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News | Dec. 13, 2018

Information Operations uses variety of problem-solving tools

By Sara Moore, Information Operations

Innovation, agile development, continuous process improvement. As the Defense Logistics Agency moves forward, it’s easy for buzzwords to throw you off—especially when you don’t know where your idea or project fits in.


DLA Information Operations uses a variety of tools -- human-centered design, agile development and continuous process improvement — to solve problems or tackle new projects. These tools share common features but differ in audience, methods, and outcomes.


The Innovation Team delivers new capabilities to DLA using technology-oriented product development tools. The core approach, human-centered design, focuses on experimentation and deep stakeholder engagement, said Adam Price of the Innovation Team. Stakeholders — the military services, industry, academia and individuals from all areas in DLA — participate in every step of the process. Often, the innovation team organizes cross-functional teams with individuals who would never otherwise work together to build things from the ground up. These ad hoc teams have conducted design sprints to increase automation inside DLA and build DoD capacity on additive manufacturing. Other teams have worked with universities to bolster the cybersecurity posture of DLA mission partners.


Ultimately, the innovation team seeks to challenge the status quo, reorienting DLA away from the traditional “requirements” approach and towards an approach — common in the technology sector — that values experimentation, collaboration, interviews and narrowly-scoped problems, Price said.  


The Innovation Team does not have a customer, at least not in the traditional sense, Price noted. For each project, they identify and work closely with a “problem owner” — the person who gains the most from seeing a solution delivered — and works with him/her throughout the process. This partnership aims to solve a high-impact aspect of the problem and empower the problem owner to solve other aspects on his/her own.  The innovation process is iterative. The innovation team helps to deliver the first iteration and the newly empowered problem owner delivers the subsequent ones.


Agile development relies on a series of short development “sprints” and is used, typically, in software development. Agile, often the next step after design, is a good way to combat the unpredictability of software development by developing in phases with constant customer input and involvement.  For example, after the Innovation Team’s successful design sprint that outlined how to use automation to improve the onboarding process, the Robotic Process Automation Team in J62 used a series of Agile development sprints to implement the specifics.  Design helps you pick the target and agile helps you get there.


“Agile is very pro-customer,” said Reinaldo Cruz, the team leader for the Enterprise Data Warehouse team who uses Agile in his projects. “One of the biggest benefits is that you have great communication with the customer, because you’re talking once or twice a week, and when you deliver that final product, it’s something everyone can use. It brings a lot of communication between the customer and colleagues, because you’re all working as a team.”


The development teams that use Agile usually work with customers outside of DLA Information Operations, which is different from the Innovation Team’s focus within J6, said Mike LeBreton, chief of sustainment and solutions for EDW. Also, developers work with customers upfront to develop user stories and acceptance criteria that will define when a project is finished. Having criteria set upfront doesn’t stop changes from happening as the product goes through development, he emphasized, and customers do get capabilities delivered to them as they are developed. But unlike the Innovation Team, which partners with problem owners for a specific time frame, Agile teams work with customers throughout the life of a project.


“The Agile mentality not only benefits us in development but also benefits us in sustainment,” LeBreton said, noting that his team uses a tool to track tasks and projects daily to make sure things are running smoothly. “That process allows us to manage the day-to-day tickets and triage work and things from customers, making sure our sustainment is on point, ensuring the customers’ systems are up and running and problems are resolved in an efficient manner.”


When it comes to existing processes, continuous process improvement is a set of tools DLA uses to reduce variation and create stable processes. CPI tools use a linear approach and prescriptive methods to make repetitive processes more efficient and effective. CPI is also customer-focused and aims to improve agency operations and solve problems in the best way possible, said Jim Moffett, the J6 CPI program manager. CPI is often seen as a more structured method, he said, but it is an effective tool when applied to the right process.


“We’re looking at what method is best to use on which problem,” Moffett said. “We’re not making the problem fit the tool; we’re making the tool fit the problem.”


While the tools J6 uses to solve problems or implement new processes are different, they are all aimed at improving agency operations and increasing efficiency, a charge that is increasingly important as the government looks to achieve more results with fewer resources, Moffett noted.


“We’re always looking for ways to do things better,” he said. “CPI, Agile development and innovation are coming to the forefront to help us to achieve our best results.”