Tim Clancy and Adam Sommers of IBM Global Business Services explain how an approach called Critical Initiative Support (CIS) can help bring change about in difficult situations where results are needed quickly.

Geographic dispersion, functional silos, leadership turnover, limited time and disparate perspectives all contribute to the creation of “wicked problems” – obstacles in the dynamic environments that mission focused organisations operate in. These types of problems are difficult to diagnose and lead to operational “grey spaces.” These are simply aspects of a task where the process, ownership, or generally accepted business rules seem to break down.

Grey spaces are a manifestation of uncertainty which results in the incorrect action or no action at all. Critical Initiative Support (CIS) is an effective approach to eliminate grey spaces quickly and solve wicked problems in large-scale, complex operations. In fact, the true power of CIS is that it takes direct aim at eliminating or minimising these grey spaces.

CIS is an approach to implement improvements to high priority aspects of an operation in a relatively short period of time – so a focus on change and execution. There is often a tendency to “admire” a problem via analysis as opposed to actually fixing it. CIS employs analysis, but is heavily biased towards action and tangible improvements. The approach described below was used in Afghanistan with a family of vehicles (FoVs) in use by several military service branches.

The forward deployed supply network for the FoVs was challenged with reducing the cycle time of its Mission Essential Tasks (METs). In this operation, METs included items such as battle damage repair, capability insertions, and general sustainment. CIS was put to the test in Afghanistan, where on top of organisational and vehicle complexity, the dynamics of a war zone created significant operational grey spaces.


CIS is an approach to address high priority operational requirements. Whether dealing with production, maintenance, or a back-office service, needs can typically be distilled down to a need for compressed cycle time, higher output volume, right-sized inventory, or an increase in quality/effectiveness. The requirement is “critical” in that it can be clearly linked back to the organisation’s overall strategic goals and that it is something that requires immediate implementation. The bias for CIS is towards achieving tangible results with a relatively low-tech approach.

The approach to CIS is to create a structure consisting of three elements – a core team, a sustainment team, and a senior leadership group. The core team engages the operation in a hands-on, efficient manner to quickly identify and implement the fix; the sustainment team supports implementation during the core team’s absence, and the steering group reinforces performance goals and conducts reviews. This structure is highly effective at coverage since the core team can rotate through key nodes of an operation’s network while the sustainment team can follow-up from behind to facilitate ongoing implementation.

Improving the operation is a handson endeavor which draws upon the best suited methodology, rather than subscribing to just one. For example, basic lean techniques may be required to eliminate waste/improve flow, but foundational industrial-engineering techniques may be used to standardise procedures. This is a key feature of CIS because the implication here is that, in some instances, effective fixes can be executed simply by using common sense. This maximises the arsenal of tools available and avoids the trap of force-fitting a methodology into an incongruous situation.

The nature of CIS is to solve high priority operational problems in a relatively short time period.

Therefore, solution sets are governed by a few parameters:

  • On-site work – No solutions from afar. The core and sustainment teams take a boots-on-the-ground approach. Working in conjunction with site leadership and the resources actually doing the work, solutions are quickly developed.
  • Rapid – Improvements at least partially realised before the core team leaves and fully realised according to a defined schedule. The sustainment team provides guidance after the initial work, as well as a window back to the senior leadership group.
  • Labor – Solutions cannot add headcount in an attempt to overwhelm a problem. The essence of CIS is to work with the resources in place to develop highly implementable solutions and not to throw resources at the problem.
  • Capital – Avoid capital expenditures – work within existing facility footprint, no new capital equipment. As with labor, working with the resources in place tends to lead to more rapid and actionable solutions.
  • Training – By co-developing solutions with people actually doing the work, training needs are minimised. A collateral benefit is the problem solving mentality that is instilled at the site. Good solutions help drive a continuous improvement culture which can yield even bigger improvements over time.

In short, solutions are results-driven innovations that work within existing assets and resources to improve the operation on a rapid timeline. Gathering data that might point to longer-term engineered solutions (additional infrastructure) is a secondary goal, and then only if there is a defined path that would benefit from the effort.


Described earlier, grey spaces are simply opportunities for work not to be accomplished or not get done the right way. For example, the involvement of numerous OEMs and service providers resulted in no singular ownership of inventory or tool management. The supply shop managed inventory prior to it being dispatched to the sustainment bays; each contractor then managed the inventory in the bays, and much inventory fell into a grey space, where full accountability was unclear as to who owned managing and maintaining the inventory. This operational grey space, in turn, resulted in wasted capacity, delays in locating parts, and a lack of overall flow – all stemming from clutter and all contributing to longer cycle times. Another example was in the allocation of bay spaces where vehicles could be worked on. Because different contractors and OEMs were often contracted to perform a specific functional task, bay assignments were initially made on a contractor/OEM basis – vacancies could be a problem. This is similar to the classic Hospital Bed simulation problem of lean. With a varying rate of incoming patients with unknown needs, how best to manage available hospital beds within which they can have healthcare delivered? Except in this case it was a combat vehicle and the hospital bed was a maintenance bay and a team of workers.

Key to addressing operational seams and grey spaces is change management to ensure buy-in of the proposed solution. To achieve buy-in, Critical Initiative Support efforts take a number of measures:

  • Pre-core team effort – skeletal data collection/analysis is conducted and shared with the operation in question. Review of goals, approach, and resources required is conducted with the operation to “prepare the battlefield” and eliminate non-starters.
  • Sustainment team – the purpose of this team is to reinforce solutions, aid in implementation, solve issues and serve as continuity during the core team’s absence.
  • Enterprise collaboration – besides extensive collaboration with on-site stakeholders, the core team includes a resource that remains in the continental United States. This role provides a hardwired connection into the enterprise support functions for follow-up, communications, and awareness around changing landscapes.
  • Commander selects courses of actions and provides guidance – Involving the site commander in selecting the final courses of actions (COAs) and issuing it as commander’s guidance or intent is critical for change management; like an executive wall walk at the end of a kaizen.
  • Actionable measurement – most operations over-generate reports or data. The team seeks to eliminate nonvalue added reporting and develop a minimal set of actionable measures that directly supports the operation.

Senior stakeholders are engaged on site and via the steering group to further ensure commitment. The team develops a lean six sigma styled charter that clearly identifies the problem, scope/ boundaries, anticipated benefits, and the schedule to reinforce what needs to be done.


CIS has to be adaptable to a host of environments and practitioners must pull from a wide body of knowledge, using methods ranging from lean and six sigma to complex systems theory, theory of constraints simulation and modeling – all may be appropriate to a specific problem at hand. What’s important is not trying to use the entire toolbox – but picking the right tool for the job. A selection of methods from the lean body of work and their application follows.

In a resource-constrained environment, additional labor is not readily available. Time on task and time to task analysis are two lean-based methods of CIS to inform leaders how their staff uses the time available to conduct mission support and mission delivery.

  • Time on task – The percentage of all available time that is focused on true value-added work, as opposed to non value added work.
  • Time to task – The amount of full-time equivalent (FTE) time it takes to produce each unit of value-added work.

Improving output is a function of maximising time on task while minimising the time to task of valueadded work. The effect of increasing time on task is similar to adding headcount, and reducing time to task increases the output of every FTE. This is illustrated in Figure 1. Without understanding the two factors, simply adding more headcount will not result in an improved process.

Improving time on task begins with identifying 8 wastes and conducting accelerator drills. The 8 wastes of lean are traditional sources of non-value added work and activity. Reducing their impact serves to increase time on task. Accelerator drills are exercises that aim to reduce the time to task on a specified unit of value-added work. For example, if it’s value-add to strip battle damaged armor in 10 hours, being able to accomplish the same task in four hours, without sacrificing quality, will result in increased throughput. We found that by combining time on task and time to task assessments, as well as on-site improvements aiming to either increase time on task or reduce time to task were very simple and effective to implement in an austere environment. Our approaches are summarised in Table 1.

Demand leveling through standard work an additional approach once assessments and improvements of time on task and time to task were ongoing is to look at the pacing and rhythm of work assignments, and how components of standard work could be developed to smooth the flow of the process. For example, every combat vehicle that arrives at the maintenance facility will have a unique collection of tasks. Each sub-task however can be standardised to a collection of material requirements, labor, and tools for that sub-task. Even if 100% of the overall task cannot be comprised of standard work sub-tasks, the Pareto rule applies. Leveraging the 80/20 rule to identify which sub-tasks to create into standard work first can result in a significant impact to reducing time to task and increasing time on task. Demand leveling further identifies the different kinds of MET based on difficulty, categorise them by the time to task of the workload, and balancing the demand level so that a consistent steady flow of outputs is provided as it is needed when it is needed. Demand leveled systems are more flexible to changing needs and more productive by mixing “easy” and “hard” work in a practical way that doesn’t leave all the “hard” work to be done at the same time. Flexibility is important in an expeditionary environment where customer demand cannot always be forecasted accurately and the enemy gets a vote.

Kaizen workouts or rapid improvement events – Bringing CIS methods together in a short period of time, with no time or mandate to train, and with a goal of actually improving a pain point is difficult. However by leveraging kaizen or rapid improvement event (RIE) approaches, this can be accomplished. This is why having expeditionary resources is key – the work cannot be done remotely by a solution team in the rear. Like at any gemba, the team needs to travel to where the work is, joining workers to create the solutions. This further aids in change management, as the workers helped to create the solution and presented them as courses of actions to the site commander, when the commander selects a course of action and confirms it through command guidance, thus validating the effort.



CIS is a practical approach to improving operations, especially when there are high priorities facing a tight timeline. The approach is proven in theatre operations. It uses a mixture of coordinated small teams, best-of-breed methodologies as needed, and a hands-on philosophy to create tangible improvements. The low-tech, high-touch nature of Critical Initiative Support is ideally suited to the austere conditions found in Afghanistan. However, it is a powerful approach for any operation looking for visible, measurable results.