Anyone who has spent anytime in a manufacturing operation knows the importance of a lean culture that highlights accuracy and quality at every step in process.  From the supply chain, to inventory management, to assembly and logistical functions just to name a few of the key players.  Each department has its own integral process that work as cogs in the production wheel.  Any company that has yet to realize the importance of a lean environment is far behind the curve by now, essentially throwing money out the door instead of capturing the waste and reinvesting it in places that could benefit the company immensely.

The long admired Toyota Production System has proven time and time again throughout countless implementations that it is an unbeatable way to organize any production operation, large or small.  However, many attempts at implementing proven lean principles fail time and time again with the final word being “Lean doesn’t work here”, “not in our industry”‘ or “not with our people”.  Hogwash!

Why are these simple principles so difficult to implement?  First and foremost upper management doesn’t usually fully grasp the fact that a lean culture is a change on every level, beginning at the top with a completely new management approach.  Lean principles start with a lean management style utilizing key components that set the tone for daily conversations revolving around the newly established lean culture.  If management doesn’t buy into the culture, how can you expect your employees to lead the roll out of a lean culture?  It starts at the top and funnels down to every crevasse of the business.

So what types of lean management components are we talking about here?  Again, establishing a lean culture is one that falls under the “easier said than done” category, but with a proper outline and an adhering to what you propose, you can accomplish your goal.  Speaking of goals, that would be numero uno.

  • Goal Setting – Regardless of what strategy your business has adopted to formulate this years goals, most companies have set goals that they wish to accomplish and focus on each year.  The critical element is aligning your improvement goals with the overall strategic goals.
  • Establishment and Adherence to the Process – Established processes in the lean environment rely upon standard work and real-time improvements to any process or standard that isn’t achieving the expectations of the customer and.or creating waste.  Relying on quarterly metrics is a true no-no in a lean culture, where real-time performance measurements identify problems and make improvements.
  • Standard Work – I’ve seen it time and time again, most businesses these days have standard work procedures for just about every paid position.  That’s great.  What isn’t so great is that more often than not, no one knows where to find the documentation.  Standard Work is the first line of defense in a lean environment and is defined at every level of the organization.
  • Keep Things Visual – Visual management isn’t just a theory, it’s actually a tried and true practice.  Making sure everyone is on the same page is greatly increased when you keep the process and outcome indicators connected to the work being done in each area.  Knowing how you can contribute and improve will help move metrics in the direction they need to trend if goals are displayed in a manner that is accessible and understandable to everyone.
  • Continuous Improvement – Applying lean tools to the workplace isn’t always an easy task and establishing a continuous improvement program where leaders address every single suggestion by taking the conversation outside of the conference room and out on to the shop floor is a great way to set a lean example for all.  Some of the most successful implementations I have seen have a great C.I. program with established C.I. goals.

The Aircraft Maintenance industry is unlike anything else I have witnessed when it comes to production.  But let’s not get rolled up into that “I’m Special, therefore the rule doesn’t apply to me” type of attitude.  You’re not special, and therefore the rule does apply to you, if you want it to.  The concepts are still the same.  There is a work order, there is material, there is a logistical function for getting you the material you need, the material needs to be assembled or disassembled in some fashion, and the final product still needs to go through a quality process before heading out the door.  The critical difference in Aircraft Maintenance; the repair and overhaul is project based and dependent on aircraft condition.  This means you cannot predict the type of work you will be carrying out.  The only thing you usually know for sure is the type of check you’re doing:  A-checks, C-checks and D-checks.

Let’s, just for a moment, identify the worst parts about not having a LEAN culture established in the maintenance shop:

  • Having to watch highly skilled and valuable workers spend a large part of their time on low-value activities or just plain waiting.
  • Not focusing on how to do things efficiently, but rather on what regulators require them to do.
  • Large manuals explaining tasks without standardizing sequences, listing processing times or best practices.

What are things you could be doing right now to implement a lean culture?  Elimination of non-value-added tasks, Root cause analysis of issues, Value-stream mapping and analysis, SIPOC diagrams, shift observance, GEE (General Equipment Effectiveness) calculations: value creation/total time, and OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) calculations: value created/planned time, swimming lanes, etc.  All of these are real tools you can use in helping eliminate waste and develop (continuously) a lean culture and environment in your hangers.

Before a successful lean culture can be established (especially in an industry that doesn’t like change) an overall diagnosis of the state of affairs within the organization and a list obstacles will need to be addressed and overcome before any implementation initiatives take place.

What this looks like:

Creating Stakeholders – Before you can implement something new in an industry that hasn’t changed since the early 20th century, you are going to need management to buy-in to the culture shift.  They need to understand why this is beneficial, not just for the company, but for their department, their own success, and their people.  I hate to say this in a customer driven industry, but at this point, everything is going to be about “me, me, me”.  This will probably require a few courses in LEAN management and LEAN principles to bring your people up to speed.

Develop an Implementation Strategy – It won’t take long to get your leadership to buy-in to the idea of a lean culture, as the benefits enormously out-weigh the cons.  But a successful implementation must have a road map to success.  Get to know the people involved, and get to know the conference rooms you’ll be meeting in because you’ll need to utilize them quite often.  Brainstorming ideas and receiving input from the top of your depth chart to the bottom and deliberating among each other is essential to your success, this way no one is surprised when you start the process of implementing initiatives.

Establish Initiatives – You can’t just walk out on the shop floor and make the announcement “okay everyone, we’re establishing a lean culture today, I expect your best effort”.  However, a simple action you can take straight away that will give your immediate results is establishing the 5S principles out on the shop floor.  This is a simple and easy method to not only understand but to implement that will rapidly effect work environments and appearance, and if done correctly can even make the work day easier and flow smoother.  Additional actions can and should be taken based on the data you are collecting (i.e. Kaizen Events).  To understand what this “data” is, you’ll have to familiarize yourself and your colleagues with all of the lean principles.  I say all and I mean ALL.  If you are going to do this, you have to do it right the first time and see it through to the end of each day.  But that’s just the beginning.  When you understand the lean principles, it opens your mind to all of the many changes you can undertake within your team and your environment.  You’ll start seeing your work environment in a different way, and if you are adamant about implementation, you will have your base culture up and running in no time.

Continuous Improvement – Again.  This is so vital to the implementation and sustainability of your new culture, that it has to be brought up again.  Hear this:  if you do not have a continuous improvement program that is active 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you risk failure.  This is one area where you cannot afford to shy away from, and every one has to be involved.

A lean culture is possible for any company willing to change no matter the industry.  Most of this willingness comes in the form of dollar signs from all the savings you will create.  In the airline industry, this could equate to hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions, over time.

I realize I left out a lot of information when it comes to lean implementation, there is simply too much to include without actually writing out 75 lesson plans for LEAN Implementation.  The point is, it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in; LEAN is a culture shift and you can implement it with the right attitude.  Choose people with the right skill-set and mind-set to lead the way and they’ll set the bar for what’s achievable.  Remember, success is a set of attitudes, not a set of circumstances.

Suggested Reading:

The Hidden Value In Airline Operations

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