July 2005 
Volume 04, Issue 3 
Commercial Airplanes

Sharing Lean

Boeing workshops help El Al streamline maintenance process


Boeing workshops help El Al streamline maintenance processThree years ago, travel to Israel and much of the Middle East had fallen into a slump. It was essential for El Al Israel Airlines to economize. Reluctant to compromise the airline's capabilities and service by making cutbacks that would have to be restored when demand for travel rebounded, El Al asked its economic consultants to look into solutions. The consultants suggested Lean.

At first, some in the airline were skeptical, said Shay Abrahamy, manager of Planning and Development for Maintenance & Engineering at El Al. "There's plenty of evidence that Lean works in a production environment, but the airline maintenance environment is quite different," he said.

An article from Boeing Frontiers magazine on the implementation of Lean techniques at the Boeing Aircraft Modification Center in San Antonio spurred the airline to look deeper. "While a modification operation is not exactly like a maintenance operation, the two have a lot in common," Abrahamy said.

A team of El Al senior managers visited San Antonio for two days and liked what they saw. Confident that Lean methods could be adapted to airplane hangar maintenance, the managers remained uncertain about Lean's relevance to the unpredictable line maintenance environment.

To help resolve the question, El Al sent 12 technicians to San Antonio to see for themselves. After seeing the improvements—and how change originated from workers on the shop floor—the technicians became leading supporters of the program, which El Al dubbed Competitive Maintenance.

El Al requested that the Boeing Commercial Airplanes Lean Office propose a program to train the airline's employees in Lean methods. The request posed a unique challenge to Boeing. The company had never been asked to implement Lean at an airline before.

The Lean Office sent a team of representatives who had worked with Boeing's Lean consultants from Shingijutsu Co.

After some initial hesitation, El Al's employees began to see that they were being empowered, Team Leader Craig Habakangas said. "They were improving things that had been frustrating them for years—the program sold itself," he said.

Training was in the form of week-long, structured workshops—learning by doing. It started in the machine shop. "We went out to the work site with the employees and started unbolting things and moving machinery," Habakangas said. "At one point, a supervisor asked, 'When do we do the planning?' The team's answer was, 'This is the planning. These are the changes your people identified to improve the workflow—the people who know the tasks and machinery and processes best.'"

The results of the changes were well documented. Abrahamy said when the project team showed El Al's president how Lean could improve quality and change the culture, he said he understood. Then he said, "Show me the money." Abrahamy said that from that point on they were very careful to measure the savings.

Many of the savings are indirect and difficult to quantify, Abrahamy said. For example, reducing the time to prepare an airplane for dispatch between flights helps the airline avoid departure delays. "An hour's delay of a 747-400 typically costs an airline $10,000 to $15,000," he said. "But that huge savings doesn't show up on the maintenance department's balance sheet."

Abrahamy said he sees daily evidence that Lean has become part of the culture at El Al. "I hear people arriving at work in the morning saying, 'I was thinking about this last night after my shift and I would like to arrange a workshop to implement my idea.' Everybody knows that the fastest way to get a change implemented is through the workshops."

The successful translation of Lean techniques into the Competitive Maintenance program at El Al has been noticed by other airlines. Several customers have requested similar consulting arrangements.


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