Everyone has ideas about what is wrong, what could be done differently and how they might fix problems in their work areas. They just might not know how to go about getting it done. That’s something Carolyn Harris wants to change.
“I want employees to know they have someone to come to and the tools available here in the Center to improve our programs and make our people and processes more efficient, which ultimately leads to greater customer satisfaction,” said Harris, Huntsville Center’s Program Improvement Manager since June 2012.
“I don’t know what’s going on in every work area to know where people are experiencing problems,” Harris said, adding that anyone can identify a process for improvement.
The Center’s most recent project, suggested by Resource Management Director Audwin Davis, ultimately resulted in reducing its Proponent Sponsored Engineer Corps Training bill payment process from an average of 63 days down to six days. Already holding corporate and Marine Corps Lean Six Sigma black belt certification, Harris led the six-month project this past year to complete her Army certification.
Through several process mapping and brainstorming sessions and extensive data analysis, a team of about 10 employees from throughout the Center developed several ways to improve the process. The final agreed upon solution was then tested to ensure the process worked smoothly. The end process eliminated more than 20 non value-added steps and cut about 57 days from the payment cycle time - a 91 percent improvement.
Harris emphasized that employees don’t have to have the time or desire to take on a project in order to bring it to her attention. Not every process issue merits a Lean Six Sigma project.
“We have to change the culture. When people hear Lean Six Sigma, they often think of a long, drawn-out process that is a lot of work and can take a long time,” Harris said. “A lot of times when we delve into the process, we learn the hiccups are just a result of people not following the prescribed process – that’s an easy fix.”
The first step is identifying those process issues people are dealing with.
Lean Six Sigma is just one piece of continuous process improvement, which also includes leaning processes by removing waste (non value-added steps), identifying and removing bottlenecks (work piling up at a particular point in a process) and implementing quick fixes. Lean Six Sigma is a structured problem-solving method to eliminate non value-added steps – or lean – a process through a team project that can take one to several months. Harris was careful to point out that not all non value-added steps can be removed from a process – some might be required by law or regulation – but there may be a way to increase efficiency within the step.
When someone identifies a project, Harris said she will do the background work to help identify quick solutions or determine if it’s a viable Lean Six Sigma project for a team to tackle. The next step is mapping out the existing process to identify each step, as well as any gaps, roadblocks or hurdles.
Huntsville Center has a handful of Lean Six Sigma certified process improvement practitioners, but has also recently lost a few to retirement and relocation. Harris mentored four green belts who earned certification in 2014, and three employees are registered for the next green belt course that begins in July. She said it’s a continuous mentorship and training cycle to ensure the program remains viable and to maintain of culture of continuous improvement.
“One thing about continuous process improvement is that a year or two down the line, someone else could come up with an even better way to do a process.”
Employees with improvement initiatives or questions about continuous process improvement or Lean Six Sigma can email Harris or call (256) 895-1393.