An Approach That Flies

Boeing wants to get more done for less. To that end, the aerospace giant has created “innovation teams” whose job is to come up with ways to be more productive.

“Boeing started emphasizing employee-generated ideas . . . 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,” The Wall Street Journal reported this week.

Numerous successes have been notched since then. One team “figured out how to rearrange their workspace to prepare four engines at a time instead of three,” the Journal explained, and “paint shop workers revamped their work routines and cut 10 minutes to 15 minutes off each job per worker.” So Boeing’s making more teams.

This might sound simple. It’s actually really hard. Consider what Peter Drucker said about how easily workers on an assembly line might be dissuaded from raising their output. “The worker who is able to put on more fenders does not . . . help his fellow workers on the line,” Drucker pointed out in The Practice of Management. “On the contrary, all he does is to put pressure on the man next to him.”

In Drucker’s view, any company that allowed such a scene to unfold was violating an “ethical law” because “there is no worse sin than to turn man’s capacity to grow into a threat to himself and his fellow-men.”

1920's Boeing Model 40 Mailplane

The trick to raising productivity, Drucker noted, is for a company to foster willing dedication among its employees, not just acquiescence. “The enterprise must expect of the worker not the passive acceptance of a physical chore,” Drucker wrote, “but the active assumption of responsibility for the enterprise’s results.” A company, he added, “must aim at building aggressive esprit de corps.

Boeing, for its part, seems to have done just that. “It’s a good feeling,” said one company engineer, who came up with a way to keep airplane tires from being punctured by stray metal fasteners on the factory floor, thereby saving both time and money.

What do you think? What’s the best way to get workers to increase their productivity?