Lean Six Sigma Boosts Peace Keeping Operations

The United Nations won a notable mention at IQPC’s Process Excellence Network’s awards earlier this year in the category Best Start Up Lean Six Sigma Program. Donna Maxfield, Chief of Staff for the United Nations Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support, joined PEX Network to describe how the UN is using Lean Six Sigma to improve the efficiency of its peacekeeping operations.

PEX Network: What area of the UN do you work in?

D. Maxfield: I work in Peacekeeping and Field Support. My role is a relatively new one, created after the Department Peacekeeping Operations was divided back in 2007 in order to strengthen and clarify lines of accountability and areas of responsibility. The Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, decided that it was too much for one Department to both strategically direct and manage operations in the field and deliver administrative and logistical support, and so two departments were created – effectively one was restructured and another one created.

Now we have a new Department - the Department of Field Support – which is responsible for all the administration and logistics for all of the UN’s operations in the field.

It’s a big operation in itself. Right now we have a total of 124,000 personnel in the field: 86,000 of those are military, 14,000 are police, and 24,000 are civilian personnel.

PEX Network: When you say in the field, we’re talking some really difficult situations?

D.Maxfield: Yes, we work in some really difficult environments. They can be dangerous, harsh, with staff working in isolation. We go to areas where you may not have roads, you may not even have water, depending on the circumstance. We’re talking about places like Darfur, Haiti, and Cõte D’Ivoire, Liberia, Sudan (North and South), Democratic Republic of Congo.

We are in all corners of the world and are the second largest military deployment globally – second only to the United States. We are the largest multi-lateral post conflict stabilization deployment - a combined military and civilian deployment.

Our work is extraordinarily complex and our budget is over $7.5 billion per year - which may sound like a lot, but it is only 0.5 percent of all the military spending in the world. So we are forced to be efficient and effective.

PEX Network: So let’s talk about that. You got a notable mention in the Process Excellence Network’s Best Start Up program award category for your Lean Six Sigma Capacity Building program. Tell me about the mandate for that program. What were some of the drivers?

D. Maxfield: The restructuring that I mentioned certainly was one of the drivers. The other was an increase in the size of our operations. For example, beginning January 2008, we were given mandates for two new missions that increased the number of our personnel in the field by about 30 percent: The African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) - and the United Nations Mission in the Central Africa Republic and Chad (MINURCAT). That kind of growth, coupled with the departmental restructuring, meant that we had to learn to work better. Member States said to us: "We can’t keep pouring money into you. You’ve got to look at your management processes."

PEX Network: Member States basically said, "we’re not going to give you more money?"

D. Maxfield: Exactly - they expected us to be leaner, sharper, faster, cheaper and more nimble.

In collaboration with the Department of Management, we took on Lean Six Sigma in March 2008. We asked our clients– including the 125,000 people who serve in the field – the people who implement our peacekeeping mandates on the front lines, "What are our main pain points?" And, they told us that the key issues were personnel, procurement and planning. I don’t think that was a surprise to anyone. So, we decided that we needed to look at how we build the capacity to look how we do business. That’s how Lean Six Sigma came to be at the UN.

PEX Network: What did you do first?

D Maxfield: Retention of civilian personnel was a big challenge for us. We consistently had a 20-30 % vacancy rate and high turnover rate. Some of that is due to conditions of service – serving in isolation, in harsh and insecure environments is not for everyone. But the main problem was that our systems were just so burdensome - they’re still heavy. To help with both of these issues, the UN is in the process of introducing a talent management system, which is being developed with the support of our Lean Six Sigma work – and our Black Belts.

They’ve worked on things like finding out how to speed up reference checking, because it used to take us months to do a reference check. We found ways to reduce that. For medical clearance, another example of something that could take months, we found that we could run processes together simultaneously and not just wait for one to finish before the next one begins in order to speed up the process. So we put the Lean tools to very good use.

Roles and responsibilities – when the new Department was formed - the Department of Field Support - the Secretary-General was very keen to align roles, responsibilities and authority and accountabilities. We are a 65 year old organization that was designed as a static headquarters. The Organization has become extremely operational, but our roles and regulations and processes have not.

PEX Network: And so those processes are quite old?

D. Maxfield: Sixty five years old! But some of them are new now – two or three years old now, in large part thanks to our Lean Six Sigma program.

We have run 22 different projects, each of which lasted about six months. The projects run the gambit from planning – business continuity planning – to human resources - "how do we recruit?", "how do we build our rosters of people in the field?" - through to procurement.

For instance, in one project, we looked at ways to recruit police faster. We doubled the number of police that we were able to interview from 12,000 to 24,000 and there’s now a five percent decrease in our vacancy rate for police. That’s significant - five percent more boots on the ground, which is important, because every person on the ground can do a better job for the people we serve.

In another example, we found that one of our procurement processes had 45 non-value added steps. For us the awareness factor was very important, and that’s where Lean tools like value stream maps came in. Being able to see what’s happening is very powerful, and it stops being about people not doing a good job and it starts about being what’s wrong with how we’re doing our work. So it breaks down silos, and it builds teams and it de-politicizes, which in our Organization is very important.

Q: Have there been any challenges to implementing a Lean Six Sigma program along the way?

D.Maxfield: There’s a lot of support from Member States. In a financial climate where some Member States – some of our main contributors – are so strapped that they’re closing embassies around the world, they want to see that we’re not going to ask for more money despite doing more. So, we’re going in with a budget this year that for the first time has zero growth.