Womack: why lean is an opportunity for today's aerospace
WOMACK'S YOKOTEN – As a new age in aerospace dawns, with a need to move from huge and bespoke designs to affordable and high-volume production, lean thinking has a key role to play. But will the industry listen?
Words: Jim Womack, Founder and Senior Advisor, Lean Enterprise Institute
When I began studying the auto industry at MIT in the early 1980s, the choice of this sector was an accident. It was Toyota and its enterprise system that I wanted to understand. If the company had made airplanes instead, I happily would have studied the aerospace industry. Indeed, I would have been much happier. I've always found that anything aerospace has more fun factor than anything automotive.
Actually, Toyota did make an airplane: One prototype of one design – the TAA-1. It was developed during the 1990s (and flown briefly in 2002) for reasons never clearly explained, but I imagine mostly for the pleasure of senior Toyota executives who had always wanted to be aerospace engineers. And Honda has just started customer deliveries of its twin-engine HA-420 HondaJet, developed – I suspect – for the same reasons.
So car guys can do aerospace – Henry Ford best of all with the Ford Trimotor (1925), the Flying Flivver for one person (1926), and 8,800 B-24s produced on contract during World War II using many lean techniques. But in the long light of history, car guys have only done aerospace sporadically, half-heartedly, and with limited commercial success. I knew by the time The Machine That Changed the World was published in 1990 that if I wanted to be maximally happy, by combining lean and aerospace, I would need to take what I had learned from Toyota and find ways to apply it to aerospace.
Soon I found a way to do this. In the early 1990s, when Dan Jones and I started writing Lean Thinking, we encountered a great example of lean transformation at Pratt & Whitney, the jet engine company. On first encounter it was hard to believe that any industry referred to as "space age" could have such low velocity in doing everything – design, flight testing, production, maintenance. So we naturally asked ourselves if there was some reason lean concepts didn't apply. Fortunately, as we watched Pratt's Japanese sensei conduct experiments to introduce lean techniques, it became clear that there was extraordinary potential from creating high-velocity flow in low-volume, high-variety aerospace value streams in commercial and military aviation and satellites.
(One eye-opening example of the opportunity: My one major lean transformation project as a traditional consultant – just prior to the founding of Lean Enterprise Institute – was in 1995-97 at the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company. There my Boeing counterpart, Dave Fitzpatrick, calculated the cruising speed of a snail in his garden and compared it to the average velocity of an ingot of aluminum as it progressed from its smelting at Alcoa in Tennessee to fly-away in a Boeing 747 two and a half years later in Washington State. The snail was faster by a large margin!)
Then, I had splendid transformational fun watching the creation of high velocity within factory walls at Boeing (for example, the moving assembly line for the 737) and later in the operations of other aerospace companies, including Lockheed Martin and United Technologies. But the velocity of change seemed to slow steadily as the scope of these activities expanded. And the critical task of reconfiguring and leaning whole value streams across OEMs and supplier companies (as I had proposed at Boeing) seemed to be impossible. Gradually the big players wandered off into massive staff-driven op-ex programs like ACE at United Technologies and LM21 at Lockheed Martin. These were earnestly intended but, from my observation, focused on individual points rather than optimizing the whole and had low probability of creating sustainable change.
But then Dan and I had another idea, as we worked on our book Lean Solutions (2005). We decided that the really exciting lean transformations in aerospace might be at the operating level, working backwards from the needs of the customer rather than starting in manufacturing or engineering. So we studied start-up airline concepts using small, 35-passenger jets to fly business passengers point-to-point with scheduled, high-frequency services instead of through hubs. We also examined proposals for shared use of very small (four-passenger) jets like Eclipse in taxi-like services with dynamic scheduling. And we talked with user-to-satellite-to-user services for telecoms like Iridium. The idea in every case was to use smaller equipment in higher volumes and leave out many of the steps and costs in traditional service delivery: massive terminals, even more massive hub airports, and arrays of cell phone towers. This held the prospect of dramatically reducing door-to-door times and costs for travelers and costs and access limitations for telecoms users in low-density areas.
But nothing much happened: The passenger start-ups failed and the big "legacy" carriers consolidated to gain pricing power and embraced the traveler-hostile concept of hub-and-spoke, which maximizes equipment utilization at the expense of more travel time and hassle for passengers. The "budget carriers" like Southwest and Ryanair standardized on 150-passenger conventional jets using larger airports, leaving out most smaller city pairs where point-to-point service would provide the biggest time and cost savings. And Iridium and Eclipse stumbled badly in trying to scale their systems and went bankrupt. (Iridium did re-emerge a few years later as a successful business but with a much smaller user base than originally planned.) Meanwhile, the government-backed space industry lumbered along with multi-decade lead-times for design and multi-year lead-times for production of large rockets and satellites, at rising rather than falling unit costs.
There were a few sustainable successes like Embraer in Brazil and engine and airframe overhaul in military depots and at some airlines. But I was about ready to give up on the idea of lean aerospace when something unexpected happened. Non-aerospace people – Jeff Bezos (of Blue Origin and delivery drones), Richard Branson (of Virgin Galactica), Elon Musk (of SpaceX), and Gregg Wyler (of OneWeb) – appeared with a new idea:
Air and space are now the place for lots of cheap, high-volume things – satellites, launchers, space planes, drones – to be designed and made using the mundane methods of...the high-volume auto industry (and the consumer electronics industry as well.)
For example, OneWeb is proceeding with a vast constellation of small, cheap communications satellites linking billions of users through millions of cheap, mass-produced ground receivers with the objective of bringing affordable internet and web access to the 4 billion folks on the planet currently not connected. Its new satellite factory in Florida to make the needed equipment was just announced last week.
In this new view, the age is passing for massive, bespoke designs for satellites, launchers, space planes (like the Space Shuttle), etc., produced in the equivalent of craft workshops (no matter how massive) by high-tech craftsmen at practically zero velocity. And suddenly I've been getting calls on how lean thinking can be applied to this new vision of aerospace.
We will soon see if our ideas can now find acceptance although my initial discussions with a number of firms like those listed have been sobering. There is still a big disconnect between our way of thinking and theirs: "You mean we actually have to stick to a schedule and every step in design, production, and operations must be stable and repeatable?!" "You mean it's better to design out fabrication and test steps rather than to automate them?" And "What is this crazy A3 method for analyzing problems and opportunities? Let's just do something now!"
These start-ups now need to make a quick leap from the craft methods with traditional, entrepreneur management they have been employing during the proof-of-concept phase to lean production with lean management during volume production, in order to drive cost and lead-times down. I'm mindful that the default for these start-ups is mass production with modern management, but in that case many (or all?) of them will fail and much of the opportunity will be squandered.
Still I think there is great opportunity for lean thinking in this new age of aerospace and I hope the Lean Community will be become deeply engaged. I'm also hoping we can all have some fun for a change, engaging with greenfield activities aimed toward the sky and stars rather than brownfield activities redressing the sins of the past.