MRO Magazine

Where does the maintenance department fit into the Lean manufacturing philosophy?


September 14, 2001
By PEM Magazine

Most discussions in the media and across the conference circuit refer to the maintenance department as a single cog in the Lean machine. According to experts, however, the maintenance department is at the heart of any continuous improvement drive.

Lean manufacturing comes from the systems and processes of the Toyota Production System. Toyota has been heralded by industry-watchers as supremely effective at producing high-quality products while reducing costs and shortening cycle times. For more than 10 years, cult-like followers of the Lean movement across North American industry have dabbled in this innovative Eastern approach to cost-saving manufacturing.

Vought Aircraft Industries is just one aerospace manufacturer that has tried to go Lean.

Joe Bechtol, director of facilities and security at Vought says that its maintenance and engineering department was instrumental in the initial implementation phase and continues to play a key role in supporting the entire process. With both a traditional maintenance organization and a comprehensive engineering staff that incorporates electrical, mechanical and civil disciplines, Vought’s maintenance crew handles two different yet related aspects.


"The engineering group lays out the process of change — redesigning the floor layout and cell operation — and the maintenance group implements the changes — moving, retrofitting and rebuilding equipment. When the floor comes up with a concept of change, we are instrumental in the implementation," says Bechtol.

Headquartered in Dallas, Texas, Vought Aircraft Industries, Inc. is one of the world’s largest independent suppliers of aerospace structures. As a major provider of components for prime manufacturers of aircraft, the company has worked on virtually every Boeing jetliner in production, from the 737 to the 777. This 5,000 employee, $1 billion a year firm is roughly eight years into its Lean journey and openly discusses how its implementation has specifically impacted its maintenance and facilities engineering department.

Starting the journey
According to Vought’s manager of engineering and lean implementation, Lee Mitchell, "Vought Aircraft started on its Lean journey in 1993 as part of the Lean aircraft initiative put together by the United States Air Force, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a handful of key aerospace firms. Collaboratively, as an industry, we realized that we needed to make some significant changes from the mass production methods we implemented."

The group looked at how the major U.S. automakers were competing with foreign manufacturers by implementing the Toyota production system. Vought started the process by studying as many texts as possible with the intent of trying to take the ideas and see how they could apply to the aerospace industry. For instance, Mitchell says they started by studying the popular book, The Machine That Changed the World by James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos.

As the Vought maintenance team learned more about implementation, they recognized that the Lean principles needed to go across the entire enterprise, so according to Mitchell, Vought started to involve the above the floor processes of business management, engineering, and other support organizations. In each of these areas they started to look at where they could improve their value streams and eliminate waste.

The next step was implementing a cross-company campaign that raised awareness of the Lean philosophy and reducing wasteful practices. Vought employees understand Lean principles and are aware of what management is trying to accomplish. "Employees now see what can be done individually and as team members to further the initiative by making improvements and eliminating waste," said Mitchell.

Obstacles and benefits
Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge any maintenance department involved in the process is the balancing of resources to meet the demanding needs of a Lean environment. Over time, the requests on maintenance actually increase and the load can be significant.

"Lean has taken a great toll on the assets of maintenance." says Bechtol. Obviously there are a limited number of man-hours and various budget constraints that any organization has to deal with. "Unfortunately, we have let some of the backlogged normal maintenance slide be-cause we’ve had to focus energies on im-plementing Lean. Costs are actually taken away from the general maintenance and applied in priority towards Lean," he says.

Despite this, it is crucial to remember what Lean implementation is doing for the organization in the big picture, Bechtol says. "Understanding that makes a maintenance group set some priorities to meet the goals. You need to adjust to improve the production stream, which will eventually improve your cost structures. It does, however, definitely impact the day-to-day."

Some of the ways Vought has been able to cut waste has been in travel. By limiting the movement of both people and equipment Vought has been able to reduce its travel budget by 50 percent. Some of the perishable materials have been streamlined and reduced in need. And the maintenance department has been able to find items that are obsolete, thereby taking items offline and reducing the spare parts inventory, further helping with the cost structure. "Being able to eliminate outdated equipment has helped with the budget constraints," says Bechtol.

According to Mitchell, company-wide the most noticeable benefits have been in reduced inventory and span times through waste elimination. Response time has been improved, and taking Lean principles into consideration throughout the production process has yielded a positive impact upon the quality of the product. "The Lean tools are ensuring first-time quality allowing the firm to realize the next step of gains," said Mitchell.

Words of wisdom
Having eight years experience in the never-ending conquest of Lean implementation provides Mitchell and Bechtol with the opportunity to share some valuable advice to those that are new to the Lean process.

First, communication is absolutely essential. Not just at the management level, but to the individual on the floor. Everyone must have an understanding of the process to be a success. In union shops, bring labour on board early. This is key to demonstrating that the point of Lean is not to eliminate jobs but to eliminate waste.

Secondly, there must be support of the senior staff. "Support of the senior staff shows the employees that it is not just some trendy management flavor of the month. There must be a commitment. The CEO should be out on the shop floor showing the company’s commitment to the initiative," said Bechtol.

Third, there must be a commitment of resources. There must be a budget of funds within the organization dedicated to the Lean initiative. If there is not a true commitment of resources, you will find that you are spreading out your Lean funds too thin. Involving the Lean implementation team in this process is key since this gives implementers an idea of whether or not an activity is cost-effective in the long run. Cooperation between implementation and maintenance groups is critical.

Fourth, stick with it. Anyone at all familiar with Lean will echo that it is not a short-term process. It is a continual operation and it takes years to realize the many benefits.

"You must have patience before you will see the benefits," says Mitchell. Realization in inventory reductions will definitely take time, especially if you are part of a firm that is historically sitting on a large amount of inventory."