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Lean Manufacturing Mindset Means Continuous Innovation at Boeing

Sept. 4, 2012
Boeing has an innovation culture, and the results underscore how innovative thinking can be adopted -- if employees are encouraged to be creative, disciplined and persistent.

In 1998, Boeing Co. (IW 500/16) needed 71 days to assemble its behemoth 777. Now it only needs 37. The company also has shaved nine days off the final assembly of its best-selling 737, going from 20 days to 11.  

How does Boeing do it?

  • By looking outside the box to solve every conceivable production problem and bottleneck.  
  • By exploring far-fetched ideas and concepts and discussing them in teams until they make sense.  
  • By persisting until a problem is solved.  

Boeing has an innovation culture, and the results underscore how innovative thinking can be adopted -- if employees are encouraged to be creative, disciplined and persistent.

'Moonshine Shop'

For example, plant engineers struggled mightily with a time-consuming bottleneck in the 757 assembly line: the lifting of the plane's heavy seats up to its doorway and inside for installation.

Once the seats came to the plant, they were fitted with wheels, lifted by an overhead crane to the airplane doorway, unloaded, rolled into the cabin, divested of their wheels and finally installed. The process took 12 hours. Members of Boeing's "Moonshine Shop" (named for developing ideas in late sessions under moonlight) began looking for a speedier process. But they knew the cranes would have to be replaced by some sort of conveyor system. So they attended county fairs and studied Ferris wheels. Then they looked at ski lifts. Then automated roofing carriers. Nothing quite fit the bill.
The team persisted. One member mentioned the hay loaders he often saw on farms near his home. Could they be adapted to ferry heavy seats up to the plane for installation? The team began studying hay loaders and finally found a rancher who could develop one to their exact specifications, adding safety guards. Employees laughed -- until they saw the efficiency of the new loader. Then they stopped laughing. Soon the shop stewards from the 737 assembly line were coming around to take a look.   Within a few months, every Boeing plane assembly line was using a modified hay loader, and cutting a full 10 hours off seat installation. Then there was a problem with the airplane tires being punctured by the ubiquitous metal fasteners that littered the floor as they rolled down the assembly line.   Engineers created sweepers that hooked onto the landing gear. The sweepers caught the larger items but missed the tiny fasteners.   One of the engineers recalled seeing motorcycle wheels covered by protective canvas casings at a race. Would that do the trick?   He developed the covers and tried them; they worked beautifully. Another irksome problem was eliminated, saving Boeing $250,000 a year at one plant alone. Then there was the complex system of almost 700 hydraulic tubes that were individually installed into the wheel well of the 737 landing gear -- a time-consuming and vexing process requiring two shifts to complete.   According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Boeing engineers and mechanics shortcut that process by suggesting that the tubes be grouped into larger clusters at another plant. The resulting products are much quicker to install, saving more than 30 hours of mechanic labor. The new process also reduces hydraulic leaks.

Lessons Learned

There are several lessons here for any company seeking to innovate:

  1. Be persistent. Many of the Boeing solutions were achieved after earlier efforts had failed. Many required tinkering and refinement. Don't stop before the goal is achieved.
  2. Consciously and consistently apply creative thinking to the problem. Get out into the world and survey unrelated industries for ideas. Work the problem by looking outside of the conference room.
  3. Develop teams to address innovation issues. Boeing's "Moonshine Shop" works full-time to address lean manufacturing productivity concerns. You may not need full-time innovators, but project teams can accomplish similar results with the right guidance.
  4. Embrace continuous improvement. Boeing has borrowed this concept from Japanese lean manufacturing, and it has paid off handsomely for the company. Never stop striving to make things better, faster and easier.  

Sally Mounts, Psy.D, is president of Auctus Consulting Group, a Washington, Pa.-based management consulting firm.

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