Self-maintenance works for repair firm

Market pressures forced British Airways' electrical components repair company to seek new ways of increasing efficiency, so it created its own 'lean' vision.

Competition in the aerospace industry remains fierce, particularly when it comes to maintenance, repair and overhaul services (MRO). As a result, MRO activities are continually trying to find new and inno--vative ways to improve turnaround times and reduce costs. One MRO specialist company, British Airways Avionic Engineering (BAAE), is taking on the problem by applying what it regards as a holistic 'lean sigma' philosophy to its operations. BAAE is a subsidiary of British Airways (BA) that is based in South Wales and specialises in repair and maintenance of electrical components for the aviation industry. 'Lean' and 'agile' are considered as business-process strategies that have facilitated high levels of sustainable growth in many companies throughout the world. Lean is a strategy for achieving continuous improvements in business performance through identifying a company's value stream, adding value to a company's operations and then systematically removing non-value-adding work from the operational system. Agile processes have been introduced into companies in order to deal with the issues of volatile markets and irregular demand patterns. High levels of responsiveness and flexibility to customer requirements are key features of agility. Over the years many practitioners have attempted to integrate the two approaches through proposing 'leagility' and 'agilean', since it was considered that an integrated approach to creating a lean yet highly responsive operational system was beneficial to a range of companies dealing with the increased threat of globalisation. Over the past ten years or so, six sigma has also been hailed as a successful methodology capable of achieving significant gains in business performance. Many regard six sigma as a business strategy, while others believe it to be a well-structured and highly effective methodology that achieves improvements in product and process variation and in turn enhances operational performance. Certainly companies such as mobile phone maker Motorola and the conglomerate General Electric have based their business-process-improvement (BPI) strategies around the six sigma concept to good effect.

Service pressures

BAAE is adopting its own improvement strategy because of particular pressures. General manager, David Tatterstall, explains: "BAAE is currently facing increasing customer uncertainty brought about by new and more reliable equipment requiring less servicing, the need for customisable MRO work and cost pressures by airlines to have cheaper service costs and less aircraft downtime. "BAAE, in turn, has to respond to these issues by achieving quicker turnaround times at low cost." In order to compete in this environment, BAAE believes there should be a clear and novel MRO business process strategy that tackles the real issue of improving operational facility performance, reduces variation in key-performance-indicator attainment, and achieves long-term economic sustainability for BAAE. The resultant strategy combines a number of key BPI concepts into one approach that identifies and adopts best practice from these areas to ensure that the company remains competitive as markets change in the future. A key driver for the BPI strategy at BAAE is ensuring that the quality of service remains excellent. To achieve this, BAAE sees six sigma as an approach which could lead to major improvements in business-operations practice. Six sigma tackles specific and highly-focused business-improvement projects that yield significant benefits to the organisation, and BAAE considers that when combined with lean, it is able to act as a mechanism for improvement that achieves not only increased productivity by doing more with less but also creates a robust and highly competitive MRO facility by ensuring that the three strategic company drivers are met (Fig 1). Tatterstall adds: "BAAE believes that through applying a holistic lean sigma strategy it will allow us to respond quickly to changes in future customer demands since it has at its heart an integrated service provision capable of reconfiguring quickly to meet customer requirements. Lean sigma will allow us to tune our technological and operational capabilities with BA's overall strategic vision."

Six stages

BAAE's approach to lean sigma is based around the development of a six-stage process called PMASEE. This process is then used to create a common implementation and operational strategy. PMASEE is based on the traditional six sigma acronym of DMAIC (define, measure, analyse, improve and control). PMASEE is 'plan, measure, analyse, solve, execute and embed'. It both modifies and extends the DMAIC process to incorporate two important elements. In this lean-sigma framework the traditional 'define' stage is replaced by a 'plan' stage. The reason for this is that through previous adoption of the standard DMAIC approach the company felt that the 'define' stage did not provide sufficient robustness to the process. Previous experiences identified the need to allocate more time to planning operations, team selection, financial planning, and project risk analysis, as well as defining the most suitable projects to work on. The second addition is the introduction of the 'solve' and 'execution' stages. Again, experiences gained from previous lean sigma projects identified that the 'improve' stage was not fully exploited and that the effectiveness of the solutions were reduced through incorrect project execution. The 'solve' stage highlights the need to use a wider range of specific tools and systems to achieve an optimum solution to a given problem. The 'execute' stage allows engineers to concentrate on implementing an effective solution in order to maximise effectiveness of the system. Fig 2 highlights the stages of the lean sigma approach and includes the typical tools and techniques that can support the process. In Fig 3 the tools in bold lettering are considered essential for the implementation process, while the rest are considered optional tools. The optional tools are used depending upon their relevance to each lean sigma project the company undertakes. Fig 4 shows the integrated nature of combining lean with BAAE's PMASEE framework. It shows that the PMASEE cycle provides the operational mechanism which drives forward the lean objectives of the company.

Rapid change

BAAE's lean sigma strategy not only develops an integrated system which ensures that their operations run as leanly and responsively as possible; it also designs the MRO facilities for rapid reconfigurability. Rapid reconfigurability requires the organisation to change its strategic and technical focus quickly to respond to market trends and demands. This therefore calls on BAAE to have the necessary business-process systems in place along with the correct technology platform and management systems. For instance, BAAE is designing each of its MRO workshops to achieve the correct balance of operational effectiveness depending upon customer requirements. In some workshops, for example, being 'lean' may be important, while in others 'agility' may be key; and so, systems are being designed to meet individual process requirements. A key development of BAAE's lean sigma process is the development of an effective control system which ensures that the benefits realised by the lean sigma process are maintained. BAAE sees this area of work as critical to the success of their BPI development process. Previous work in using the traditional lean six sigma process identified a significant problem in that many of the benefits were lost soon after lean six sigma implementation. Management at BAAE felt that this was primarily down to the fact that DMAIC included a 'control' element to its system. Because it formed part of a structured framework, project teams tended to pay lip service to the process. BAAE has therefore removed the 'control' phase and introduced an 'embed' stage. However, the 'control' stage is elevated up the business process where it now controls the complete PMASEE system. By doing so BAAE believes that the control system develops a more sustainable framework for the continuous development of the lean sigma process. Fig 2 shows the conceptual development of a lean sigma control system. The central section of the figure shows three boxes each containing an area in which lean six sigma should operate. Initially the lean sigma process should concentrate on the current product, its design and its operational characteristics to see what waste can be removed and whether the product can be modified or redesigned in order to improve manufacturability or repair. At this stage it is quite possible that through redesign, the product may impact on the facility layout and the repair sections, either positively or negatively. Therefore, feedback loops exist between each stage in order to facilitate iteration.

Flexibility

BAAE's lean sigma strategy therefore integrates all operations within its complete MRO facility and extends throughout the company, from order placement to repair and dispatch. BAAE also sees the need to ensure that the composition of lean sigma project teams remains as flexible as possible. People with specific skills and capabilities are co-opted in and out of the project as and when required. The days of defining a project team and that team staying with the project until it is completed, are now gone. People flexibility means the most appropriate people are always available to work on the job and in turn this does not tie up resources for long periods. All this means that BAAE's lean sigma system provides not just a single business approach, but an integrated MRO system that combines the systemics of a range of business process concepts into one model. This model concentrates on three major operational areas of systems development. The first is the development of the company's supply chain system to ensure high quality, highly responsive and dependable supply of raw material and of subcontracted products. The second is the development of a lean, technologically driven and highly agile MRO system that is designed to convert customer requirements to finished products quickly and efficiently. Finally, the third is the development of systems that enhance sustainability by supporting and continually improving the performance of the product, the logistics and the MRO systems.

Andrew Thomas is a lecturer in supply chain systems with the Logistics Systems Dynamics Group, Cardiff University; Paul Byard is chief executive, Manufacturing Advisory Service Wales; Paul Henry is an account manager with the Knowledge Bank For Wales, Welsh Assembly Government.

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