September 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 5 
Commercial Airplanes


Lean changes pay off for 737/757 Airframe group


Four years ago, the 737/757 Airframe group in Renton, Wash., faced a high workload and the discomforting prospect of work moving to the Boeing Design Center in Moscow, not to mention an eventual 30 percent employment reduction. Instead of waiting for the inevitable, the team turned things around by improving processes, moving people into higher-value work and more than doubling productivity. Although they initially fought sending work outside their group, they've discovered it has made them more competitive. They now focus on improving designs to eliminate cost and reduce airplane production flow times. Their performance enabled them to bring in 7E7 work.

>>> This is their story.

Kurt Linder, Brian Oelke and Dave Walbridge

Brian Oelke, a design engineer, remembers when he and other lead engineers walked into their manager's office carrying a large stack of e-mail and phone messages. They flopped them on the manager's desk to make a point. The pile-up of incoming design change requests and mandates had become overwhelming because each seemed just as important as the next. Every time the phone rang, priorities could be redirected.

"It was time to start asking, 'What's being requested, by whom, and should we be doing this job?'" Oelke said.

Kurt Linder, drafting lead, remembers a particular chart his manager showed at a staff meeting. It projected their diminishing headcount and rising workload. If the forecast came true, the only work they'd be able to do would be mandatory airplane changes-most safety-related-but none of the less-urgent requests that would reduce cost and improve the airplane's quality.

"We weren't going to be competitive if we couldn't take cost out of our product," Linder said. Privately, he wondered how much longer he'd have a job at Boeing.

Dave Walbridge, a manufacturing engineer, recalls the turning point. It happened when his manager, Eric Lindblad, took a side trip while in Wichita, Kan., and visited a drafting work cell that had successfully implemented Lean processes. Lindblad came back to Renton excited, and that's when things started to change for Oelke, Linder, Walbridge and the 737/757 Airframe group.

When Lindblad discovered what the 737 Fuselage drafting group in Wichita had accomplished, he knew they were onto something. Work maintained an orderly flow, priorities were clear and, if there were problems, they were easy to spot.

"We grabbed that process and photocopied it," said Lindblad, who told his team, "We can do things the way we've always done them, and we know where that's going to get us. Or we can try to create our own future."

Dave Walbridge, Kurt Linder and Brian Oelke demonstrate their new Lean processThe team, which designs, drafts and provides manufacturing plans for changes to the wing and tail sections of the 737 and 757 fleet, decided to make the transition to a Lean organization in manageable chunks, starting with the drafting process.

Creating and documenting standard work for every task may sound elementary, but it wasn't easy to do. The lines between the daily work of designers and drafters had blurred, with many designers spending significant chunks of time doing what drafters do: checking the drawings and gathering approval signatures.

"It was time for the engineers to get back to the basics," Oelke said.

But not all designers welcomed the change.

The organization originally included about eight different design groups, each responsible for different structures, and these were separated by airplane model. For instance, there were three design groups for the wing box alone: the 737 Classic and 757-200, 737 Next-Generation, and 757-300. Drafters were embedded in these groups, which typically included a designer and stress analyst.

"These small work groups were each used to doing things a different way," Linder said. "When we set up the new drafting cell, all the work suddenly had to come through us. We learned we had to get a common set of requirements and come up with the one process that was going to meet those requirements and keep our downstream customer happy."

Another mind shift came with assigning several people to work a package concurrently instead of having one person follow a project from beginning to end.

"We've gone from one person managing a work package to the package almost managing itself," Linder said.

Today, incoming change requests are prioritized and sequenced in a "war room." Once a work package is accepted, an initial meeting is held with numerous functions, including Design, Planning and Tooling, to review the change before any paperwork is processed. Bringing everyone up to speed helps on the back end, when it's time to sign off the drawings. Signatures are no longer collected individually, but take place in one location.

Gone are the small work groups that specialize in a certain part of a certain airplane model. New processes and detailed work statements make it possible to assign work based on the workload rather than whether someone knows the wing's trailing-edge or leading-edge structure. Engineers are no longer drafting. They now work more closely with the factory to understand where high-impact improvements can be made.

Lindblad said the first package was sent through the Lean process on Sept. 5, 2000. Team members diverted 25 percent of their monthly volume through the Lean work cell, and within two weeks, they ran out of work. Next, they upped the volume to 50 percent.

"That's when the wheels started to come off," he said, figuratively speaking.

"We can do things the way we've always done them, and we know where that's going to get us. Or we can try to create our own future."

-Eric Lindblad, a manager in the 737/757 Airframe group






Half the team had converted to the new process, while the other half was still working the old way. In order to put 50 percent of their work through the Lean cell, those who were still using old processes were being affected by the new processes. The result was chaos.

With some trepidation, the team decided to transition completely to the new process. Once they did, productivity started improving again.

In 2002, after the drafting process was stabilized, Boeing gave the team an opportunity to reduce cost by moving work to the Boeing Design Center in Moscow.

"At first, I was frustrated," Linder said. "I didn't want to lose any of that work."

Lindblad, however, took a glass-half-full approach. The design center could do the work for about one third of their cost, so why not send out certain tasks and enable the Renton team to tackle the most challenging jobs? Once again they photocopied the process, and this time put it to work on another continent.

Drafters in Renton who once changed drawings and parts lists are now investigating design solutions, creating work statements and marking up the drawings before sending the work package to Moscow.

"Some people think the Moscow design center is taking our jobs," Oelke said, "but they're helping us keep costs down, and now we have the budget to do more work, like reducing the airplane cost or adding features."

The team has even captured 7E7 work, doing design analysis for fuselage panels.

Lindblad continues to set high goals for his organization to stay competitive. His employees have been defining future work skills that will be required by their envisioned organization.

In hindsight, Oelke said their failures along the way were due to focusing too much on processes and not enough on people.

"We learned that we need to spend time helping people understand the group's vision and the changing business realities," he said. "Otherwise, it really doesn't work. People need a company vision that they can trust, understand and believe in."


Front Page
Contact Us | Site Map| Site Terms | Privacy | Copyright
Copyright© Boeing. All rights reserved.