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Rediscovering The B-17

Being in Boeing, especially in the Commercial Airplane Company, in 1998 meant working on "lean."  We were reinventing the way we did almost everything.  And almost everything involved in that transformation had a networked automation component to it.

Lean manufacturing, or lean anything is about people far more than it is about tools or processes.  All of lean be summarized with one basic idea: the shortest distance between any two things is a straight line with nothing in between impeding whatever needs to happen between those two points.  That's really all there is to it.  But, that simple idea runs afoul of something that we humans keep messing up.  We really like social stratification.  We even like it when we are on the bottom, we just don't like it that we are on the bottom of some hierarchy.  Humility is something we have to work at constantly. 


During WWII, the Boeing workforce did some amazing things, and then when the B-47 program came along with its tooling monuments, virtually everything that had been learned during the war was quickly forgotten.  The key to what the B-17 workforce accomplished was the way they worked together.  

Boeing's return to its roots began with a tragedy.  On August 12, 1985 Japan Airlines flight 123, a special Boeing 747 configured for high density seating as a domestic island hopper in the JAL system, crashed into the side of Mt. Fuji killing 520 of the 524 people on board.  Four people in the very last row of the plane survived.  That crash, the the three recent 737 crashes, was Boeing's fault.  It sent shockwaves through the company.  Something the company once had, had been lost.  We needed to figure out what that was and get it back.  The key to identifying that something was to be found in the people of the B-17 program.

During WWII Boeing had placed factory trained support people at the forward operating bases of the Army Air Corps (later separated from the Army to become the Air Force).  These were specialists who worked to both keep the planes flying by expediting repairs, and to provide feedback to the engineering team back in Seattle, so new planes coming off the line could be made better.  Most of the civilian airline pilots and support crews from before the war had been drafted into the Army Air Corps.  When the war was over and they were back with their former airlines as the senior pilots and crews, they convinced their employers to pay Boeing for the same kind of support they had known during the war.  This led to the formation of Boeing's "Aircraft on Ground" or AOG support service.

AOG was legendary, and a source of one of the many chinks in the company's armor of humility, which is better known as the bad kind of pride.

There are two kind of pride, and in our everyday use of the word, most people conflate the two, which is a HUGE problem in western society.  The good kind of pride is all about doing one's best as a way of showing respect for whatever one is doing.  It is also about showing respect to the people who developed the craft part of the activity, and to the people who will be impacted.


The bad kind of pride is all about boastful self importance because of one's association with some group or organization.  It is one of the worst of human vices, which is why it is one of the seven deadly sins.  It is typically listed last in the list, but is often described as the root of the other six.  The choice of the word pride for the original Latin supubia is an unfortunate example of how English often leads to careless sloppy thinking, something that tends to annoy good engineers.

Pride leads to arrogance, and Boeing had plenty of it.  There was an awareness of this among the company's top leadership.  Both T. Wilson and Alan Mulally were known to comment on how hard it was for them to remain humble.  The example of boldness in leadership while remaining personally humble as exemplified by William Allen, who is revered as one of Boeing's best ever leaders, is a tough act to follow.  A loss of humility and the pride and arrogance that follows that loss, lead to sloppy workmanship.  It's the kind of thing that David Pye would softly rail against in his famous book "The Art and Nature of Workmanship."  AOG had done a sloppy repair job, but they were not alone.  One did not have to look hard in our factories to find little bits of sloppiness that had crept in around the edges.


On an earlier flight, JAL's 747 had been over-rotated on take-off, smashing the tail into the runway.  It had landed safely, and a Boeing AOG team had repaired the plane - except they didn't.  In the process of going over the plane before returning it to service, the team decided to skip the very much necessary step of inspecting a part known as the aft pressure bulkhead.  If you think of the inside of the plane as a kind of aluminum balloon, the skin and certain structural pieces of the plane are the balloon.  The inside is pressurized so the plane can fly way up high where the air is very thin and very cold.  Humans cannot survive in air that is either that cold or that thin.  In the back of a plane, typically behind a big galley structure, is an aluminum wall.  On the front side of that wall in the cabin the air is pressurized and heated.  On the backside is the rear structure of the plane where there is a bunch of large heavy equipment such as something called a jack screw and a small engine that provides a number of functions at the gate when the main engines are shut down.  It's a lot of work to remove the galley or get in over that equipment in the tail to properly inspect the aft pressure bulkhead.  The AOG team didn't do either, and that bulkhead had ruptured and needed to be repaired.  Because it wasn't, bad things happened and 520 people died.

The leadership of the company decided that enough was enough, so a BCA vice president named Jim Blue was given the job of figuring out what the company need to change.  Blue had one of his people, my friend Bob Bogash, go and buy everything he could find on the topic of quality, and the two of them took this enormous box of books to a beach house that Blue had in Baja California and spent a couple weeks reading.  They decided they need to go to Japan and visit Toyota.  After that visit, they reported back to Dean Thornton and T. Wilson that the Boeing leadership team needed to be retrained in how to think about quality.  So in 1989, forty of the top managers in the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company went to Japan and visited Toyota and other companies that had adopted the Toyota way.  The Japan Study Trip would be transformative.  But, the squirrels were already busy working the same problem.  Both came to the same conclusions through very different analytical paths.

The Japan Study Trip group came back all jazzed about lean and something called Kaizen.  They were convinced that employees needed to be enabled to be more in control of things on the factory floor.  Ideas on how to make things better, or continuously improve any manufacturing or assembly process, needed to be coming from the people who did the work, and management needed to be more about facilitating continuous improvement.  There needed to be a heightened focus on the care with which things were done, and how responsive we were being to what the customer needed, even if the customer wasn't able to articulate it.  A working environment that is best described as being one with high levels of trust, communications, and free flowing ideas and information, needed to become much more of the norm than it had been.

A Boeing ATF thought all of this sounded like stories he had heard about the B-17 program, so he dug into the company's archives and found some amazing things.  What we call "lean" was not invented at Toyota, but rather was as American as apple pie.  It had its roots in a World War I program called Training Within Industry.  It was all about how to organize people to work together in a manufacturing process.  It had been highly successful.  At the beginning of WWII the TWI program was restarted, and Boeing's Plant II became the runaway star performer.

A fair way to describe the focus of the TWI program was its approach to certified training for line workers and certification of supervision in five key skills, one of which was leading continuous improvement.  In order to achieve supervisory certification, one had to demonstrate flexibility and understanding the individual characteristics of each worker on the team, and adapt accordingly.

There are several reasons why TWI in general, and its implementation at Plant II were so successful.  But the main one was cultural.  My friend Floyd Sheets put it this way: "The soft stuff is the hard stuff."  The key to lean process improvement is a commitment to continually improve the flow of information at the task performance level of a process.   Every time a support node or relay step is inserted between two people, whether the person being inserted is a manager or just another person in the chain, the quality of the information received is degraded.  It's the well understood telephone game effect.  So the point is to continually have the people in the process learning about every aspect of what is needed, as viewed from the perspective of the customer.  Also, the work environment has to be one of deep respect and trust, so that people communicate with each other openly and without prompting.  As things continuously improve, opportunities to eliminate process steps will appear, thus cutting costs and improving quality at the same time.

During WWII, Boeing's Plant II was almost a perfect example of this kind of culture.  The people who worked there had a deep respect for one another.  It was truly a family working together.    One of the big reasons, and you won't find this in the history books, is because of the Rosies, as in Rosie the Riveter.  Labor was in very short supply because so many people were in the military.  Boeing sent a boat up the Inside Passage to the towns in the Alaska panhandle and hired everyone they could.  For a variety of reasons, a huge number of women who had been working in the brothels signed on with Boeing.  One thing about the culture they brought into the plant was a strong tradition of taking care of each other.  They worked very well together, and didn't put up with any of the turkey strutting nonsense that is so often found in middle management ranks.

In Plant II there was a big banner on the north wall inside the assembly area (the outside wall of the 2-37 building, aka the new engineering building) that read "Make it flow like a river."  Balanced production and the high levels of trust required for continuously improving information flows was built into the DNA of the place.

One of the documents that Bill ??? discovered was a study that was done after the war comparing the productivity of various war material production facilities in both the Allied and Axis countries.  The study used the metric of pounds or tons of production per square foot of plant space.  That way a factory making airplanes could be compared to one making rifles, or one making something as mundane as a helmet.  It's not a perfectly fair metric, because some materials are more dense and heavier.  For example, the metric cannot fairly compare an airplane factory to one making uniforms.  But, for manufacturing plants making different things it works pretty well.  The single most productive industrial factory in the world during the war by this measure was Boeing's Plant II.

Several reasons have been suggested for why things changed so much after the war and the B-17 program came to an end.  Plant II was not used to build any more planes.  Its ceilings were too low and it was on the wrong side of the street from the runway.  Many of the women who had worked on the line there left the company.  The men coming out of the military and returning to the civilian workforce were heavily indoctrinated in a rigidly hierarchical command and control structure that was not nearly as tolerant of factory floor employees coming up with ideas that would reduce process intermediation by management.  And of course, the monumental tooling that came in with the jets starting with the B-47, made the continuous tweaking of the assembly floor layout impossible.  There is probably a little bit of truth in all of these suggested reasons.

Now the funny part about this is the discoveries that were made after the war in several of the Japanese factories.  It turned out that Albert Speer's industrial spies knew that Plant II was unusually productive.  They had succeeded in obtaining all of Boeing's version of the TWI materials and taken them back to Germany.  These were also translated into Japanese.  The materials found in several Japanese factories after the war, except for the written words, were identical to the Boeing materials right down to the size, color, and layout of the supervisor's pocket guides and the wall posters.

I should take the time to stress here that the focus of the TWI program was on certified training for line workers and certification of supervision in five key skills, one of which was leading continuous improvement.  In order to achieve supervisory certification, one had to demonstrate flexibility and understanding the individual characteristics of each worker on the team, and adapt accordingly.  TWI very much stressed the "soft stuff."

These materials were one of the contributors to the way Toyota was reorganized after their 1949 strike that forced that company to reinvent itself, with a focus on worker participation in decision making in continuous improvement.  "Kaizen" or "good change" was as much or more about the changed attitudes about how people should work together, as it was about continuous improvement.  It was a complete rejection of the rigidly hierarchical top down way of doing things that so many Japanese blamed for the destruction of their company.  Their Kaizen posters in the factory were styled after the Japanese flag with the rising sun in the background.  In their new way of doing things they were literally building a new kind of Japan in the way they were doing things at work.

In a very real sense, Boeing's 1989 Japan Study Trip was a rediscovery of Boeing's own past, except the senior managers on that trip never realized that.  But, some of the the squirrels did, because Bill's book was replicated and on the desk of just about every member of the Boeing Technical Fellowship.  There were two independent journeys of discovery motivated by the widespread recognition of the critical importance of fixing the Boeing quality improvement challenge.  They both ended up with the same set of conclusions best summarized by the phrase "good change." 

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