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Lean Management Benefits Delayed at Airlines and Aerospace Companies by Traditional Management Practices

Chet Marchwinski

A massive disconnect exists between lean tools and modern management practices at airlines and aerospace firms, according to management expert James Womack, founder of the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute.

“Lean tools need lean management to have their full effect”, Womack told approximately 125 attendees at the first  Lean Flight Initiative (LFI) Conference held in the US, on May 9-10, 2011, in Atlanta. LFI, a network of airline and aerospace companies implementing lean business principles, has held three conferences in Europe.

Womack noted that in recent years, many aerospace companies have implemented lean tools such as 5S, kaizen, and kanban, in shops and offices. But their effect has been limited because of the disconnect between the tools and the dominant modern management system.

As a result, “in most of aerospace’s design, production, and maintenance processes, start-to-finish times, first-time quality, and costs have barely budged,” Womack said. “Yet we have the knowledge to do better.”

Sustaining Lean Transformations

Womack urged attendees to use their technical and lean knowledge to more effectively focus corporate continuous improvement efforts by engaging executives to change how they manage. lean management requires executives, managers, and employees to behave differently than they do under a modern management system.

For example, to sustain lean transformations, executives must participate in workplace improvement teams to demonstrate personal commitment to the change effort. Perhaps most importantly, people at all levels must learn to think "horizontally" across functions in order to understand and improve the flow of value to customers. This means un-learning the traditional "vertical" thought process based on organizational charts and optimizing departments.

Womack said that a practical way to learn horizontal thinking is for cross-functional teams of managers and executives to take value-stream walks on a regular basis. Drawing from his latest book, Gemba Walks, Womack gave attendees practical tips and a framework for walking value streams together, based on his years of experience following value streams across departments and functions in a wide variety of manufacturing and service companies.

lean management

Womack said lean management is the successor to the currently dominant modern management system descended from methods perfected by Alfred Sloan at GM during the 1920s and then elaborated by General Electric. lean management refers to a complete business system for organizing and managing product development, operations, suppliers, customer relations, and the overall enterprise that requires less human effort, less space, less capital, less material, and less time to make products with fewer defects to precise customer desires, compared with traditional management. Toyota pioneered lean management as a complete business system after World War II.

During the late 1980s, a research team headed by Womack at MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program coined the term “lean” to describe Toyota’s system, which continues to evolve as practitioners experiment with the core lean ideas in new applications far from their point of origin in the automotive industry.

Links with Relevant Information


James Womack

Management expert James P. Womack, Ph.D., is the founder and senior advisor to the Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc., a nonprofit research, education, publishing, and conference organization that he launched in 1997 to advance lean thinking around the world.

The intellectual basis for the Cambridge, MA-based Institute is described in a series of books and articles co-authored by Womack and Daniel T. Jones over the past 20 years. The most widely known books are: The Machine That Changed the World (with Daniel Roos; Macmillan/Rawson Associates, 1990), Lean Thinking (Simon & Schuster, 1996, 2003), Seeing The Whole: Mapping the Extended Value Stream (Lean Enterprise Institute, 2002) and, Lean Solutions (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Gemba Walks (Lean Enterprise Institute, 2011) is a collection of Womack’s essays on lean management, based on 10 years of walking value streams at a variety of companies.

Lean Enterprise Institute

Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc., was founded in 1997 by management expert James P. Womack, Ph.D., as a nonprofit research, education, publishing, and conference company with a mission to advance lean thinking around the world. We teach courses, hold management seminars, write and publish books and workbooks, and organize public and private conferences. We use the surplus revenues from these activities to conduct research projects and support other lean initiatives such as the Lean Education Academic Network, the Lean Global Network and the Healthcare Value Network. Visit LEI at https://www.lean.org for more information.