Boeing: Taking flight

Paul V. Arnold, Noria Corporation
Tags: maintenance and reliability

"This is not rocket science," says Mark Calkins, a maintenance organization senior manager for Boeing, a company that knows plenty about rocket science.

Boeing is the planet's largest manufacturer of commercial and military airplanes. It builds satellites, missiles and helicopters. It operates the Space Shuttle and International Space Station for NASA. It is one of the most complex, technically based corporations in the world.

Calkins isn't out to put a man on the moon - or even at cruising altitude. He simply wants his crew of 170 crafts professionals, and those who rely on them, to think differently about maintenance and reliability.

"It comes down to two very basic questions," he says. "What would you do differently to make your own job better? And, what would you do differently to improve the company and keep jobs here?"

It sounds simple. But leading a major change initiative - or a change in thinking - can be as daunting as redesigning a flight navigation system.

As Seattle Site facilities leader, Calkins oversees maintenance at Boeing's four facilities in this Pacific Coast city. His building space covers nearly 6 million square feet. His team has an average age of 50 and an average tenure of nearly 25 years with Boeing and/or one of its acquired properties - McDonnell Douglas, Rockwell Aerospace and Hughes.

There's space and history to overcome. This isn't something Big Boeing can set in order with a blank check and unlimited resources.

Think differently.

"There aren't revolutionary new ways to do maintenance," he says. "We need to focus our efforts on the fundamentals. We need to improve and become much more efficient. We need to think and act as if we are owners of the business."


The Boeing Company manufactured 441 commercial airplanes in 2007.

Over the past three years, Boeing maintenance has spent a considerable amount of time to:

It may not be rocket science, but representatives throughout the company see these as critical activities that are allowing it to achieve greater uptime, productivity and profitability.

Think differently.

"Maintenance is my best friend," says Fred Morrison, Boeing's senior manager of paint operations for Seattle and Renton sites, with prime responsibility for 737 aircraft.

At your plant, can (or does) your production organization say the same thing? If not, then read on.


Al Kier is the first-shift maintenance manager at one of the Seattle plants.

As previously stated, Boeing has a unique diversity issue in Seattle, and at its other sites in Washington and around the country. Not all of its maintenance managers, shift managers, supervisors and team leaders are Boeing purebreds. Some are rooted in the cultures of other aerospace firms acquired over the past decade. That, plus Boeing's history of allowing individual plants a degree of independence, led to variability.

Metrics were tracked in different ways. Different terms or definitions were used for the same practices and procedures. Plants passed on adopting colleagues' "best practices" because they were sure their own practices were the best.

"They developed their own maintenance practices, standards and processes," says Calkins. "We weren't leveraging our collective knowledge."

If managerial consensus existed between plants, diversity at the craft level sometimes negated potential gains. Was the Boeing way of lubricating equipment better than the McDonnell Douglas method? What about the Hughes or Rockwell way? Maintenance technicians had their opinions and performed the work based on their past history.

"We were limiting ourselves," he says. "Strategies were the result of perception, not facts. It was all about interpreting."

Calkins has pushed hard for commonization and standardization - in his current role for the Seattle plants, in his corollary role as the leader of Boeing's Northwest Region maintenance process council, and in his former position as the enterprise-wide lean/maintenance process leader. Success has come by knowing when to be rigid and when to be flexible.

"We put an emphasis on the things that we want to standardize across the enterprise," he says. "These are the things that really are not negotiable."

Take, for instance, computerized maintenance management software systems. Progress occurred when plants not only agreed upon Maximo as the common work management system, but also on utilizing it in a uniform manner.

"If you aren't getting the proper data into the system, the data isn't accurate," he says. "If the data isn't accurate, it's not valid. You can't see where you are spending your time and efforts and where you have reliability problems. By getting common usage and visibility, it's apples and apples."


The Boeing Company is ranked No. 28 on the Fortune 500 list with global revenues of $61.53 billion.

Flexibility between factories is offered for maintenance practices and procedures that are secondary in nature or are based by the unique characteristics of a facility (i.e. a highly secure, defense-focused site).

The identification and implementation of best practices is the next step. Plants performed an internally developed and standardized self-assessment in December 2007 to gauge levels of proficiency and performance in categories such as planning and scheduling, work initiation and prioritization, and CMMS systems. Feedback was measured up to standards of excellence identified by Boeing, Clemson University's Professional Advancement and Continuing Education department, and industry at large. Calkins and regional process council members performed second-party assessments in February.

"We asked people to identify areas where they think they are the best and where they have the biggest areas for improvement," he says. "Representatives from across the country will look at these 'best practices' and say, yes or no. If it is a best practice, it's my responsibility to get that implemented at our Seattle plants."

On-site maintenance training through Clemson will not only work to solidify and push these practices down the command chain, but also will work to level-set the language between plants.


Team leader Patrick Denehey says the maintenance organization has cut reactive work "down to almost nothing."

Calkins' maintenance organization also has adopted lean principles.

Boeing has practiced lean for more than a decade, but until recently, it struggled to expand the concept outside of the production group. Because of the company's emphasis on lean manufacturing, Calkins says, "Maintenance people thought, 'That really relates to manufacturing. It doesn't apply to us in maintenance.'"

In 2005, though, Boeing rolled out an initiative called Lean Plus which sought to start lean efforts in departments outside of production. It brought to light the power maintenance can have on the bottom line.

"If we can reduce our costs in maintenance and improve our positive impact on manufacturing, we can sell our products at a lower price," says Calkins. "We also recognized how much improvement lean has had on the manufacturing process. There is waste in our processes, too, that we can address through lean."

Now, the Seattle plants hold regular maintenance-led kaizen events (yes, the teams do include representatives from production). And, maintenance leaders stress the importance of daily continuous improvement.

"Look at what you do every day and think of ways to do them better, smarter and more efficiently," says John McElmurray, the second-shift maintenance manager at one of the Seattle plants.

It loops back to the standardization of best practices. For instance, McElmurray and first-shift maintenance manager Al Kier examined the time it took crafts personnel to complete given preventive maintenance activities at their facility.

"We would see a four-hour difference, depending on who was doing the PM," says Kier. "For each PM, we validated and standardized the steps to do the job. What is the best method to do that PM correctly, safely and with the least impact on production? Value stream mapping was a lean tool we used frequently. When we agreed upon that best PM method, it was communicated and optimized with the crafts in an accelerated improvement workshop."

To avoid regression, the process is backed up with a report that tracks the estimated and actual time and labor charges for work orders.

"We post the reports in the shop and review them quite a bit," says Kier. "It's visible to them, so they know."

It does serve notice.

"It's not meant to be personal," says McElmurray. "I tell them that I just want our group to be the best it can be."

But it also helps identify areas of need.

Calkins states that movement provides the most waste within the maintenance organization. The Seattle plants are huge, so how do you get a worker (plus the work order, tools and parts) from the maintenance shop to the job site in the most efficient manner (less movement)?

That is being addressed through:

  1. Kitting: Kits eliminate the back-and-forth routine of getting the necessary parts and supplies for a work order. Tool cribs assemble all items that are required for the task and neatly arrange them onto a special cart. The technician is notified when the cart is ready. One stop, quick pickup and the worker is off to the job site.
  2. Maintenance vans: Maintenance shops have specialty vans for the various trades - electricians, plumbers, HVAC mechanics, etc. - to reduce the amount of trips to cribs and storage areas. Each van is tidy and neatly arranged. It is equipped with all of the specialty tools, fasteners and other supplies needed for most projects. General tools are arranged in storage boxes attached to the side of the van.
  3. Mobile communication: The organization is using mobile work management devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs), Symbol handheld computers and Sprint PCS products to synchronize with Maximo and deliver work out to crafts people on the floor.

"For me, it has been less talking about the word 'lean' and more about implementing sound maintenance practices, holistic maintenance practices, because they are all one and the same," says Calkins. "My focus on lean has been to continually look at how we do things and how we would or should do it better the next time. ... It's a self-imposed pressure to reduce our footprint on manufacturing's time and processes."


The Seattle plants produce components and assemblies for Boeing commercial and military aircraft, and perform final painting for these jets. Final assembly for 737 and Business Jet products is done in nearby Renton, Wash. Final assembly for 747, 767, 777 and 787 products is done in nearby Everett, Wash.

It's as important to increase brain time as it is to increase "wrench" time. The Seattle maintenance organization stresses the use of creativity and innovation by its workers.

"The way to beat the competition is through your employees," says McElmurray. "They each have 100 ideas on how to do that."

The challenge is to unlock those ideas.

"Maintenance people are very creative," says Calkins. "They go home and do all kinds of creative things. But then, they come to work and get a little more tunnel vision."

Culture helps cure that. Seattle's maintenance leaders seek the input of the hourly workforce. They want to hear about the things that hamper and frustrate them. They want them to identify processes and procedures that are inefficient, broken or suboptimized. Then they give them the time, tools and support to develop solutions.

"We try to get them to use non-traditional thinking to make our company better," says Kier. "If you think 'same old, same old,' you will always get 'same old, same old.' We want to get people to think outside of the box."

There is no better example of creativity, innovation and no-boundaries thinking than moonshining. Taken from the manner in which folks in the Appalachian hills built their moonshine stills, it involves addressing a need through pure creativity, spare parts and little to no capital.

"That really goes against the grain of facilities," says Calkins. "It's traditionally been, 'We need to build something big. It must perform 100 functions. It has to last 100 years.' That's not the case with moonshining. You want 'right size.' You want it to perform one basic function. It's not a monument. It's something that makes you say, 'Why didn't we think of that before?'"

Moonshine happens in deed or by name.

"Moonshining is part of everyone's job, but it can be a specific person's full-time job" he adds. "If you think about maintenance, we create solutions. But, we do have dedicated moonshine shops. People bring problems to them that they would like solved."

While most moonshine shops report into operations, the Seattle maintenance team has identified a moonshine point man who draws from multiple crafts around him.

Bill Williams is the full-time resident of this particular moonshine shop. A carpenter by trade, his ascent to this post began in 2006 when he was drafted by a team participating in a Boeing-wide Moonshine Wars competition. The team won, thanks in part to Williams' ideas and technical skills. Shortly after that, the company enrolled him in extensive kaizen training under a lean sensei from the Shingujitsu consulting group. Upon completion of the training, he was asked to open a maintenance-based moonshine shop to support the wing assembly plant. A handful of maintenance personnel assist part-time at the shop, but skilled trades workers are always on call to serve as knowledge resources or project participants.


Bill Williams provides a world of maintenance skills to his moonshine shop.

The moonshine process starts with a problem identified by a person, line or department on the plant floor. Williams might go solo to solve a relatively simple moonshine project. He'll assemble a crew for more involved ones. The members of the team don't have to be technical gurus.

"We bring people in who don't understand a craft or how things work," he says. "It's a fresh mind, fresh ideas, working with the tools we have. The goal is to have people think like a 12-year-old child, always asking, 'Why? Why? Why?'"

In the case of a more complex problem, Williams leads a team through a gemba walk, a Japanese observation tool. By observing and querying those in the target area, they get a better understanding of whether or not the customer truly understands the issue.

"We'll look at the whole process," he says. "Many times, the problem will be further back up a line. We will sit there for two to three shifts and look at what the problem is and what touches that problem."

After that, Williams returns to the shop and leads a Production Preparation Process (3P) event, which focuses on eliminating waste related to this problem through product and process design. The group tries to come up with key words (i.e. bond, shear, clamp, roll, guide, press) to describe what is happening in the problem area. It then looks to the world around them to find examples of how nature might solve the problem. (How does a lobster use its claw as an effective clamping tool? What can be learned from this?)

Each group member comes up with seven potential solutions to the problem. Simulations are done. Mockups are created with foam, cardboard and wood.

From there, the group selects a potential answer. A scale model is constructed using metal, mechanical components, tubing, Plexiglas and other materials scrounged from salvage yards, dumpsters and dead-inventory rooms or obtained in trades from other moonshine shops.

If the solution works, a prototype is made. Feedback leads to refinements. When the prototype is deemed a success, the group sends the project to an engineering group and a final product is built, released for use and installed.

The solution can be fairly simple. In assembling the propulsion system for a 737 jet, two wires have to be tightened down under a lug nut. The wires must be no more than .50 inches apart and no less than .035 inches apart. Assemblers were having difficulties and brought the problem to the moonshine shop. Williams fashioned a fork-like tool out of cardboard that would create the proper alignment and spacing. A final prototype was constructed by welding an inch-wide, metal-tined rake onto the base and shaft of a screwdriver. It served as the perfect assembly guide.

"I came back a week later and wanted it back so I could make several more of them," he says. "They told me, 'We can't give it up to you. We can't do our job without it.' That was the most flattering statement I could have received. I built something that I knew nothing about and it became a tool that they couldn't live without. I made eight more for them and they use them daily."

The solution also can be more complex. The factory uses a lift to install wing bearings. The hefty tool works, but its small wheels get stuck in the utility trench that runs the length of the plant floor.

"The factory called us in facilities and wanted us to level the world for their tools," he says. "We're like, that is millions of dollars to pull all of these utilities out and make it level. What is the alternative? You only have four inches of clearance under there and the lift has these two tiny wheels."

Williams is in the final stages of a "whiz-bang" prototype. It's a cart with no wheels; it floats on air bearings. Charged by two six-volt batteries, it's completely cordless and it can lift 2,000 pounds.

"Everyone loves this thing," he says. "It's so easy to move. It's a ball to do this stuff."

This is a mind-bending solution, and it brings to light a tough balancing act for moonshiners.

"It's really difficult to balance creativity and simplicity," he says. "At times, I find myself trying to make something tougher than it needs to be. It is a hard thing not to get too complex. A simpler answer is probably out there."

Rationalize work and focus on only that which adds value. That is the path for Williams in the moonshine shop ... and for the maintenance organization as a whole.

Calkins says the department is in the business of supporting production's need to produce. It should not be a landscaper, window washer or furniture mover.

"There are many commodity service providers out there who can handle those needs," he says. "We have gotten out of that. We want to take our skills and move them up the value chain. We focus on the things that are important to our business partners."

The change has maintenance workers fired up.

"They used to move furniture on second shift," says McElmurray. "They would tell me, 'I'm a mechanic. I don't like moving furniture.' Now, we do the things that we ought to be doing, and they are motivated. They'd follow me through a brick wall right now."

Sharp focus and production support is apparent in the department's rationalization of preventive maintenance activities.

Boeing has long been a proponent of preventive maintenance. At any moment in time, it seemed, a PM task was taking place in the Seattle facilities. "Overboard" and "overkill" are two words frequently used by maintenance and production workers to describe the former PM strategy.

Calkins says that across the enterprise, there were nearly 700,000 hours of PM tasks in the system. The Seattle facilities had more than their share.

"No one was really looking at these and making sure that the work was value-added," he says. "We were just handing work out and saying, go do it. It's unsupervised work. Is this PM really the right thing to do? Is it really preventing failures? Are metrics showing that you are fixing things and making a difference? If the answer is no, or if you just don't know, you are suboptimizing."

To address this issue, managers, crafts personnel and engineers embarked on a large-scale process to examine each and every PM and determine its value and usefulness. The key to this PM initiative was to make it a part of daily management. Some of the questions asked were:

Is the PM required? Some PM tasks, especially those performed in the painting hangars, are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Other tasks were not required by OSHA but served an important safety and health purpose. During the process of examining these tasks, though, others were found to be not mandatory and not linked to a useful safety, health or mechanical outcome. These could be scaled back or eliminated.

Is the PM based on a reactive work order? If so, follow the PM tasks back to the original breakdown. Ensure that the PMs have eliminated reoccurrences of the problem. If breakdowns are still occurring, you may not be performing the right PMs.

Is the PM pertinent or the result of a one-time abnormality? Says Calkins, "We had a lot of knee-jerk PMs. A drain plugged up one time, so a manager said, 'I want that drain cleaned out every two days, whether it needs it or not.' Those types of PMs were clogging up the system."

Is the PM better served in another form? Boeing is working with the University of Missouri-Rolla engineering department to explore the deployment possibilities and benefits of wireless motes for vibration monitoring and condition-based maintenance. Instead of a regimented PM, there may be tangible benefits to tracking health via this technology and making adjustments, as needed.

Is the PM properly written? Bad communication can lead to bad PMs. Examine tasks to determine if the PM was worded correctly, and if it is easy to read and understand.

"Through this process, we weeded out what we needed to do and what we didn't need to do," says team leader Patrick Denehey. "We streamlined it to truly what is needed."

As a result, maintenance makes best use of its time.

"Our large-scale PMs in the paint shop were taking two days," says Kier. "We have reduced that to one day. We have one shift doing the OSHA-required PMs, one shift doing the reliability-enhancing PMs and the other shift doing the blowdown in the hangar. It's done in 24 hours."

As a result, production makes best use of its time.

"We all know how important maintenance is, but we also know how important it is to deliver airplanes," says operations supervisor Morrison.

Doing the right maintenance work allows each of the five hangars to complete a commercial jet paint job in three days.

"I'll buy you lunch if you can find someone who can do what we do in three days," he says. "We couldn't do it without them."

Kier says proactive work comprises 98 percent of the maintenance activities at the paint shop.

Denehey says the organization has cut reactive work "down to almost nothing."

McElmurray says, "We can almost assure our customers now that there will not be a breakdown."

As well as holding "best friend" status, Morrison says the department "is the most proactive, value-driven maintenance organization I've ever been affiliated with."

By identifying and standardizing on best practices, incorporating lean principles, pushing creativity and innovation, and rationalizing its work and focusing on the tasks that add value, Boeing's Seattle Site maintenance organization is thinking differently and acting differently.

It's not rocket science. It's not about putting a man into orbit. It is about making Boeing more cost-efficient and competitive. And, it is about keeping value-adding work in the hands of its craftsmen and craftswomen.

"We need to be competitive with outside industry because there are always suppliers out there hungry to take on a task that we currently do," says Calkins. "They are knocking on our doors on a regular basis."

Maintenance holds the key to that door.

"I want to be here. I want maintenance to stay here," says McElmurray. "I don't want another company to come in here and do the work. They couldn't do it any better than we can do it. We are responsible for what happens here. I keep telling my guys, 'You are the best. There's nobody better than you.' We just need to think smarter and work harder. We need to play hard, play fair and play to win. I am lucky to be working for Boeing. I love my job. I love what I'm doing."

Can you and your plant organization say the same thing?