I spent a few days visiting the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola and the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial in Mobile. I’ve always been a big history buff, and I make the trek to the Naval Museum at least once a year, and more often if I can make it. I can highly recommend the museum; unlike many venues, it allows up-close and personal interaction with very historic aircraft. The museum staff is excellent, very friendly and always willing to help. There’s also a great research library and a wonderful cafe on the premises.
Seeing that history reminded me of a story about process improvement. When WWII started, the United States had to ramp up the production of war materiel very quickly. At the same time, it was necessary to maintain a high level of quality, since lives could literally be at stake if equipment failed.
Consolidated Aircraft was the manufacturer of the B-24 heavy bomber. They were able build around one bomber per hour. They were fairly proud of that fact until they received a visit from Charles Sorenson, the Vice-President of Production for Ford Motor Company. He looked at what they were doing and commented that they could benefit from some of the improvements that Ford had implemented in their automotive plants. Consolidated asked him to show them, and Mr. Sorenson went back to his home to think about it.
That evening, he put put together his notes and mapped out how Consolidated could improve. He looked at the major components of the big bomber and broke it down into subassemblies and how they would progress into major units. Then he laid out the plant based on what he learned.
What he did was no different than what we can do today when we want to improve a process. Examine the process flow for the areas that add value and try to remove as many of the steps that don’t have any value. The process is streamlined and efficiencies are gained, resulting in lower costs and higher production.
In the case of Consolidated Aircraft, using improvements learned from a completely different industry, bomber production increased exponentially. They went from a single bomber a day, to a bomber every hour. The B-24 went on to be the most-produced heavy bomber of WWII.
For more information on the Consolidated Aircraft story, follow this link to A Bomber an Hour.