An Encouraging Lean Example at United Airlines


Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association union website

Ok, here's some positive balance after my crabby posts from earlier (the timing is right to dig this up after typing it — as part of a blog batch — over the weekend).

I've read a bit before about how some airlines are applying Lean methods, most notably in repair and overhaul operations. I stumbled across this web page (from the mechanics' union) because they linked to my Lean Failures blog.

I thought “uh oh, that's a bad sign if the union is linking to the Failures site.” Maybe the union thinks the effort is failing and they are jabbing at management.

But reading a bit deeper (looking to read between more concrete lines), it appears that the union might be a partner with management in the Lean efforts. Evidence of this?

Exhibit A: This is the main LEAN webpage for the union.

It seems like the union is being very supportive of lean and the business drivers for lean.

Exhibit B: See these comments by a Maintenance Manager. It sounds like they are going through the same journey I've seen people go through in healthcare and factories. 1) ugh, it's another program of the month, 2) skepticism and study (they read books about Lean because they have to), 3) belief begins (they see Lean first hand somewhere and learn it's OK), 4) the leap to “we can do it here” and then Lean begins.

Exhibit C: Here is a page that describes the “5S + 1” process (the “+1” being safety, an addition some people make, while others believe safety is inherently built into the lean mindset).

They correctly realize that 5S isn't about being neat and tidy, it's:

“Once fully implemented, the 5S+1 process can increase morale, create positive impressions on customers, and increase efficiency and organization. Not only will team members feel better about where they work, the effect on continuous improvement can lead to less waste, better quality and faster lead times.”

Exhibit D: Here is a nice PDF article, “So What's All This Fuss About Lean?”

It gives a helpful history of lean (starting with Henry Ford). The author starts tying it to the Airline industry:

“Although Lean has its roots in automobile manufacturing it applies equally to any production process, even re-manufacturing.

That's why there's been such a big fuss about Lean at United – because Lean isn't a program with a deadline at some point in the future; it's a dramatic behavioral change in the way we do business.

More appropriately, Lean is a marathon and not a sprint, and it has tremendous opportunities for United Services' maintenance, repair and overhaul operations. Lean is about continuous improvement, not a one-time change.

So how exactly, can Lean help United Services? For starters, Lean can identify where waste occurs in our operations. What do we mean when we say waste? Waste is any activity that uses time, resources or space that isn't perceived by our customers as valuable.”

The article also emphasizes that the goal of Lean is to increase the amount of business they get in a competitive environment:

“It should be a source of concern to all of us that our direct competitors—Delta, American, Pratt Whitney, Chromalloy and others–have already implemented their own Lean operations.”

Exhibit E: This webpage tells the story of using 5S, Visual Management, and Standardized Work principles to improve grease gun carts.

The union says:

“These days, our daily vocabulary has changed. LEAN is the catch phrase and continuous improvement is the name of the game. Part of this new philosophy has been the development of our “POU”, or point of use tooling. This system has made great strides in shortening lines at the tool cribs, shortening the distances we walk each day, and decreasing our C-check cycle times.”

I'm to see it looks like United has the union on board with their Lean effort. As a frequent flyer (and sometimes United passenger), I hope they make great strides. Good luck!

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Thanks for your comments.

    It is making a difference hear at United!

    The way that happens and becomes sustainable is to get the great people on the floor involved, engaged and energized about it.

    The creativity and ideas they have are awesome examples of the boxed in talent we as a team have available and like a flower it is beginning to bloom!

    Waste identification and removal is really an opportunity people now see. We aren’t perfect, but we know we can do better and seek perfection and will do it continuously.

    The article you referenced was one I wrote when based in LAX and it was a wake up call for me as an “old timer” and after being in Aircraft Maintenance for 30 years.

    Like the team, I am learning each day. CI is personal for me as well as a great business practice…

    United United United GO!

    Phil Coley, Managing Director, Airframe, OSV and Test Flight, SFO


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