In the 1970s, a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology traveled to Japan to figure out why that country’s automakers were delivering cars faster than their competitors in Detroit. Their search led them to Toyota and its Toyota Production System — a set of management principles focused on boosting safety, quality, and efficiency, reducing waste, and creating more value with fewer resources.
Imported back to the United States, lean, as it is known, has been delivering results, and today its followers include many business leaders. One of them is H. Lawrence Culp Jr., who joined GE as chairman and CEO in October 2018, and who has placed lean management — a system of continuous improvement — at the center of GE’s turnaround. As Betsy Bingham, GE Digital’s senior vice president for lean and operations, puts it: “Lean is our strategy, lean is how we are going to run our business, it’s key to our growth.”
Though lean had already begun to yield results within the company, its true value was cast into sharp relief during the coronavirus pandemic — when systematic thinking and smart management became more important than ever. Read on for a few examples of how lean has helped GE navigate this course.
Batesville, Mississippi, just south of the Tennessee border, has its roots in river and rail travel and shipping. But today a different kind of locomotion is propelling Batesville’s economy: Since 2008, the town of 7,200 has been home to a GE Aviation plant that makes parts for the aircraft industry’s latest generation of fuel-efficient engines, including the GE9X, the world’s most powerful jet engine. Powering the future of flight is one thing, though. Ramping up production in a brand-new manufacturing facility to meet the demands of this aviation age? That was another challenge altogether.
By the time Michael Robinson took over in 2018 as the plant’s manager, the factory was running behind schedule and seeing an increase in manufacturing defects. Robinson had learned lean at Toyota and he knew an overhaul was needed. So after shutting down a key engine line for one week, Robinson reorganized plant operations, bringing them in line with lean principles. By late 2019, the plant had managed to reduce losses by 60%, saving millions of dollars worth of waste. But the Batesville team wasn’t done yet: Lean, remember, isn’t an end in itself. It’s a system of continuous improvement.
Robinson has since moved to GE Aviation’s headquarters in Evendale, Ohio, where he’s applying lean to the GEnx program. The GEnx is a powerful and efficient engine that GE developed for the popular Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
GE moved into Greenville, South Carolina, in 1969 to manufacture huge turbines that burn natural gas to generate electricity — and achieved conspicuous success over the next half-century. A few years ago, the plant had grown to 1.5 million square feet, and the HA class of turbines it produced was setting efficiency world records. But then demand dried up temporarily, and Greenville was left holding millions of dollars in parts it couldn’t use; compounding the problem was the fact that the turbines took too long to make. “It hurt us a lot,” said Jon Boucher, an executive at GE Gas Power. But he had an idea of how to get things back on track.
In Greenville, the implementation of lean started with a bucket: That’s the name for a turbine blade that Boucher describes as “the heart of the turbine.” To get a comprehensive look at how the factory worked, Boucher and colleagues created a scale model on several folding tables. Then, using yarn, they traced the bucket’s journey from start to finish. They found that it traveled 3 miles on an 85-day voyage through the plant that resembled a bowl of spaghetti. The task? Untangle that spaghetti. Now the bucket travels just 165 feet — in way less time. The improvements have allowed the team to cut overall production time for the HA turbine by nearly half.
COVID-19 threw another wrench into the works: In a time of social distancing, how would team members — in Greenville and elsewhere — be able to continue crucial techniques like Lean Action Workshops, which are typically weeklong, in-person gatherings dedicated to establishing or improving a process, machine or way of thinking? Figuring out how to adapt lean to online, Richard Simpson, GE Gas Power’s vice president of global supply chain, and Karen Hoyle, global lean leader at GE Power, reflected on the undertaking in a LinkedIn article: “No matter the environment, cost pressure or pandemic, we are committed to pushing forward, adapting with lean and continuing to improve problem-solving,” they wrote.
In March, employees from GE’s grid operations — who work with utilities and other customers to bring electricity to consumers around the globe — were set to gather in Florida for a working session associated with lean. GE has applied lean to fix production lines in its factories like Batesville and Greensville, but it can be equally powerful within the office for project management, software development and other commercial challenges. Still, a problem presented itself even before participants could gather in the Sunshine State: The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns prevented them from getting there. Could lean work as well online?
That was a dilemma, given the problem-solving power of people working in the same room together. Virtual gatherings, said GE Digital’s Paul Sloup, had to find a way to “tap into people’s creativity and their problem-solving skills, but also to draw out of people their ideas and their thoughts.” Sloup and colleagues settled on a whiteboard software that made virtual collaboration easy, and soon found that, despite the challenges, the online method yielded surprising benefits: instant digital storage of ideas and insights, for instance, and the ability to share them with more people. “I would never have been able to scale a physical event that easily in that way,” Sloup said. When in-person meetings return, they won’t be the same — thanks to the virtual tools discovered by Sloup and his colleagues, they’ll be better.
Angie Norman is comfortable with uncertainty. As one of GE’s experts in lean management, it’s her specialty to crack complex problems in urgent need of a solution. So in March, when GE Healthcare needed to set up and attach accessories to thousands of medical monitors in record time to serve patients during the pandemic, she was exactly the right person for the job. These monitors track heart rate and other vital signs, and doctors and nurses need them to treat ailing patients. It was a complex task in a small window of time.
Norman doesn’t even work for GE Healthcare — she works for GE Aviation. But it was her lean expertise that mattered here, and Norman got down to brass tacks. She secured space to assemble the monitors in GE Aviation’s Cheltenham, England, plant, which typically makes aircraft power systems. She spearheaded worker training and drafted a plan with her team, who were soon putting in two shifts a day assembling the monitors. The first batch was ready to ship in early May, just six weeks after the project had begun. It was all about having a plan to execute, Norman said — and the teamwork to execute it: “It shows how powerful a common goal can be.”