John Boyd, Lean Fighter Pilot Part II

By: Andy Wagner

Harry Hillaker–Father of the F-16

Toyota’s Value Innovation: The Art of Tension

Mark has written before about “Everyday Lean“, those little examples of error-proofing or kanban or flow that we see in our day-to-day lives. In a similar vein, one of my enduring lean fascinations is all the places where lean thinking exists in big ways without people having called it “lean” or associated it with the Toyota Production System. As I said in Part I of this post, the work of Colonel John Boyd is a great example of this kind of undercover lean thinking.

I first learned about lean as a design engineer, coming from the engineering side of the enterprise, rather than manufacturing. The idea of designing a product, especially a major system, like an automobile or airplane, based on optimizing what the customer values most and eliminating what the customer considers waste has always appealed to me. (Hence my vocal support for Boeing’s 787– the supply chain might be the embodiment of muda, but the product was designed for the customers).

Before John Boyd presented his famous OODA loop, he developed the even more famous F-16 fighter, and the design approach would have made Toyota’s chief engineers proud. In the 1950s and 60s, American fighter aircraft were designed with two things in mind: speed and technology. Each generation went faster than the last, and each generation added move gadgets and gizmos. Folks who have seen the movie know part of the story of Top Gun. In Vietnam our heavy, technology-laden F-4 Phantom went to battle carrying the best missile system money could buy, but no gun. At 42,000-lbs, the Phantom was being out turned and out maneuvered by the fleet 17,000-lb MiG-19 and our Sparrow missiles weren’t getting the job done. The Korean War US kill ratio of 10:1 dropped to 3:1 and even 1:1 during Vietnam.

Boyd’s team, known as the Fighter Mafia, set about designing a “Lightweight Fighter” to prove that there was a different way to design an airplane. Boyd’s research into what he called “Energy-Maneuver Theory”, and the MiG-19 experience showed that agility was more important than speed and technology had to be applied in the right way to the right problems. Reading the way that Harry Hillaker, chief engineer for General Dynamics at the time, tells the story, you’d think he were talking about Toyota:

The real issue isn’t technology versus no technology. It is how to apply technology. For example, the F-15 represents a brute-force approach to technology. If you want higher speeds, add bigger engines. If you want longer range, make the airplane bigger to increase the fuel capacity… Our design was a finesse approach. If we wanted to fly faster, we made the drag lower by reducing size and adjusting the configuration itself. If we wanted greater range, we made the plane more efficient, more compact.

In The Toyota Way, Jeff Liker called this Toyota’s “No Compromises” approach to optimum product design. This approach is about finding a handful of key factors that matter most to the customer, and setting high, often contradictory goals, based on what matters most. Matthew May at Elegant Solutions described the Lexus development this way in his recent post on The Art of Tension:

Greater speed and acceleration conflicted directly with fuel efficiency, noise and weight, because higher speed and acceleration required a more powerful engine, which in turn is bigger and heavier, thus making more noise and consuming more fuel.

Lexus used concurrent methods to get the lowest coefficient of drag in the industry. That critical factor gave them speed, acceleration, fuel efficiency as well as noise reduction. They found what mattered most to the customer and optimized it. Much like the F-16 team, as Hillaker explains:

Range was associated with fuel capacity…People tend to focus on one part of a given parameter…The typical approach to increase range is to simply increase fuel capacity. But increasing fuel capacity increases volume, which means more weight and more drag. People think that big is better. It’s not. With the lightweight fighter, we wanted to achieve our ends through different means. We increased range by reducing size.

How many times do we use the “brute-force approach to technology” rather than the “finesse approach”? Let’s face it.Brute-force is easier. The Toyota Way is tough because it teaches us to ask hard questions about what we’re trying to achieve and how best to achieve it.It teaches us to resist the siren song of technology. The first solution that comes to mind is never the right one.The right solution comes from iterating, questioning our assumptions, and in short, continuously improving. It doesn’t much matter what you call it, or where you happen to find somebody doing it.

John Boyd and his Fighter Mafia took this lesson to heart and produced the most revolutionary jet fighter the world had seen. They optimized around actual customer needs, rather than industry trends, to create a product that any Toyota chief engineer would be proud of. In my mind, that’s as lean as any Camry.


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Andy Wagner works for a major aerospace company. Andy blogged here from 2007 to 2010.

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2 Comments on "John Boyd, Lean Fighter Pilot Part II"

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  1. Mark Graban says:

    I just learned that Boyd was an Industrial Engineer (from GA. Tech). Go I.E.’s!!

    Here’s a video on youtube of Boyd talking about Shingo and Ohno and other Lean concepts.

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