Monday, September 26, 2011

Boeing Delivering First 787 Dreamliner

On our kaizen tour last week in Seattle, we included a stop at Boeing in Everett, Washington to observe their production lines and witness a test flight of the first customer production 787 for ANA (All Nippon Airways). The 787 lifted to the sky smoothly from the airstrip, unlike the bumpy journey of their long and costly production start-up which is only 3 years late in delivering this plane.

On my last visit to Boeing, in January 2007, the 787 Dreamliner production hanger sat empty and idle. This is in sharp contrast to the production area today which is in full swing trying to ramp up to 10 planes per month production level and put a dent into the 821 planes in customer order backlog.

From my vantage point on the observation platform, I looked for signs of improvement in their production process comparing the 747, 777 and 787 lines. With only a short observation time, I can not see the whole story however there are some interesting things I noticed and questioned.

The 787 line is completely surrounded by staff cubicles and offices directly on the production floor. This is not the case for the other lines. It appears that the staff has located as close to gemba as possible with the 787 layout. As you can imagine, this cuts the walking down dramatically. With such a huge facility to begin with this should have a dramatic impact to productivity and responsiveness. I wonder why the other production lines have not copied the 787 line and move more people closer to gemba? I also wonder why so many private cubes and not more work team clusters?

Visual management seemed a little better on the 787 line with many project boards, information centers, etc around the area. It is too hard to tell from a distance the purpose of all these boards so I’ll have to assume at this point. All the lines had plenty of shadow boards, kanban cards, flags and other mechanisms to convey orderly design. I wonder if all these boards add value or if they are just for looks?

The much publicized paced assembly line on the 777 line has been scrapped. I applaud Boeing for experimenting with this concept. Failure in these types of experiments is not a waste if we can learn from them. I wonder what Boeing learned?

Sitting near the paint hanger were 2 of the 4 Boeing 747 Dreamlifers specially designed and built to haul large composite components from distant suppliers. Although I find the Dreamlifter impressive in design and ingenuity, I still question the strategy to make these parts off site and have them hauled in using a specialty aircraft. With two of them sitting idol, I wonder how often the Dreamlifters are being utilized?

The biggest disappointment for me was seeing all the product lines more idle than active. In other words, all the production lines had more people standing around (and sitting) than actually working on the plane. I saw the same thing 4 years ago but expected the 787 line to be different assuming a higher sense of urgency, improved production line design and lessons learned on Boeing’s lean journey. In most manufacturing plants, you can understand the lean culture quickly by simple observation. It makes me wonder about the strength of Boeing's lean culture in general?

Regardless of their difficulties, I find myself rooting for Boeing to succeed. As an American and frequent flyer, I certainly wish them the best of luck as they begin releasing 787s to their customers. Now ramp up that effort with a dose a strong continuous improvement and make us proud again!

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