Lean manufacturing: former Boeing exec describes why now is the time to change.

Author:Black, John R.
Position:Manufacturing strategies - Company overview

You say times are tough? That global competition, capital constraints, and margin pressures are driving you to desperation? I say, "Good." That kind of desperation can be a powerful motivator for something your organization needs to do regardless--implement Lean manufacturing.

It's hard to improve when times are good and threats appear distant. Over my 45-year career, however, I have learned that when it comes to implementing Lean operations, a sense of urgency is critical.

I joined The Boeing Co. in 1978 as the organization was embarking on what was then called quality improvement. It was my task to help lead the journey. The company faced the usual obstacles, but it also faced a more unusual one: business was great! We were the No. 1 commercial airplane manufacturer in the world, and orders were pouring in. Companies we visited to educate ourselves told us we simply weren't desperate enough to make it work.

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Times had not always been so good, though. In the early 1970s, the company went more than a year without a single order. Nobody wanted to return to such times. So, Boeing began the slow and sometimes painful process of change, ultimately revolutionizing the way it did business. I witnessed 21 years of this change, gaining insight that I now share with other organizations, both manufacturers and service providers, who come to me for help in implementing a Lean, world-class production system.

Not for the faint-hearted

Implementation of a Lean production system is not, as the late consultant W. Edwards Deming famously said, for the timid, the faint-hearted, or those who expect quick results. However, the good news is that a world-class production system can be built one small improvement at a time.

Most of us have heard Lao-Tzu's old saw, "A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step." What too many executives forget is that the entire journey is made of single steps. And, you can take single steps at least as readily today as you can when times are good, because you recognize that standing still may put you out of business.

That's not to say that even single steps are easy; often, they're not. But, many have gone before and prevailed. The Boeing productivity improvement program, for example, evolved over 20 years, reaching a major milestone in 2002 with the start of a moving production line for final airplane assembly--something we never would have thought possible when we began.

Over the 10-year...

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