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Boeing, union members find common ground in improving productivity

Boeing, Machinists find common ground: improving 777 assembly efficiency

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By Michelle Dunlop
Herald Writer
  • Delfino Cuellar, Machinist and productivity program participant.

    Michael O'Leary / The Herald

    Delfino Cuellar, Machinist and productivity program participant.

  • Eric Ohrn

    Eric Ohrn

  • Rod Sigvartson

    Rod Sigvartson

  • Boeing machinist Delfino Cuellar is a 777 mechanic.

    Michael O'Leary / The Herald

    Boeing machinist Delfino Cuellar is a 777 mechanic.

The Boeing Co. and the Machinists union aren't known for getting along.
Remember the 2008 strike? More recently, Boeing, the union and the National Labor Relations Board have been fighting in court about whether the company illegally retaliated against the Machinists union by building a second 787 assembly line in South Carolina.
But in a conference room in the Everett factory last week, representatives from both sides were united in their enthusiasm for a continuous productivity-improvement program that came out of the 2008 contract.
"This is the first time that Boeing and the union agreed to work together on productivity," although there have been various productivity campaigns in the past, said Kevin Gardiner, who oversees the program.
Boeing committed $1 million annually to the productivity program, which is managed jointly by the Machinists and Boeing. In 2009, when the productivity effort started, the program had five staff members. Today there are 10.
Rod Sigvartson and Nancy Rosenbaum are two of the productivity program gurus. They helped develop a "business basics" course that they teach to teams on the 777. The 777 workers who participate already are involved in teams that come up with ways to improve manufacturing processes.
In the productivity courses, students learn about Boeing's competitors, as well as the company's economic impact on the local community. More importantly, they get a better sense about their roles in Boeing's business success.
"We heard from every layer of management and labor that they didn't really know where they fit in," said Nancy Rosenbaum, with Machinists-Boeing joint programs.
Machinists are given a better sense of the competitive business environment that's driving Boeing to look for ways to build planes more quickly and more efficiently. And they're taught how to present their ideas on how to improve processes in their work areas -- by building a business case. Ultimately, the program aims to improve quality, safety and job satisfaction, all of which will increase productivity.
Delfino Cuellar, a 777 mechanic and Machinist union member, is a walking advertisement for the productivity program. Like other teams that go through productivity training, Cuellar's group sets daily tasks to accomplish and standards of quality.
"Our team comes together, and we get it done," Cuellar said. "We own our jobs."
The program "is basically adding to the machinists' toolbox," said Eric Ohrn, a manager in the 777 wings area.
Teams like Cuellar's essentially could manage themselves, working out vacation and schedules among the employees. That would free up managers such as Ohrn to focus on longer-term plans -- such as improvements to the 777 -- while assisting the teams on bigger production problems.
The company benefits from encouraging the union employees who build the planes to be the ones to devise the way to improve production, Ohrn said.
In the past, process improvement often came from "people in offices who didn't have their hands on the aircraft," said Karl Blom, a union steward and productivity trainer.
Even before the productivity training, Cuellar's group came up with a way to slice in half the time they need to drill holes in their section. It meant buying better tools, but it also cut labor hours and helps the company increase the 777 production rate, which will go rise to 8.3 jets monthly in 2013.
"This is going to show our worth," Cuellar said.
That could be important going into contract talks with Boeing next year. The Machinists, who are being asked to come up with productivity initiatives, aren't included in Boeing's incentive plan. Instead, the union received lump-sum payments in the last contract.
Helping Boeing cut costs could mean the company is able to preserve the union's medical benefits and pension plan, Blom said. Improving things at Boeing also gives Machinists such as Cuellar a better sense of job security.
"If we don't do a good job, we won't have airplanes to build," Cuellar said.
Ohrn and Sigvartson see other benefits to the program: It increases both communication and trust between management and Machinists.
By early February, about 1,580 employees will have been trained through the new productivity program, Gardiner said. Those employees will have invested roughly 31,600 hours in productivity effort. Boeing's 737 workers will be next to receive training. But the program's future is tied to the labor contract.
Still, Sigvartson sees it as a long-term investment, which will take time to pay off.
"It's not going to change things overnight," he said.

Story tags » Boeing777787ManagementMachinists



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