Thursday 28 April 2011

a geographic sense of urgency

A friend of mine recently visited the Boeing factory just outside of Seattle and came back with a story I thought was worth sharing; something they called 'a geographic sense of urgency' over there.  It's a nifty story about motivation and incentive.  I'll do my best to retell it 2nd hand.

A few years ago Boeing was struggling with efficiency on their assembly lines.  They needed a way to build airplanes faster but were approaching limits on what could be done in parallel, how long a working day could be extended, or how many more resources could be applied to each assembly (outside of the economic ceiling I guess there must be some limitation to the number of people who can fit around the airframe).

To grossly oversimplify - with apologies to aircraft mechanics everywhere - a plane started at one end of the production line and moved through a series of stages; stopping at each 'station' to fit whatever parts that station fitted until eventually arriving at the other end of the hanger complete.  Another way to describe this might be to say that a plane moved through a series of bottlenecks, with all pressure focused on the current station until its work was complete.

The answer borrowed heavily from lean but was all anchored around a single, creative idea; the plane never stops from one end of the hanger to the other.  Instead of rolling forward a few dozen meters and then stopping to have work done (loop until plane=true) the plane is constantly moving forward by a few centimeters an hour and only stops when it reaches the end of the hanger - hopefully as a complete aircraft!  Flow.  Work happens more fluidly and consistently all the way along the plane's terrestrial journey.

This simple change to constant motion had a remarkable impact on the teams.  I wish I had more data (and if I can find any I will post it) but the improvements in throughout were astounding.  The physiological effect was a sense of pace - this is what they call a geographic sense of urgency.  The results were significant increases in efficiency and total throughput without extending crews or hours or resorting to the traditional but seldom as effective as expected measures such as pay increases.

Smart idea Boeing.