"Lean and Mean" Army? Not Really


TIME.com: Lean and Mean — Jul 10, 2006 — Page 1

So the article isn't as bad as I thought given the headline. A better headline for my posting here would have been:

Lean and Mean” Army? Lean, But Not Really “Mean”

The article tells a pretty compelling story about the opportunities for lean/six sigma in the Army. It's not just all theory, they claim some success stories that wouldn't surprise a lean person:

  • “[one] command alone saved $110 million last year, and military sources expect that to be doubled this year.”
  • “the [Humvee repair] facility can turn out 32 mission-ready humvees a day, compared with three a week in 2004; the Lean process has lowered the cost of repair for one vehicle from $89,000 to $48,000.”
  • Arkansas' Pine Bluff Arsenal reduced repair recycle time 90% and increased its production rate 50% on M-40 protective gas masks.
  • Letterkenny Army Depot in Pennsylvania has saved $11.9 million in the cost of building the Patriot air-defense missile system.

The article talks about employees even, the human side of lean (not just cost cutting). People are being asked for their suggestions for improving support processes and are coming around to view lean as a benefit:

“I thought it was just going to put me out of a job,” Moore says. “But I've turned around 180 degrees–I can see what an efficient shop can do.”

Any lean transformation isn't just about cost cutting, it's really about improving effectiveness (notice I didn't say “efficiency”).

“How is the Army going to judge success? Cutting people or saving money is useful, but the challenge will be making sure all the changes are not only relevant to the soldier in the field but that there aren't negative impacts for war fighting.”

Faster response, better quality, and employee involvement will help the troops and support employees. Saving money and

Given the headline, there wasn't really anything “mean” talked about in the article, except for at the end:

“Even advocates of the Army effort recognize the challenge. Employees at all levels must adopt a new work ethic, learn new systems and often work harder, with no immediate rewards.”

I guess that's where the “mean” is. If you're “doing lean” and people are working harder, something is wrong. Lean should eliminate problems and reduce waste that's cause people to exert themselves. Now, if your starting point was a process with a lot of waiting waste, where there was really unbalanced work or un-level demand, the “slow times” might have been eliminated and now people are doing more in a day. But, if they're rallied around the mission, how can they complain about being more effective?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. No immediate benefits? What about job security? Much like private businesses, the military depots have been outsourcing to private companies for years. Many overhaul operations are competitive bids between depots and private shops. Anything that makes the depots more competitive is clearly a benefit for those workers.

  2. Exactly. The point I was trying to make is that it’s absolutely incorrect to say that lean “has no immediate benefits” to employees.

  3. I can see “no immediate benefits” in the very short term. While in the process of changing work layouts, tooling requirements, and learning a new way to work, many times the shopfloor folks are still expected to do their work the old way. In my experience, there needs to be an understanding (conveyed by managemet) that the upfront work will allow for vast improvements in the future, as well as more opportunities to continue eliminating waste.

  4. As someone close to the Army Lean Six Sigma deployment, I can say that this article was mostly on-target, although the noted passage is certainly an exception.

    I’ll chalk the passage up to miscommunication more than a reflection of the Army’s improvement philosophy. Nearly every General Officer and Senior Executive Service civilian in the Army has attended a 2-day workshop on Lean Six Sigma. The workshop includes a half-day simulation in which the participants analyze a government operation and apply LSS tools such as Value Stream Mapping. A key learning point is that by eliminating NVA work, process efficiency and effectiveness improve, and the work environment becomes far less chaotic. Work smarter, not harder.

    Like most commercial organizations, the Army has a preference for immediate results, especially going forward. If something like 5s doesn’t directly map to improvement of key process metrics (which it often does), then it will probably not receive support during this phase. Whether or not that line of thinking is correct or not is another point and a great subject for further discussion!

  5. True, oftentimes you read something that makes you react with “that company/person is butchering lean!” when really it’s the reporter who didn’t understand and butchered the words.

    It reminds me of a quote, “If you’ve ever been quoted, you’ve been misquoted.”

    I think the only way to error proof that is to never be quoted?

  6. Lean is not picking and choosing a few projects or processes. The U.S. Army has started lean and saved 100 million. That is scratching the surface when the fiscal budget is over 200 billion.

    The article states, “It’s not clear if there are sufficient resources to support all potential LSS projects in the Army..”. Is the Army implying that lean efforts do not eliminate a waste in human resource?
    Where are the metrics and goals and analysis that show efforts?

    This whole article reeks of good intentioned phobia (fear of change and failure). Lean has a foot in the Army, so let’s hope it gets implemented in the WHOLE U.S. Army in the coming years.

    • Thanks, Brian. I’ve talked to a few people who have done Lean work in DOD. One concern is that “savings” is just on paper since nobody’s budget really gets reduced.


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