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2/10/2006 | 7 MINUTE READ

Aerospace OEMs Back A Lean Sea Change

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A lean enterprise initiative comprised of aerospace primes and their suppliers, attempts to bring commonality to the supply chain. Its strategy is to provide a gage to measure lean progress and a roadmap to the higher levels of process maturity.


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All aerospace suppliers are implementing lean manufacturing strategies to some degree. They really have no choice in the matter, if they intend to survive in an intensely competitive global market. The aerospace primes, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, are becoming more like large-scale system integrators than component manufacturers. This puts more pressure on the supply chain to react quicker to changing production schedules while providing on-time deliveries. In the coming years, only the suppliers that take the strides right now to become more responsive to the primes’ moving production lines will remain.

The lack of commonality throughout the supply chain—that is, the lack of a universal lean road map—has been a concern shared by the primes and their suppliers. There has been neither a single guideline for implementing lean, nor an effective means of gaging progress in these efforts.

The Supplier Excellence Alliance (SEA) was developed to get the entire supply chain on the same lean page, while providing a path to follow while integrating enterprise-wide improvements. SEA, a non-profit organization, has outlined a lean enterprise system designed to boost overall competitiveness for all links in the aerospace and defense supply chain. Implemented in 2003, its members include the aforementioned and other OEMs, as well as their sub-tier suppliers. The program’s goal is to ensure that the aerospace supply chain will be able to meet the primes’ demanding requirements now and in the years to come.

What the SEA program does not offer is a grab bag of new lean manufacturing tricks and techniques to get a single process working more efficiently. Rather, the purpose of the program is to provide a means of self-assessment and a mechanism for managing enterprise-wide process improvements. Its common language is based on process maturity. Its common goal is to get all suppliers to the highest possible process maturity level.

Michael Beason, chairman of the board for SEA, provides a general overview of the SEA lean enterprise system concept and how it aims to improve competitiveness for an industry that is trending toward global sourcing, supplier consolidation, supply chain integration and lean manufacturing. Any shop that is or intends to be a supplier to the aerospace industry should take note of this lean initiative.

Lean Enterprise System

An effective means to measure the “leanness” of any supply chain is to examine inventory turnover, or the speed by which material flows through a manufacturing facility. The aerospace industry currently lags industries such as automotive and electronics in this category. SEA’s lean enterprise system can boost this performance by targeting specific improvement areas to allow company-wide change and long-term sustainability of improvements. These areas include leadership and culture; workforce development; and operational excellence.

  • Leadership and culture focuses on senior management implementing change-effort strategies and providing leadership to that end. Workers, too, must completely buy into this concept so that the rate of improvements can be accelerated. Assigning process owners, for example, not only directly involves employees in the overall improvement process, but also serves as a method of deploying accountability for improvements. An effective system for accelerated improvements, one that is likely to be sustained, is one in which process owners are not only assigned, but also effectively trained and given the time and resources to make improvements. This may require a culture change starting at the top, with managers allowing greater employee involvement and providing direct support in the change efforts.
  • Workforce development focuses on job skills certification and employee cross-training to promote standard work procedures and workforce flexibility. This is important because workforce skill level is an obvious barrier to implementing positive changes. Small companies, in particular, may not have a formal method for ensuring that every employee has the proper skills required to follow standard processes with minimal error. Regardless of their size, many companies may not have the means of developing formal training plans or assessing training needs. An effective training system is one that offers employees the confidence to make decisions on their own to positively affect their daily processes. In other words, proper training allows employees to lead themselves and solve their own problems.
  • Operational excellence focuses on operational improvement priorities set by company leaders and customers. This includes all various techniques for process improvement, such as flow manufacturing, kaizen events, cell design, total productive maintenance, Six Sigma and so on. The idea here is not to replace lean techniques and strategies that a company has already implemented. Rather, companies should strive to apply SEA principles to guide improvements per a process maturity scale.

How Mature Are Your Processes?

The process maturity model is the cornerstone of the SEA lean enterprise system. It enables companies not only to assess their performance, but also to manage overall process improvements. Typically, companies operating at a low process maturity level are missing some basic element needed for process standardization and stabilization. This relates directly to cost, because companies with processes at low maturity levels must spend money on expediting, inspecting, managing and other non-value-adding activities to fix errors (that are sometimes discovered by the customer). The first step in implementing the lean enterprise system is identifying critical processes and determining their process maturity levels.

Level 1—The process is identified, defined and has an owner. 

This first level assigns a name and an owner to a process, defines each process step, and identifies its beginning and ending points. The most effective way to ensure that all employees agree on the process scope is to develop a value stream map. This map does not have to be detailed at this point, so long as it identifies all departments and their functions at each process step. Also, the sequence of steps from the beginning of the process to its end should be noted.

Level 2—The process is documented.

The goal at this level is to establish processes with little variation. This can only be achieved by developing standard work procedures throughout the entire company, not just on the factory floor. Standard work procedure documentation is not complete without corrective action plans.

Companies should become certified to ISO or AS9100 standards even if customers currently do not require it. Doing so ensures that all critical processes have established procedures and the company has the discipline to effectively manage processes. Process documentation is necessary at higher process maturity levels, and it is valuable in sustaining overall performance. Not doing this would be similar to a musician who initially learns the techniques of playing an instrument, but does not learn how to read music. There is a limit as to how far the person can advance musically without that foundation.

Literacy barriers may exist for companies that have a multinational workforce. This can be avoided by communicating work instructions in visual form. Photos should be taken of critical process steps, and then those photos should be used when training workers.

Level 3—The process is standardized and has certified trainers.

All processes at this level must follow a standard work procedure. Just as important, all workers must conform to such work procedures and process corrective actions. It has been said that no process can be improved until this is attained (quality systems such as ISO, AS9100 and Capability Maturity Model Integration—CMMI—are based on this principle).

Standardization of poorly designed processes is not effective. Kaizen events are important to help reduce waste in such processes. However, given that this creates an environment of constant change, certified process owners must be charged with bringing the process back to the level three stage after each kaizen event. This is done by revising and reissuing documentation by event’s end, and also by training and re-certifying workers per the new work procedures.

Level 4—The process is controlled, analyzed and then improved using data.

Statistical methods for process analysis and improvement are implemented at this level. This is beneficial for a few reasons. It provides a more scientific method for triggering corrective action and helps prevent tampering by a worker who would apply a solution without completely understanding the process or the underlying cause of a problem. It also assists workers in becoming more proactive to make changes as abnormal variation is readily recognized, and it helps identify the root cause of variation in processes that produce very few defects.

Level 5—The process shows continuous positive trends and world-class benchmarks.

Companies operating at this performance level will generally have 5 years of progressively improved performance comparable to other industry leaders. However, industry leaders may not necessarily have industry-leading processes. When making a comparison with industry leaders, it is best to consider a range of metrics for companies in the top one-third of an industry segment.

Complete Buy-In Required

Enterprise-wide improvements require that company leadership embrace SEA concepts and spearhead the conversion effort. In turn, the workforce must not only support the lean enterprise effort, but also assist in implementing standard work procedures and strive to become certified to train others. This will provide sustained improvements using standard lean manufacturing techniques. It is in the primes’ interests to have suppliers that follow this model so that the suppliers become financially viable. These are the suppliers that make the best long-term partners.


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