
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