Lean has been an invaluable tool in manufacturing for the last 30 years. It also has met great success in aviation MRO, even with MROs' inherent variations.

However, many of the constraints that still relate to the hangar or shop floor are not actually in the hangar or on the shop floor; rather, the constraints are in the back office business processes. Even when aviation maintenance technicians have completed their 5S's and other Lean tools to improve their processes, we often find them waiting—waiting for assignments, information, paperwork and tooling—or waiting for management decisions to be made.

Pardon the pun, but it's high time to apply Lean to aviation MRO on a whole new plane.

Finding the waste and bottlenecks in business processes and applying Lean countermeasures can reduce turnaround times dramatically.

Although administrative departments were created to support the primary mission of the MRO organization, at many MROs these administrative processes—such as accounting, finance, engineering, safety, environmental, human resources, material management and inspection review—have become bottlenecks. Often, in an effort to increase their own effectiveness, these departments have evolved into specialized, functional silos and taken on more of an oversight/monitoring function than a support role. Moreover, as these silos have multiplied and grown taller, the management approval process has become longer and longer.

Sound familiar? If so, you also may recognize these examples of administrative processes that constrain the hangar or shop floor:

• Up-to-the-last-minute contract negotiations and approvals reduce lead times needed by mechanics. In addition, by executing proposals and contracts without standard work/product definitions, sales departments create scenarios that are difficult for purchasing, quality, customer service and maintenance to execute.

• Material management departments use too much of a production cycle's lead time to order or source key parts; or, purchasing departments order too many of a particular part that is not yet needed because of a “deal” on quantity.

• Internal representatives of agencies such as the regulatory agencies provide unnecessarily broad policy interpretations that constrain production.

• Engineering departments use up lead-time by delaying the submittal of necessary documentation and/or by requiring a long queue for the turnaround of revision requests submitted by maintenance.

• Facilities, human resources and IT departments provide one-size-fits-all solutions that optimize their own processes at the expense of the production processes that they serve.

• Delays in strategic and tactical management decisions chew up lead time, leaving less time for execution.

These examples touch on just a few of the many administrative inputs that may be required in an MRO process. Each acts as a bias to an amplifying transistor in that a small amount of energy input can have a tremendous effect on the output.

A few MRO companies already have elevated their Lean efforts to the “administrative plane” and documented impressive results. For example, after two years of applying Lean to administrative processes such as cost capture and material management, an aviation component MRO increased gross profit margins 5%, decreased late-delivery penalties 93%, decreased warranty repairs 50% and decreased work in progress 72%, all while paring inventory 39%. Moreover, the company now has excess capacity in facilities and staff, which enables future growth and expansion without additional capital outlay.

Leaders of MRO operations have a tremendous opportunity—if not an obligation—to apply Lean analytical tools to their administrative processes. Focus on these areas, and you are sure to take your continuous improvement efforts to a whole new level.