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A Lean Six Sigma Project to Improve Watercraft Maintenance

By Maj. Charles G. Fyffe | March 30, 2018

South Korea -- Pacific Reach is a biennial exercise with the Republic of Korea armed forces, the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) (7 TB[X]), and other Army, joint, and interagency organizations. During Pacific Reach 2015, concerns were raised about the poor performance of the six modular warping tugs (MWTs), the key watercraft needed to support the modular causeway system (MCS), which includes the trident pier and roll-on, roll-off discharge facility (RRDF).

The 7th TB(X) collaborated with its strategic partners in the Pacific region, primarily Army Field Support Battalion-Northeast Asia (AFSBn-NEA), which manages Army Pre-positioned Stock 4 (APS-4), to analyze the problem and develop process improvements using Lean Six Sigma. Pacific Reach 2017 served as a pilot program capping the two-year project.


The goal of the Lean Six Sigma project was to initiate improvements to Army watercraft maintenance processes to address performance issues. In order to address the MWT concerns and develop solutions, the project team used black belt concepts and tools to define, measure, and analyze the process in order to cultivate solutions for implementation and control.

The first step of the project was to define the problem. The project team agreed that the MWTs were not ready to sustain prolonged operations. The team decided to address only the processes and procedures associated with readiness rates of MWTs located with APS-4.

The next step was to identify the data needed to evaluate the current processes and procedures and identify any operational or financial benefits. The information needed was the care of supplies in storage (COSIS) frequency, the MWTs' operational readiness rates, and the MCS's availability rate. Potential financial benefits would come in the form of cost avoidance from reduced maintenance.

Another key factor that the project needed to consider was that the trident pier and RRDF both require at least two fully mission capable MWTs at all times, according to Army Techniques Publication 4-15, Army Watercraft Operations. For most operations, the causeway company will draw at least six MWTs from APS to support causeway operations.

Based on this factor, the MWTs' minimum operational readiness rate needed to sustain MCS operations is 66 percent. If the operation requires two RRDFs or a causeway ferry, then that requirement increases significantly, leaving little to no time for operational maintenance.

Further analysis revealed that the long length of time between maintenance cycles and operator unfamiliarity with equipment were the root causes of the MWTs' maintenance problems. The team determined that those problems stemmed from current maintenance contracts. The team also determined that the extremely high failure rate of MWT transfer cases during the exercise was the result of those parts being beyond their service lives.

Another contributing factor was the inexperience of the operators on APS MWTs, which lacked the upgrades that 7th TB(X) MWTs had. Most of the 7th TB(X) mariners assigned to the MWTs had trained on only their own home-station equipment and lacked experience with the outdated APS MWTs. This inexperience resulted in inefficiencies during the Pacific Reach 2015 equipment draw and poor performance afterward.

Lastly, improved communication and coordination between the organizations could have increased the availability of repair parts during the exercise. The lack of repair parts contributed greatly to the MWTs' long repair times and increased the time that the MCS was unavailable. After the project, the transfer cases were replaced with more robust, reliable cases and the repair parts list was updated.


The pilot plan tested the project team's recommended improvements. The first step in the pilot plan was to order the updated parts stockage list developed by AFSBn-NEA and 7th TB(X) operators. The updated list allowed operators to decide which repair parts were needed.

The next step addressed the MWTs' maintenance needs and operator training requirements. This set the conditions for success and was accomplished by synchronizing service cycles with operational requirements. The pilot plan also recommended that AFSBn-NEA modify its MWT COSIS cycle from triennially to annually to reduce the amount of time between maintenance cycles.

The pilot program was aligned with the modified maintenance schedule and planned in conjunction with APS-4 annual sea trial dates, creating optimal conditions for the first partnered COSIS between AFSBn-NEA and the 7th TB(X). This alignment addressed the 7th TB(X) operators' unfamiliarity with the APS-4 MWT fleet and enhanced their confidence in the vessels through more frequent hands-on experience.

Another important factor for the pilot plan was organizing additional training for key leaders on BattleWeb, a program that gives a requesting unit the ability to monitor APS equipment maintenance statuses. The pilot plan validated the contract modification to the MWT COSIS cycle, the project improvements to increase operator familiarity with the vessels, and the maintenance posture of the APS-4 MWTs.

Before the project could successfully move into the control phase, the team faced one final test. The project sponsors, the 7th TB(X) and AFSBn-NEA, made it clear that Pacific Reach 2017 would be the true test and had been the target all along for the project.

Pacific Reach 2017 was executed in April 2017, and the causeway was again the primary platform for throughput operations. Stakeholder feedback from the exercise confirmed the project team's predictions; the equipment draw from APS-4 was more efficient and the MWTs' performance improved substantially. These improvements resulted in an average operational readiness rate increase of 40 percent, and more importantly, reduced the MCS non-availability time from 48 hours to only four hours.


As the project shifted to the control phase, the effort focused on setting conditions for successful implementation of the improvements. The project team developed process control tools to assist with the transition, and the 7th TB(X) and AFSBn-NEA implemented the recommended control measures.

The control tools developed by the team will assist in training operators and planners on the new process. Process control documents were given to both commands to assist with future oversight. Other control measures included updating parts stockage lists as needed, modifying standard operating procedures to reflect changes, and conducting a semiannual readiness review.

Overall, the project was a success and both organizations benefited from operational improvements. Financial benefits may also be achieved in the form of cost savings accomplished by reducing the MWT maintenance requirement for each logistics over-the-shore (LOTS) exercise. A projected savings of over $33,000 should be realized during future LOTS operations involving APS-4 equipment.

The project benefited multiple commands by increasing the overall proficiency of organizations conducting LOTS operations that feature the MCS. The project enhanced the maintenance posture of APS-4 watercraft and the training posture of the 7th TB(X), both of which are needed to execute LOTS operations in the Pacific.

The project also demonstrated the ability of the 7th TB(X) and AFSBn-NEA to formulate and implement improvements using Lean Six Sigma principles. After successful implementation of project improvements, both commands may target additional areas for improvement using the same approach.

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