Continuous process improvement isn’t just a heady concept thrown around by think tanks and executives. It’s a real, painstaking, value-added effort – and it pays off, said Rene King, Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support CPI division chief.
Two recent CPI projects completed in the Subsistence supply chain are proof of its effectiveness, with a combined savings of $1.9 million in time and costs.
Kevin Burza and Christopher Ludwig, Subsistence branch chiefs and CPI-trained lean six sigma green belts, both agreed that their CPI green belt training provided a great background, and completing an actual project let them put “theory into practice.” Ultimately helping their respective teams improve the services they provide warfighters and partners.
“There are so many things we do very well here at [DLA] Troop Support, but our office exists because there’s always a way to improve processes and provide even greater value to the customer – often giving time back to the workforce, allowing employees to better balance workloads and provide a greater capacity to excel,” King said.
The DLA Troop Support CPI office maintains a site for employees to access resources and is hosting a green belt training course April 18-22. The project process can be long, but it pays dividends, Burza said.
Mining a mountain of data
In 2014, Burza and his team realized they were losing time to back-and-forth of emails between vendors and no less than four different Subsistence teams to coordinate the addition of new items to the Subsistence catalog. Nearly half of the time, a vital piece of information was missing somewhere along the way, he said.
To get to the root of the issue, Burza worked with CPI Project Supervisor Max Ayala-Ortiz to sift through the relevant data and analyze where the “sticking points” were, he said.
“[The CPI team] was invaluable in dissecting the data we were able to collect,” Burza said. “[CPI] was able to help make sense of the data in different ways and create charts … and make it something we could use and understand.”
Burza said he had an employee feeding data to CPI for four months to just gather the raw information – hundreds of emails – to process and boil down for an understanding of the issue and prospective solution approaches.
“It was a lot of data with a lot of opportunities to get lost in the potential scope of the problem, but [CPI] just kind of helped bring it back into focus,” Burza said.
Ludwig was also impressed by this process as his CPI project helped break down national-level soda contracts into regional purchase agreements to address payment and receipting issues in 2021.
“Going through what [CPI] called a ‘fishbone diagram,’ we were able to visually see where some of the issues were,” Ludwig said.
The charts, diagrams and data dissection done by CPI helped not only focus on the issue, but also identify other areas for future improvements, he said.
That’s where a lot of the work goes in, CPI Project Supervisor John Herzer said.
“Defining and really understanding the problem in terms of what you’re trying to resolve is really the hard part,” Herzer said. “Once you pick through the data and look at it from a few different angles, then you can start developing potential solutions. And it’s an iterative process. The first apparent solution may not be the best.”
If at first, you don’t succeed…
For Burza, communicating his first failure – an all-in-one verification form that some vendors couldn’t use - was the impetus of his success.
“It came because I was briefing about the project, and basically about how we weren’t going to be able to move forward,” Burza said.
During his announcement, a teammate working on the Subsistence Total Order and Receipt Electronic System - a web-based platform that allows customers to create and receipt products – volunteered the aid of his team and a program that already successfully integrated communications with DLA, vendors and customers.
Similarly, Ludwig’s first thought - transitioning national soda contracts to Subsistence’s prime vendor program – also wasn’t the best since the solution required even greater localization of the contracts than SPV provided.
In the end, breaking the national contracts into “constructive chunks” by using a different acquisition vehicle called a “blanket purchase agreement,” was the best way for Ludwig’s team to address the issues at the sources, he said.
“It’s almost like a win-win-win … given how this project unfolded,” Ludwig said. “We’re able to manage [the BPA], pay the vendor more efficiently and better support customers.”
Tools for every leader
While completing CPI training and projects, some of the greatest lessons Burza and Ludwig took away – other than their projects’ success – were teamwork and leadership.
“Hey, it’s not just you … you’re the project lead,” Burza said. “I’m not an expert in systems. I wasn’t going to be able to create this in STORES. I had to rely on that team.”
Sharing and communicating a vision with a “solid team” facilitated the improvement process, Ludwig said.
“You’re not going to have all the answers,” he said. “You need a diverse group of highly motivated, smart people behind you to help guide you through the project.”