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OM in the News: Boeing’s Self-Directed Work Teams Speed Up 737 Output

February 9, 2012

The Wall Street Journal (Feb.7, 2012) provides a great example of the self-directed work teams we discuss in Chapter 10 (Human Resources, Job Design, and Work Measurement). Boeing started emphasizing such employee groups in the late 1990’s, when its 737 plant in Renton, WA, began adopting lean manufacturing techniques from Japan’s auto industry.  Now Boeing is forming more of the teams as it attempts to make big gains in production (there is a backlog of 2,300 of the 737 model), while holding down costs. There are currently 1,300 teams in its commercial jet programs.

Employee teams meet once a week and are composed of 7-10 workers with varying backgrounds (mechanics to engineers)–and they tend to focus on a particular part of the jet (like bathrooms). A big issue at the plant is how to produce more aircraft without expanding the building.

Here are some of the worker-led improvements: (1) canvas covers for landing gear tires as  the planes come down the assembly line (stray metal fasteners on the factory floor used to puncture the $10,000 tires)–saving $250,000/year; (2) rearranging work cells to prep 4 engines at a time (instead of 3) for attachment to the planes; (3) revamping the paint shop work routines to cut 10-15 minutes off each job; and (4) taking the 650 tubes going into a wheel-well and have easier-to-install subassemblies prepared in advance at another plant instead.

The result: workers recently boosted output from 31.5 Boeing 737s a month to 35/month, with an aim to make 42/ month by 2014–all in the same sized plant. The company now takes  11 days for final assembly, down from 22 days a decade ago.

Discussion questions:

1. Why doesn’t every company use such teams?

2. Why is Boeing trying to increase throughput so quickly?

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