Boeing Frontiers
June 2002 
Volume 01, Issue 02 
Top Stories Inside Quick Takes Site Tools
Commercial Airplanes

The Lean ballet

Boeing's factory of the future will be highly visual in its operation


Commercial AirplanesImagine walking along an airplane production line so efficient that you know at a glance when something isn't working right.

Or an airplane manufacturing floor where 737s and 757s are assembled on the same moving line.

Or where parts for those airplanes are delivered just when they're needed, so no more than one or two at a time are being built or in inventory.

Or stable employment that enables employees to work without fear of massive layoffs during an industry downturn.

There is no limit to the vision of the future of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. In some cases the ideas are dreams waiting to fly, with employees determining their merit. In other cases the ideas are real, as Commercial Airplanes transforms into a "value-chain" operation—where processes from raw material to finished product are scrutinized for improvement in quality, cost and delivery.

"We aspire to be leaner in the future as an airplane manufacturer, which basically means doing more with less," said Dan Becker, vice president of Manufacturing and Quality. "It doesn't mean just doing more with fewer employees. It means doing with less of everything—raw materials, machines, buildings, electricity—all of the resources that it takes for us to build airplanes."

Jim Morris, vice president of Supplier Management, applies the smaller "footprint" concept of Boeing across the supplier chain as well, where the goal is to reduce that base by 37 percent over the next five years. As suppliers consolidate, they will become greater partners and take on a larger role in designing and building bigger parts, Morris said.

"The producer of a part will be able to make engineering design changes quicker to improve quality, cost and delivery performance," Morris said. "That will give us ever-improving parts for our airplanes and the absolutely best product for our customers."

With suppliers doing more, Boeing will concentrate on large-scale systems integration. The focus will include sales, marketing, program management and top-level design. This focus also will cover development of new products, validation of design through developmental flight test and integration testing, and final assembly and delivery. Boeing will continue its "Centers of Excellence" in such areas as interiors, struts and nacelles, and other emergent areas.

Becker said the Lean Boeing factory of the future will be highly efficient and visual in its operation.

"We're continually looking to take the waste out of the system, such as the waste of excess movement of parts or inventory, or the waste involved in waiting," Becker said. "We need to eliminate any inefficiencies in our processes that keep us from being the best competitor and the best supplier to our customer, because what our customers need and want is a product that's affordable."

Literature describing Lean production practices equates Boeing mechanics to surgeons, who are handed everything they need to do their jobs.

"In the old system we asked a mechanic to search for tools, for parts, to go here and go there," Becker said. "They spent a good portion of the day looking for things. You don't see surgeons looking for a scalpel; someone does that for them while they keep their mind on the patient. We envision something similar for our mechanics, where they can keep their mind on the airplane by receiving everything they need as soon as they need it."

Becker said a "visual factory" is where everything in the construction of an airplane can be seen at a glance, which means quickly identifying problems that may exist.

"It's knowing where things are supposed to be and how many things are supposed to be there, because it's clearly identified," Becker said. "If something's missing, it's known immediately."

Such a system isn't dependent on elaborate ordering and forecasting procedures.

"If you know what the master production schedule is, alternate visual methods can be used to minimize work in process," he said. "It's visual, it's simple, and it provides the parts you need just in time."

The moving production line is another aspect of Lean manufacturing that helps expose waste and problems in the process. In the old system, problems could be masked by lots of inventory. If a part was lost or damaged, it was easily replaced. But if there was something wrong in the process it might not be corrected for a long time, causing more waste in lost or damaged parts. Under the new system, the only parts that exist are those needed for the job, offering an opportunity to improve the process and eliminate errors more quickly.

"It's like a well-choreographed ballet," Becker said. "Every movement is prescribed, everyone knows exactly what the movement is, and value is created all along the way."

As larger airplane assemblies come together in the factory, they will be quickly integrated, tested and delivered. Indeed, as the entire production process becomes more efficient, the amount of floor space required will shrink by about 30 percent.

"We'll be smaller, but because we're so efficient, we'll be doing more," Becker said. "In the process, we'll dampen the employment cycles that we have lived through for years."

Becker said wild employment downturns traditionally decimate employees' lives, company operations and the economic health of communities. He said sharing production responsibility with suppliers and partners around the world will stabilize employment across the production chain, including Boeing.

In past downturns, Boeing would attempt to hang on to its employees by bringing work back into the company. But that didn't help either, because the suppliers who were doing the work either withdrew from the aerospace industry or went bankrupt. When the business turned around again, much of the supply chain was gone, creating production havoc.

"If we can make ourselves the correct size and share those cycles throughout the value chain in a more even and distributed way, it will help dampen these huge cycles, which is for everyone's best interest," Becker said.

Another Lean lesson teaches that smaller is better in terms of machinery, too. Big machines on foundations, huge immovable objects, are being replaced by small, adaptable equipment that can be moved and reconfigured easily.

"There is no finish line in the Lean process," Becker said. "You want right-sized equipment, because every day you're going to have an idea on how to make something better, and it's easier to move small equipment around on wheels than it is to move big machines that are grounded in concrete."

Large-scale systems integration is a big part of Boeing's future, but things like sheet metal details and subassemblies likely will be purchased in the future.

"Frankly, it's very difficult for us to compete in these areas," Becker said. "But our wonderful experience with Lean principles gives us the opportunity to leverage the knowledge throughout the value chain by training, making agreements on how to protect the information, and sharing the gains that can be made with a Lean manufacturing plan."

Morris said the company has a great opportunity now at low production rates to implement considerable change and improvement.

"The efficiency that will come from reducing and improving the value chain will help Boeing become more and more competitive in the worldwide marketplace and allow the company to generate funds to invest in future products and services," he said.

As the strategy is implemented around the Commercial Airplanes business plan—performance, products, processes and people—the company will be more successful.

"Everything we do to improve these four aspects of our business increases our opportunities to be a thriving, competitive company, at which we're all happy and proud to work," Becker said. "This is really the only job guarantee any of us has—that we become more competitive and that our customers choose us over the competition. Our competitiveness leads to our stability, which is to everyone's advantage."

He said an underlying truth of a competitive environment is that only the best survive.

"We may not like the sound of that, but it's true." Becker said. "We live in a society where the game is never over. It's constant, relentless, day after day. Those companies who choose not to change or adapt to the environment are not long for the world."

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