I’m on an airplane at the moment traveling back to my home in Kennesaw, GA, just like most Fridays. I’m currently working on an engagement in southern Texas trying to help an MRO contractor to the US Navy improve the number of aircraft they have available every day. That’s how they make their money….supplying a specified number of aircraft so that the Navy can train new aviators. And when they don’t have enough aircraft ready, they pay a huge $ penalty. I’ve been involved in Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) for the past 4 years with quite a few different types of aircraft and I must say, it’s been an enjoyable run. It’s been even more fun working for a company like NOVACES. NOVACES truly gets it as far as how we approach improvement efforts! Try us….you won’t be disappointed!!
Continuous improvement in an MRO environment is really no different than any other industry type….at least not in my world. I still use Goldratt’s 5 Focusing Steps to identify and exploit the system constraint, then subordinate everything else to the constraint and, if necessary, I elevate the constraint. And when the constraint moves, my effort moves with it. I’ve written many times about the importance of focusing the improvement tools of Lean and Six Sigma on the system constraint.
Today I want to write about what I call the “soft” tools of improvement. By soft I simply mean that they aren’t difficult to learn and can be quite effective. These type of tools affect things like the morale and communication level of the entire work force. I’m also going to share a brief case study where my team and I recently used these soft tools in an MRO setting and achieved some very impressive results in a relatively short period of time. Due to the sensitive nature of the data and information, I will not be able to share the name of the company or any of the results achieved, but I will somehow code the results data to keep it confidential.
When our team arrived at this MRO facility it was quite clear that the morale of the work force was dreadful and the communications between the salaried staff and the hourly work force was equally abysmal. The company had been on mandatory overtime for months and many of the mechanics and techs were simply worn out. And while they were working high levels of overtime, this work force was still not meeting the performance requirements which were costing the company dearly in lost revenue. It was clear that our team had to move quickly and effectively before it was too late. And finally, there were numerous quality problems that, combined with the aircraft throughput problems, were jeopardizing the company’s relationship and contract with their customer, the US Navy.
Knowing that the workforce morale was so low, one of the first things our team did was convince the leadership team of the need to form an all hourly “core team” comprised of most of the various disciplines working at this company. These disciplines included mechanics, avionics techs, plane captains, logistics personnel, and others. The membership on this team had to be totally voluntary and we wanted them to be informal leaders within their discipline. Why did we want a team of the hourly subject matter experts? It has been my experience that unless and until you engage them, true and lasting improvement will not come to fruition. In the end, the team had 7 or 8 members and believe me, all of them were quite skeptical in the beginning.
Once the core team was assembled, we provided some basic TOC training and developed a high level process map to assist in the identification of the system constraint. The constraint turned out to be the length of time from the landing of the aircraft until the mechanics were permitted to begin repairs on the aircraft. It seems as though this time lag ranged anywhere from 2-4 hours of time….wasted time that is. And who better to identify these sources of waste than the people doing the work.
Once the system constraint was identified, the team then constructed an Interference Diagram (ID) with “Quicker to Wrench Time” being selected by the team as their goal. One by one the team identified the obstacles to achievement of their Goal. And, working with leadership, they offered their solutions and knocked off the interferences that got in the way of them reducing the time waiting to be able to work on the aircraft. Many of the interferences were simple and were caused by policies and procedures that had been put in place in response to internal Corrective Action Requests (CARs). One thing we know is that it’s very important to regularly review policies to make sure they are still required and to determine if they can be removed or not.
One of the core team members even facilitated the creation of her own, lower level Interference Diagram by selecting one of the interferences from the higher level ID. It was then that we knew we had buy-in from the workforce and that it was just a matter of time until the aircraft availability moved into a positive level. You see, it’s been my experience than once you have achieved buy-in from the SME’s, the invisible barriers are removed and true improvement happens and this was the case in this setting. As the confidence in this improvement effort improved, the number of ideas and corresponding solutions increased exponentially. But this was only half of the improvement equation. It’s one thing to have ideas and solutions, but if you only “talk about them” nothing will change. Enter the leadership team!
In order for any improvement effort to crystallize, the leadership team must embrace what I refer to as active listening. Active listening simply means that six simple steps are followed:
1. Providing a forum to allow your SME’s to articulate problems and solutions. I’m not talking about a suggestion system where the ideas are dropped into a suggestion box and picked up on a regular basis for action. I’m talking about a face-to-face meeting where the problems, ideas and potential solutions can be discussed.
2. A mechanism to immediately act on those ideas and solutions that both the leadership team and the core team believe will eliminate the articulated problem. In addition, it’s important to discuss potential negative consequences that could result from the impending change. It’s also very important to agree upon some kind of success metric so that once a solution is implemented, we have a way of measuring success.
3. The rapid implementation of the solutions. Timeliness here is critical because any delay in implementing the solution is generally viewed negatively by the other SME’s.
4. Focused follow-up on the results of the implemented solution. This is a very important step simply because success breeds more success and the confidence level of both the leadership team and the core team increases with each new success.
5. Broadcasting of the idea, the solution and the results achieved to everyone (both members of the hourly and salaried population. This can be done in a newsletter or broadcast email or some other means such as a posting on bulletin boards. I always create a run chart or something else to broadcast the results of everyone’s actions and imbed it into the broadcast device.
6. Celebrate everyone’s achievements every day and every so often, bring in pizza or something to have a full celebration. In this particular engagement we had the site leader, the maintenance manager, and even the program manager send out a congratulatory email that was distributed to everyone, every day. This regular, positive reinforcement was critical to the long term success of this initiative.
As mentioned previously, the results of this effort were quite impressive and the company’s bottom line rose quickly. As I said earlier, prior to this effort this company was being penalized financially every day that they failed to deliver the correct amount of aircraft to their customer. In fact, for each aircraft under the required amount that they failed to have available, the company was penalized quite a large amount. Within four weeks of the beginning of our active listening effort, the number of missed aircraft dropped to near zero and during one stretch, they went nearly a month without missing a single aircraft, so the bottom line impact was quite high.
In addition to the revenue gain from the reduction in missed aircraft, the company was also able to stop their use of mandatory overtime which was an even larger improvement to the company’s bottom line. In the future, as more and more ideas and solutions are implemented, we fully expect the level of overtime to continue to decrease.
But perhaps the most important impact on this company was a complete transformation of the workforce morale. Comments like, “I like coming to work,” were heard every day and smiles on people’s faces were evident.
So with such a simple solution, active listening along with a focus on the constraint, has transformed this company into a financially viable entity. Try it….I think you’ll like the results…both financially and the attitude of the workforce.