News | Dec. 15, 2017

Continuous improvement: the path to process excellence

By Dianne Ryder

The Defense Logistics Agency strives for greater efficiency, effectiveness and reliability in delivering its products and services. Complementing this goal is Continuous Process Improvement, the drive to improve business processes and deliver optimal outcomes while maintaining customer focus. 

“Over the past year, DLA has built a foundation committed to improving processes and procedures,” said Marcus Bowers, director of DLA Transformation. “Working together, DLA employees have saved time, eliminated waste, increased productivity, reduced cycle time and strengthened our ability to continuously improve how work gets done.

“We continue to infuse Process Excellence into the DNA of our agency, as demonstrated in the ‘Always Accountable’ line of effort in the DLA director’s new strategic plan,” Bowers said.

Kristin Kremer, chief of the Enterprise Process Management Division in the DLA Transformation office, added: “Our next step is to focus CPI efforts on developing a problem-solving mindset in employees at all levels. The new DLA manual [5010.43] released Nov. 2 supports this evolving approach,” she said.

“The manual is a catalyst,” Kremer explained. “Traditionally, CPI in DLA has been a philosophy focused on Lean Six Sigma and developing a cadre of practitioners or certified CPI belts.”

She continued: “The new strategy is not one approach to improvement but a multi-pronged approach. There are many different methodologies and activities that drive improvement, and we want to embrace change and innovation in how we get things accomplished.

“CPI is a tool that helps achieve the strategic goals,” Kremer said. “Everything we do is a process, so how we manage that process determines how efficient, effective and reliable we are. CPI capitalizes on identified opportunities to make processes faster, cheaper and better,” she explained.

“If you know the problem and the solution, just implement it. CPI is really about when you don’t know the solution,” Kremer said.

Once an area for improvement is defined, CPI helps find solutions, she added. Depending on how complex the problem is, the solution can be a simple, short process or a more complex one.

“Most importantly, DLA employees are the source for improvement ideas and every success starts with them. It’s not necessarily about the short-term gains; it’s about the long-term outcomes,” she said.

All DLA major subordinate commands are working on CPI initiatives that align with the big picture of process excellence and process management. One MSC embracing a strategy of continuous improvement is DLA Distribution, whose employees can boast a sea change in implementing CPI.

Kevin Cummings, the program’s adviser for organizational development, has been with program several years. He said CPI must be modeled at the most senior levels of management.

“We have 700 managers and supervisors. How do we get them to practice continuous improvement on a daily basis?” he said. “How do they design and operate their work to see problems? Solve those problems close in person, place and time? And share the knowledge of how to solve those problems?”

The answer: By starting from the top and coaching downward, said Sherry Amrhein, DLA Distribution continuous program manager.

“I participate in the CPI community of practice, and we’ve continued to share our approach,” she said. “Some MSCs are still focused on the belt philosophy, [but] some are more accepting of leader-led continuous improvement.”

Cummings said training and coaching employees has traditionally meant classroom instruction. “We’re trying to change the concept for how managers and employees really develop: by practicing in real-life operations.”

John Destalo, DLA Distribution program analyst, points to the “ideal condition” as another important aspect of CPI.

“You’re always progressing toward something,” he said. “You always have problems to solve, so a high-performing organization that’s continually improving is always striving to reach that goal.”

Cummings added: “Our management system defines the ideal condition for products, process, structure and people. That’s why we define continuous improvement as the daily improvement at every level of [those elements].”

Amrhein reiterated that incorporating CPI is not the result of a single event.

“If you think back to how we’ve done continuous improvement in DLA before, we’d do a CPI project and walk away from it,” she said. “There wasn’t a ton of sustainment, follow-up or monitoring.”

Cummings referred to the Andon cord, a system Toyota adopted as an alert for potential problems along the assembly line. When the cord is pulled, it signals a problem in a specific workstation.

“The Andon is a way to escalate the issue, to pull your supervisor in to support you,” he said. “Then if the supervisor can’t solve it, they can pull their manager in. It creates a connection across the hierarchy.”

“This is a monumental shift in culture,” Cummings said. “Everyone from the three-star to the person driving the forklift is involved in daily problem-solving — not only solving the symptoms, but trying to address the root causes.”

In addition to senior level engagement, Amrhein said DLA Distribution has established internal governance for CPI through regular briefings and review of CPI projects.

"It’s not a CPI belt or a project manager doing it; it’s the leader of that area briefing what the problem is and what the goal is,” she said. “When the project is completed, that same leader is [going to] brief what they did, how they did it, why they did it, what their planned rollout was to incorporate it, and will then brief the results.”

Cummings added: “You’re really owning a promise to your customers to deliver products with twice the value, in half the time, at half the cost. What does it take to really get there?” he said. “In the end, you’re trying to build new habits; new routines. Individually and organizationally, it takes a long time.”