May 2006 
Volume 05, Issue 1 
Commercial Airplanes

They're teammates too

Supplier Relations project strengthens 737 program's relationship with parts providers


They're teammates tooHelene Michael, 737 manufacturing director, recently gave a supplier an unforgettable example of its importance to the Boeing Production System.

During a tour of the 737 factory in Renton, Wash., Michael, then 737 factory superintendent, was showing the supplier how an efficient flow of parts is critical to keeping the 737 production line in motion. Suddenly, with the supplier watching, the moving line came to a halt.

"They asked me what was happening, why the line had stopped," Michael said. "It turns out a part had not yet arrived from this very supplier. It demonstrated real-time what can happen when a part is late, isn't right, or if a kit is incomplete. It got their attention."

Inviting suppliers to visit Boeing Commercial Airplanes sites for a briefing on and tour of the production system is part of the Supplier Relations project. The idea, from 737 Materials Management Director Candace Lydston, grew from a need to expand on Boeing's success with suppliers. As suppliers better understand Boeing's production processes, they're better able to support the company's business requirements. That helps Boeing keep production lines and teams operating efficiently.

"We have great working relationships with our suppliers that are better than most companies of our size and breadth," Lydston said. "The objective here was to involve even more the people who are important to our business, share more information and discover ways to improve everything we do as a team."

'Close-knit relationship'

Materials Management employees Gordon Litzenberger and Rhonda Linke work together with senior managers and procurement agents in Global Partners to construct a biography of each supplier's business. That way, key Boeing people can be strategically aligned with individual supplier briefings.

"This is not a performance-based program," Litzenberger emphasized. "Although we have metrics available, it's meant only to help us understand the background of the supplier and gear our presentation to their operation."

During supplier visits to Renton, the assembled team talks about the 737 program vision and strategic direction, Lean manufacturing philosophy and history of the site before providing a tour of the 737 moving line. The day wraps up with a discussion of ideas for improving the value stream. Results of the visit are documented and surveys are sent to the suppliers to improve the project continuously.

"We are relying more and more on our supplier partners," Linke said. "It makes sense to have a very close-knit relationship with them."

Thomas Clark, who leads the project, said teaming that takes place through site visits is bringing impressive results.

"Many suppliers have never been inside our factory, or met the people who work with their parts on a regular basis, so that's significant in itself," he said. "When they see for the first time the 11-day flow of our airplanes, how their parts may only be in a single position for one day, and where those parts are installed, they begin to think about Leaning out the process. It's a real eye-opener."

Tour de force

Suppliers participating in the Supplier Relations project said they have a better appreciation and understanding of their role in Commercial Airplanes assembly operations. They also recognized how they could make their own operations more Lean.

Those are some of the main messages suppliers have provided in feedback following visits to the 737 factory in Renton, Wash. Here's a selection of their comments.

"Our employees came back really 'charged' about what they saw and heard. It gave them a unique opportunity to come back, hold a meeting and communicate both to their peers and management on how they felt we should improve. Here's just one example of the outcome of the tour: We have been trying to remove personal tool boxes from the shop floor for some time. Who knew the way to do this would be to send the employees on a tour of Boeing to witness it? They've come back and said they understand why this should be done (drives standard work which in turn increases quality), so let's start building the point-of-use carts."


"Very useful and informative. Because we're going through our Lean journey, we will leverage your practices. Very helpful to see where our parts go. It gives a whole different perspective of delivery and quality. It will help our people to understand the importance of what we're doing."


"We are anxious to continue this relationship-building activity and would promote having an exchange of employees (between our companies) participating in future Lean events and workshops."

—Labinal Sanfran Group

"It has been insightful to understand the larger program vision and to see areas where we can collaborate for future success. Like Boeing, we have been on a Lean journey and believe this mutual exchange of ideas and experiences is beneficial. We should consider expanding this idea by initiating a 'clearinghouse' forum to further discuss proven Lean processes. Perhaps the next step is for us to host a Lean tour of our facility for our counterparts at Boeing."

—Goodrich Aerostructures

"It's been a huge revelation that conversion to an efficient production system (and the elimination of waste) does not require complex solutions. Many of these same simple concepts can easily be implemented in our facilities."

—Kirkhill-TA Company/
Haskon Aerospace

One supplier realized that several part numbers were involved in making and delivering interior curtain materials, which led to kitting the separate parts and shipping in a single container. Another supplier learned that a simple alteration of its part could reduce installation time and effort. Yet another requested a return visit to take an additional look at the process.

Program supports initiatives

Norma Clayton, leader of the companywide Global Sourcing growth and productivity initiative, said involvement of suppliers in a continuous pursuit of efficiency reinforces the goals of the four corporate initiatives.

"It's all about making us more competitive," Clayton said. "When suppliers are ingrained in our business and become active, critical members of our team, the benefits in terms of improved quality and response time can be an enormous catalyst in driving down cost."

Steve Schaffer, vice president of Global Partners for Commercial Airplanes, added that inclusion with the supply base and how it interfaces and delivers parts to Boeing factories is not only more efficient, but also helps build a better airplane.

"We want our suppliers to be an extension of our factories and to reflect a deeper general business relationship, as opposed to us simply competitively bidding everything and then managing the contracts," he said. "It's risk-sharing, from the point of view that we both invest up front and we both expect to be rewarded for that investment in the marketplace. Meanwhile, the airplane ends up with better solutions because the ideas we exchange with our suppliers take advantage of their full capability and generally are more industry-based."

Although the experience for most suppliers isn't as dramatic as seeing what can happen when their parts don't show up on time, that example accentuates the importance of every member in the supply chain when it comes to building Boeing jetliners.

"Without question, it's always been important that we understand our suppliers' business, and we continually do a great job of that," said Mark Jenkins, vice president of 737 Airplane Production. "But the Supplier Relations project goes a step further. It really impresses upon our suppliers the critical role they play in our business and allows us to drive Lean practices back through the supply base."

When suppliers have a quality, cost and delivery rating of 99 percent, it's understandable for them to wonder why that is not sufficient, Jenkins said. "But let's say a supplier delivers 10,000 parts a year," he said. "That [missing] 1 percent can be very significant, especially as our production continues to grow. That's the message we are sending to our suppliers: It benefits all of us to go after that 1 percent, no matter where it occurs in the value chain."

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