August 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 4 
Integrated Defense Systems


T-38 modification team has its eye on efficiency


Angelo Thomas fits a communication/navigation-bay door to the nose of a T-38CIt doesn’t take long for visitors to the T-38 modification line to discover that even as outsiders, they’re not exactly going to be feted.

Boeing people at the Williams Gateway Airport facility, just outside Mesa, Ariz., are warm and friendly. They extend sincere greetings. Then they quickly return to business.

“Everyone is busy,” an observer noted. “The work ethic is amazing.”

With the focus and intensity of surgeons, T-38 teammates systematically remove and replace the aircraft’s avionics. Their actions are purposeful, for they are members of a small team with great responsibility. Every fighter or bomber pilot in the U.S. Air Force will train in T-38s under their care.

Team members are confident; their secret is to rely on the full strength of their people, as the T-38 modification team works smarter ... and Leaner.

The modification team has delivered 240 aircraft (all on time) and recently began work on 10 U.S. Navy T-38s. Aerospace Support, a business unit of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, honored team members with the competitive Atlas Achievement Award for performance excellence. They exceeded last year’s long-range business plan and are on track to do the same this year. Customers visit specifically to thank the group’s members for their outstanding work. The team is proud of its accolades, made even more meaningful when it looks back in time.

In 2001, as the T-38 Avionics Upgrade Program approached full-rate production, the modification team faced a test that could make or break the young program. The customer needed a monthly production boost from four aircraft to seven. That meant more work to do in fewer hours—with the same number of people.

With employees already frustrated by disorganization on the production line, “we realized we couldn’t meet our customer’s requirements without making dramatic change,” said Denise Maurer, Associate Technical Fellow and Lean focal for the Williams Gateway site.

That summer, she led a Production Preparation Process event that included a cross section of production team members brought together to evaluate processes and seek better ways to do things. First, the floor layout changed dramatically.

Incoming aircraft originally were parked randomly in the hangar, which made it difficult to determine what work was taking place where. Because the aircraft remained in the same spot, employees spent time moving from aircraft to aircraft.

The new layout called for aircraft, rather than people, to move around the line. Production would be divided into a series of cells, placed in order along the line. Every few days at the same time, the aircraft would shift to the next cell.

The T-38 team used the first cell as its Lean pilot in September 2001. Team members determined everything needed to support their phase of production. The team placed all required tools and materials inside the cell so no one would have to travel or wait in line for tools or supplies. When work began, there was a lot of uncertainty.

“It was a leap of faith,” Maurer said. “We took a bite out of our production capability in taking people away from their jobs to establish this process. You just hope you gain more in the long run than you lose in the short term.”

Upgrade breathes new life into T-38

Mac Bolton, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems site leader at Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa, Ariz., occasionally looks curiously at the T-38 Talon jet trainers in the hangar.

“I imagine one of the aircraft I flew has passed through here,” he said. When Bolton flew the T-38 in pilot training as a U.S. Air Force second lieutenant in 1963, he never imagined the jet might serve up to 60 years. Today, he is part of the team that gives a second life to the U.S. Air Force fleet of more than 500 T-38 Talons.

T-38A 40-year-old Talon arrives at Boeing as an A model and leaves as a C model. The jet is stripped of its analog cockpit and receives a digital cockpit.

Improvements include a head-up display, up-front control panels, multifunctional displays and hands-on throttle and stick upgrades. Boeing has significantly improved the avionics reliability and has given the T-38 a feel very similar to today’s aircraft.

“The T-38C cockpit allows an easier transition to a modern-day fighter,” said Lt. Col. Chris Loeppke, commander of the U.S. Air Force Reserve pilots who perform T-38 test and delivery flights. “The head-up display and hands-on throttle and stick upgrades allow you to look out the window and concentrate on the fight” and not have to frequently refocus inside the cockpit to check or operate aircraft systems.

Before flying a T-38, pilots first complete introductory flight training and then fly the propeller-driven T-6 or the T-37 jet. Following T-38 training, bomber pilots graduate to the B-1, B-2 or B-52. Fighter pilots complete an additional course in the T-38, learn fighter fundamentals, then move on to the A-10, F-15, F-16 and eventually the F-35 and F/A-22.

Under the T-38 Avionics Upgrade Program, the Aerospace Support business unit of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems provides a package that includes aircraft modifications at Williams Gateway; overall program management, engineering support and the production of Aircrew Training Devices in St. Louis; and contractor logistics support at customer locations.

—Elaine Marcellino





In the beginning, many employees were not convinced.

“We were given the chance to rewrite the book, but I was negative about our chances,” said Morgan New, avionics technician and Employee Involvement facilitator. “We hoped for the best but planned for the worst.”

Lean caught on like wildfire. Soon the first cell was finishing aircraft so fast that the end of the line couldn’t keep up.

“That was the best thing that could have happened,” said Dan Pettyjohn, T-38 modification site manager. “[Employees] all had their eyes on Cell One. When they saw how well it was working, even pessimists wanted to know when they could implement Lean.” The last cell finally converted to Lean seven months later. By July 2002, the team was producing its goal of seven aircraft a month.

Since Lean implementation, the team has reduced direct labor hours per aircraft from 4,400 to 1,000, without adding people or cycle time. Team members accomplished this despite contract amendments adding 200 labor hours to the program. Though employment has decreased through attrition, no jobs have been lost as a result of the improvements.

Lean wouldn’t have worked without employee empowerment, said the once-doubtful New, who said the site is running much smoother today than three years ago.

“People here believe they have just as much influence as management,” he said. “When there’s a problem, managers come to us. Brainstorming is encouraged, because the more people you have working on a problem, the better the solution. Even if your idea isn’t used, managers give you good feedback.”

As part of its Lean journey, the T-38 team has adopted employee involvement as a way of life. Each cell and function is organized as a self-directed work team. When issues arise, team members willingly step in to take actions or solve problems traditionally reserved for management.

“Everyone is happy with and will support decisions, because they’re good decisions,” said Lisa McCain, facilitator for the self-directed work teams. “Issues don’t come up again.”

As employees were called to give their input during the Lean transformation, they realized the value of their expertise, said Rosendo Rodriguez, T-38 supply manager.

“Suddenly, you knew that if one person had an idea, others could build on it,” he said. “It was OK—even healthy—to disagree. Our opinions don’t always match, but our attitude is the same: Bring the work to us, and we’ll show you we can do it with fewer hours and more cost savings for our business and customer.”

Working toward that mutual goal, teammates act selflessly, McCain said, pointing to a recent proposal by the electrical backshop group. One cell was overloaded with harness work and didn’t have a good location on the floor to perform the work. The electrical backshop team, which had freed some hours as a result of process improvement, volunteered to do the harness work and is saving time doing so.

“We experienced a shift in the cultural mindset,” McCain said. “People here see Lean as a good thing, a crucial part of becoming more competitive, and they’re anxious to do what they can to improve our business.”

Once the T-38 team tackled production challenges, its members moved on to another seemingly impossible task: rearranging the work schedule. Teammates voiced their requests to the Employee Involvement team, created last summer and led entirely by nonmanagement.

That team researched the possibility of a 4-10 work week (four days per week, 10 hours per day) but determined it would interfere with the customer’s schedule. So the team went back to work. Finally, management, employees and the customer agreed to an alternative schedule that would allow the team to take off every other Friday.

“Before the team existed, management and nonmanagement didn’t have a good way to communicate back and forth,” said Terry Duncan, logistics specialist. Employees now regularly use the Employee Involvement team as a forum to address their concerns. Management uses the team to get feedback before implementing site policy changes. Both employees and management use the team to share information.

The new work schedule tops a growing list of the team’s improvements. At the request of employees, e-mail accounts have been set up for everyone on the T-38 team. Employees initiated a recognition program, a process to collect feedback from customers, and a celebration earlier this year for the delivery of their 200th aircraft.

“We’re a success because of the people here,” said Benita Norris, avionics electrician. “We all put our best into our jobs because we’re dealing with someone’s life.”

The T-38 team stands strongly behind its work.

“We’re motivated by the quality of our product,” said technician Cliff Bielesch. “When we’re about to move an aircraft to the next cell, we’re pumped. The aircraft looks really good.”

Aircraft mechanic Charles Richards is proud of the team’s professionalism. “We believe in the integrity of our work—both individually and collectively,” he said. “We give our customers exactly what they want and what’s safe. I wouldn’t mind flying one of these aircraft.”


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