Carla Bowman Lindsay Bjerregaard/Aviation Week

Fast 5: Implementing Operations Excellence At ATS

Following a recent retirement from Boeing after nearly 40 years in the industry, Carla Bowman has jumped back into work at Aviation Technical Services as its director of operations excellence. Bowman spoke to Lindsay Bjerregaard about her plans to leave a legacy in the new role by bringing her expertise to the MRO's Velocity project and its plans to grow capabilities and "springboard into the digital age."

What types of lessons learned from your experience at Boeing are you bringing to ATS?

Everything from developing strategic direction to the ability to execute on a plan. I was most recently on the 737 down in Renton, and that’s a place where you work hard in a very cross-functional team to build your plan of where you’re going, execute on that plan, and help each other to achieve it. I’m bringing lessons like knowing the importance of developing and building leaders for the future and teaching people to think out of the box and think in the realm of the art of the possible. For instance, think about Boeing with the 737 or 787, where years ago there may have been making 6-10 planes a month and it felt like a stretch if it went to 12-18, and they’re now making 47 planes a month. To do that, people had to have that mindset of what’s possible out there, and it wasn’t limiting. It’s that different way of thinking in how to engage and empower the people; to get the momentum on board to make change and improvements.

You’ve been focused heavily on ATS’ Velocity project. Could you tell me a bit about Velocity and what its goals are?

Velocity is really about putting in place a system where the ultimate goal is span time reduction, which will ensure we meet our turnaround times that enable our customers to get their revenue-producing time back. The goals are ensuring that we meet a turnaround time, providing the highest quality product back to our customers as quickly as we can, and continuing to consistently improve that turnaround time. 

It’s really about the customer and using innovation to get us there. I think the customer focus here is probably one of the highest I’ve ever seen. We’re obviously putting an operational excellence—or lean—program in place here, Velocity being a piece of it. We’ll take the lessons learned and improvements made on Velocity and transition all of those to our customers when we create standard work. 

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced with the Velocity project? Is there a time table for when the project will be completed?

I think some of the biggest challenges are understanding the possible impacts. We don’t want to impede our ability to continue the customer service that we provide today. When you go through a change process or improvement, you really have to understand those hidden negative impacts to the customer. For me, as I’ve been assessing and looking at everything that’s already been done, and looking at additional improvements we can make, it’s just understanding the negative impacts so we mitigate and don’t create any risk. Sometimes when people talk about challenges, they talk about the culture, but I don’t think that’s the case here because we have leadership that’s all in. They know that we’ll put a program in place where we’ll educate and involve the people, and help people understand why we want to make the improvements.

If you look at Velocity in terms of its initial focus on just one program, we will always be doing something to consistently and continuously improve our processes for our customers and our employees. We’re really playing to win—we’re not playing to not lose. Companies that survive think out of the box with innovative and creative minds. They involve their people. So in terms of Velocity, I don’t know that it will ever end. I think it will just continue to get better and become more of a process for daily work life management, so everybody thinks that way. We’ll take this Velocity process and programs and just keep right on going with it—for instance, with the huge growth we’re looking at in our components area and providing a ton of services. 

One of your goals has been making ATS’ capability a one-stop shop. How are you working to do that?

When I say “one-stop shop,” that’s where we’re really talking about growing the business. If somebody needs an airplane repaired or overhauled, they can bring that airplane in, or if they need a component to keep their airplane in service, then we could make those components for them. We could also grow the components business so we can understand that maybe we can make something for lower cost than we can buy it, ensuring that we can pass some of that savings on to our customer. Moreover, we can control our supply chain so we can ensure we have those parts on time, and we’ll do that using some intellectual property around some lean tools and tactics that we’re fully aware of.

One of the things you really do around operational excellence is talk to your customer a lot and pulse them on what services they could utilize. Our goal would be to provide those services and do it in such a way that it is very cost-competitive and providing a great quality product. I think the one-stop shop is really key in terms of having that control, knowing what you’re committing to do and meeting your commitments. 

Another goal you have is springing ATS into the digital age. What types of digital systems are you looking into?

We’re looking at using a lot of visual tools to give us the capacity to view all of the work we have going on, such as using large plasma screens. We’re talking about using QR scanners and codes, RFID tags, wearable scanners and iPads versus having to walk back and forth to stationary computers. We’re potentially even looking into using collaborative robots. There’s quite a bit of automation that we’re going to be looking at so we can bring this stuff to fruition. We want to have that capability and move everything to that mechanic so they have what they need at their fingertips. It’s a real focus on improving the culture and providing the right work environment for all of our employees.

The plan for rolling out new digital systems will be to pick a pilot area at a site and develop the process while it’s in use there. Once we know we have a reliable, repeatable process, we’ll engage more digital automation and spread it throughout the company.

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