Kaizen on the Boeing 737 Line


There was a nice article in the Wall Street Journal this week about the Boeing 737 and some of their Lean and Kaizen (continuous improvement) work:

Boeing Teams Speed Up 737 Output — Jet Maker's Innovation Crews Search for Ways to Streamline Production as Aircraft Demand Soars.”

Boeing needs to increase production by more than 70%, so the company is looking to “rally employees for ways to make its jets more efficiently and avoid expanding its factories and its costs.”

One example of an employee-driven idea helps prevent tires from being punctured on the line:

Workers try to leave few stones unturned. Mr. Dohrmann, for example, came up with the canvas wheel covers that now hug the four main landing-gear tires as the single-aisle planes advance down an assembly line. The covers solved a vexing problem: stray metal fasteners on the factory floor sometimes puncture tires. The solution saves Boeing about $10,000 for each tire that needs to be replaced “roughly $250,000 a year at the Renton plant based on historical mishap” as well as the labor costs involved in replacing them.

The article highlights the connection of Kaizen to Lean. It's a nice (and rare) example of the WSJ recognizing that Lean isn't just about “just in time” and low inventory (see their record of mistakes).

Boeing started emphasizing employee-generated ideas in Renton in the late 1990s, when the 737 plant began adopting “lean” manufacturing techniques that were developed by the Japanese auto industry and embraced by U.S. car makers in the 1980s. Many companies, including fast-food giants, now use lean methods.

I wish they had included “including hospitals” instead of “fast-food giants.” Starbucks is using Lean, but what other “fast-food giants?” Many Seattle hospitals, including Virginia Mason Medical Center, have learned a lot about Lean from Boeing. Boeing is using the term “innovation teams” to describe the groups, some 1300 of them across their programs:

Boeing's employee teams are composed of workers with varying backgrounds-from mechanics to engineers-and tend to focus on a specific part of a jet, such as the galleys. Teams meet as often as once a week and typically have seven to 10 members.

That sounds a bit like the classic Japanese “quality circle” approach – something I haven't heard about in a long time. You hear more often about week-long events (ie. “rapid improvement events” or “kaizen events,” the latter term being a bit of a misnomer) or you hear about smaller “quick and easy kaizen” approaches popularized in the U.S. by Norman Bodek (and a major part of our upcoming Healthcare Kaizen book).

The WSJ piece talks about some improvements taking years to come to fruition – showing that not all Kaizen opportunities are quick and easy. It takes a mix of improvements and approaches to engage employees in fixing small problems and large, complicated ones. We certainly have a similar mix of problems and opportunities in healthcare. I hope we get more engagement of healthcare professionals in solving these important problems.

Updated: After I posted this, I got a great question via Twitter:

Yes, it would be ideal to find the root cause(s) of why there is metal on the floor to begin with. If this is a really sticky problem, then it might be reasonable (even if not ideal) to protect the tires from said metal.

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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. In this case, the tires are SO expensive that an immediate countermeasure is needed, but as Chris Nicholls points out, it cannot stop there – the root cause must be found and eliminated. This hybrid of: quick action plus deeper kata problem solving is the ideal. Too often we are caught up in an either/or debate. Humans don’t seem to gravitate towards multifaceted solutions quickly, most of us prefer singular silver bullets for their simplicity.


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