Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Boeing's 787 Lean Manufacturing Ordeal

In this week’s readings we've learned about the ways that lean manufacturing processes can bring many benefits to its practitioners.  Improved quality, efficiency and productivity are among these benefits.  Although it might seem like lean is a foolproof method of improving operations, there are instances where the principles of lean cause more harm than good.  Production of Boeing’s 787 is a prime example of the problems that can arise when trying to run too lean of an operation.

Boeing’s production plan for the 787 was to rely on suppliers to complete various sections of the aircraft.  Boeing would then perform final assembly at its own facilities.  The problem that Boeing faced was that sections of the aircraft were arriving incomplete.  Since the 787’s facilities were designed for lean final assembly, Boeing was left unequipped to handle this unexpected setback.  The result of this particular incident was an additional 3 month delay to add to the eventual years of delays that the 787 program faced.[1]

As you can see, Boeing tried to make its operations too lean by eliminating most of the production activities they perform themselves.  These activities were transferred to their suppliers and when their suppliers delivered incomplete work, Boeing lacked the ability to redo their suppliers’ activities in an efficient manner.

It seems that lean manufacturing is better suited to improving well-established processes.  What we learn from Boeing’s experience is that developing operations based on lean principles may make it difficult for your operations to be able to efficiently adapt to major processes disturbances.  Do you think that it is too risky too apply lean principles to operations that possess a high level of uncertainty?

[1] Flight International. “Boeing’s Lean Plan for 787 Stumbled Over Supplier Issues”. Flightglobal. Accesses 20 Feb 2013 from: http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/boeings-lean-plan-for-787-stumbled-over-supplier-issues-220927/

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