Data, collaboration get Army’s continuous process improvement up to speed

Continuous process improvement can be an elusive goal, but the Army has been making significant strides recently in streamlining and improving–in some cases, redesigning–programs that support service members by taking a data-driven approach. This includes extensive collaboration with the parties involved, a willingness to change entire processes and the intent to ensure that improvements are ongoing.

Within the Army, the job falls to Dr. Charles “Chuck” Brandon, director for continuous process improvement (CPI) in the Army’s Office of Business Transformation (OBT). In a broad sense, it can sound like a simple mission. “We’re asked to look at the process and look for opportunities to improve the process,” said Brandon, who recently was named Business Transformation Leader of the Year by the Process Excellence (PEX) Network.

But in practice, it can be an extremely complex undertaking, which has benefitted from a concerted use of data, analytics and collaboration, he said.

Continuous process improvement tends to involve back-office operations that don’t draw a lot of fanfare but nevertheless play a crucial role in underpinning operations within the military. Historically, it hasn’t involved a lot of data and analytics, but that changed about four years ago when CPI began outing advanced processes such as data mining, data discovery and process discovery into the mix. When taking on a case, Brandon said, he now typically has one or more data scientists, enterprise architects and other specialists on his team.

The PEX award resulted from Brandon’s work with the CPI office overall, although two projects in particular drew the most discussion. The projects were the Army Review Boards Agency (ARBA) Backlog Reduction and the Reductions to Army Procurement Acquisition Lead Time (PALT).

ARBA, which reviews personnel actions taken by lower levels of the Army, had come under congressional criticism in 2018 for a significant backlog of medical advisory cases for the Army Board for Correction of Military Records (ABCMR), one of 15 boards ARBA oversees.

The backlog of about 14,000 cases, some of which dated to 2016, could have a real impact on service members. For example, a soldier who had been given a dishonorable discharge was later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury that would explain his behavior. But until his case was adjudicated, he was not eligible for Veterans Affairs benefits or able to get the help he needed.

DoD tasked the CPI office with eliminating the backlog and ensuring that ARBA’s process improvements were sustainable. After an exhaustive review of the medical team’s mounting caseloads and the factors contributing to it, CPI recommended workforce and structural changes designed to improve turnaround time for adjudicating cases, reducing the workload stresses on the team’s limited medical staff, and improving the visibility of cases in progress. Brandon said CPI changed the environment from a craftsman culture—in which individuals handled a case start to finish, regardless of progress, leading to a backlog—to a production environment where cases are worked on more quickly in an assembly line-like process. CPI’s recommendations also resulted in the creation of specialized teams and a surge force focused strictly on reducing the backlog.

“That backlog is now gone,” Brandon said, “and it hasn’t come back.”

While improving ARBA’s processes had a lot to do with volume, the Army’s plans for PALT was mostly about time—specifically, reducing the time it takes to acquire new weapons systems.

Procurement is a notoriously slow moving process; the Army takes an average of 300 days to execute a contract for aircraft or wheeled vehicle parts and maintenance, according to the CPI office. PALT—the time between a formal request and a contract award—takes up a lot of that. Army leadership, describing PALT as a measure of getting vital weapons systems quickly into the hands of warfighters, set a goal to cut the PALT cycle time by as much as half between fiscal 2019 and 2021.

CPI, which was handed the job in October 2018, used its analysis to change program targets by cost category and identify unnecessary process steps, focusing particularly on explaining why those steps added delays. It was a data-heavy project, Brandon said, with a large complement of mathematicians performing extensive collection and analysis.

Recognizing the complexities that contribute to PALT’s cycle time, CPI developed a robust improvement strategy that included leverage data-driven hypothesis combined with contracting expertise to find opportunities for enhancements, rather than just using data to support predetermined solutions. Brandon said the PALT cycle time has been reduced by about 40%, with further improvements planned.

Along with making use of data, collaboration with the stakeholders involved in a process has been essential to the success of CPI’s work.

“The key change has been the cooperative environment,” CPI established, he said, pointing out that process changes would take hold if the people involved understand why changes are being made and how they would benefit the mission. Going forward, CPI plans to build on that approach.

“We want to continue to improve our ability to integrate with other areas,” he said.

In a general sense, continuous process improvement comes down to solving problems.

“I’m a puzzler,” Brandon said. “I have to figure out the puzzle, where the pieces fit.” Those problems, however, aren’t easy. But a data-driven, collaborative approach is making all the difference.

 

Kevin McCaney is a freelance writer.