The Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division, Keyport Torpedo Depot recently conducted the command’s first-ever virtual “Lean Event” to find new ways to fundamentally streamline existing processes. The depot combined Lean Six Sigma with telecommunications technology to facilitate a virtual event while NUWC Keyport continues to operate on maximum telework to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Decades of minor upgrades and fitting new processes into old systems resulted in existing processes becoming so cumbersome that simple administrative changes, or minor technical changes, would take nearly a month to complete.
The depot formed a Lean Six Sigma team and scheduled the event for the beginning of April, but was unable to hold the event as planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team did not want to delay the work indefinitely, so they leaned into the virtual world and used Microsoft Teams to meet and resolve issues.
“Participants in this event used a variety of devices from separate buildings and we had very few issues. Between the software platform and the impeccable work of the event's organizers, I don't see this as a stop-gap measure. A lot of events would benefit from this format,” said Jon Harris, depot electronics engineer.
The first hurdle to overcome was getting everyone plugged in and familiar with the Microsoft Teams platform. NUWC Keyport’s Depot Engineering group was able to assist with this aspect. The Depot Engineering group had already established many best practices when using the platform by holding virtual team meetings with games and trivia, so people could become familiar with the tool in a low-stress manner.
“I never thought I’d see something like this in my career, and I’ve been envious of my private sector friends who have things like this. So when we got the opportunity to play with this, we went all in… figure out what it does first, then figure out how we can use it for what we do,” said Gerry Austin, Depot Engineering Branch Manager.
Leticia Mason, the Maintenance, Engineering, and Industrial Operations Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, set up her dining room as a Lean Six Sigma “war room” complete with butcher paper, flip chart, and sticky notes. Mason had never done an even like this to assist with continuous process improvement (CPI), but she was keen to take on the challenge.
“When asked if I’d be able to support this in a virtual environment, I have to say I had a wide-eyed emoji look,” said Mason. “I do not back down from a challenge, so off I went to collaborate with CPI peers as to how we could pull this off. The key was having clear expectations. One very important agreement was to be flexible and patient, as we are working with new technology. As a facilitator one of our biggest challenges is keeping the team from going into various rabbit holes while maintaining forward progress for the schedule.”
Erin Lemieux, also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt, assisted Mason from her home. Lemieux scanned in photos of the different CPI worksheets and products produced by Mason and managed the event’s screen-sharing options. “This was my first Green Belt event, and going virtual initially added an extra layer of expectations and stress,” she said. “That feeling was completely unfounded! Taking notes, sharing documents, and updating group information was much easier from a computer, rather than going back through flip charts and notebooks. Everyone on the team was in their own personalized workspace and comfortable, and we hit our stride much sooner than usual. A Lean event in itself challenges the status quo, the way we just did it challenged the status quo, and we succeeded in both.”
The initial kick-off was delayed due to several technical glitches. The team decided to use that as a “dress rehearsal,” giving them the opportunity to directly address the technical challenges presented by the new format.
“Sometimes things just don’t work as well as hoped, but we felt it was important to ‘get this right’ from the beginning and not slog through with what we had. So we took a pause, found some more ‘best practices,’ and tried again a week later,” said Austin
The second kick-off yielded much better results. Over the course of six days more improvements were made in holding the Lean event itself, in addition to the work being accomplished on streamlining depot processes.
“Seeing how effectively the team was able to use the digital tools in the process of the lean event inspired greater confidence that we’d be able to utilize similar tools in our future state process. Without the high-velocity learning we did as part of this event, I’m not sure we would have been as receptive to the idea,” remarked Depot System Engineer Tom Campbell.
At the conclusion of the event, the team recognized several benefits of the virtual environment over being in-person.
Chris Gibson, a quality assurance specialist, said the virtual event made it easier everyone to be better listeners. “Doing a CPI event this way was surprisingly enjoyable,” said Gibson. “It ensured we talked one at a time, and prevented the typical sidebar conversations that often happen at these things.”
Additionally, people who had to deal with urgent tasks were still able to participate by briefly multitasking without interrupting the room or disrespecting the speaker.
“There wasn’t that sense of dread retuning to your office to a pile of messages and email from being away all day,” said Campbell. “Breaks provided enough time to do a quick look and respond to urgent issues because we never actually had to walk anywhere.”
Indeed, with possibilities such as this, lean events and other collaborative meetings can now include people from multiple geographic areas without the need for travel.
“I hope we continue to capture these benefits and apply them to our future. High Velocity Learning and increasing our ability to collaborate aren’t just buzzwords, they are our future,” said Austin.
NUWC Division, Keyport is a global network of people, facilities, and capabilities, united in all we do by a culture of innovation and a common purpose: to expand America’s advantage in the undersea domain. For more news from NAVSEA and the Warfare Centers, go to www.navsea.navy.mil.