In the 1970s, a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology traveled to Japan to figure out why that country’s automakers were delivering cars faster than their competitors in Detroit. Their search led them to Toyota and its Toyota Production System — a set of management principles focused on boosting safety, quality and efficiency, reducing waste and creating more value with fewer resources.

Imported back to the United States, lean, as it is known, has achieved the status of legend, and today its disciples include many business leaders. One of them is Larry Culp, who joined GE as chairman and CEO in October 2018 and has placed lean management — a system of continuous improvement — at the heart of GE’s turnaround. As Betsy Bingham, GE Aviation's vice president and operations leader, puts it: “Lean is our strategy, lean is how we are going to run our business, it’s key to our growth.” Though lean had already begun to yield results within the company, its true value was cast into sharp relief during the coronavirus pandemic — when systematic thinking and smart management became more important than ever. Read on for a few examples of how lean has helped GE navigate this landscape.

Taking Care Of Business

At GE’s FieldCore business, service crews used lean to cut cycle time — the interval between shutting down a power plant for maintenance work and bringing it back online — by more than 30%. An outage that used to take six weeks, for instance, may take only four weeks with the use of a new digital tool called Live Outage. That can translate into faster outages for customers, who can get back to producing and selling power more quickly, and more productivity benefits for GE. GE Reports has the story here.

Continuous Improvement

Lean is also at work at GE Renewable Energy’s wind turbine factory in Pensacola, Florida, where employees make some of the most popular onshore wind turbines on the planet: 2-megawatt GE machines that by 2020 had reached a combined 20 gigawatts of installed capacity in 23 U.S. states and 10 countries. That’s enough to power the equivalent of 12.9 million homes around the world. Still, they know they can improve. Lean has allowed the plant to reduce the number of build hours it takes to produce a turbine by 340 minutes and shortened the time a turbine spends on the production line by 100 minutes — 6% and 12% improvements respectively. The story is here.

Small Gains, Big Difference

Lean management is the engine that drives GE’s transformation, and lean starts with safety. What does it look like on the factory floor? GE Reports talked to four GE teams who submitted entries for the 2022 Ergo Cup, a prestigious competition run by the Applied Ergonomics Society and the Ergonomics Center of North Carolina. Two of them have been selected as finalists. The winners will be announced in late March. GE Reports has the story.

Leaning Into Innovation

Back in 2017, GE engineers surprised the world when they took what was then the world’s most powerful jet engine and turned it into a power plant with the potential to generate enough electricity for thousands of households. The feat got plenty of attention, but GE was not finished. Now another group from GE Aviation and GE Additive has turned the machine into an impressive example of lean management, the business philosophy driving GE’s transformation. Using lean, an international team was able to reduce the cost of four parts by as much as 35% in just 10 months, all during the pandemic. The project is an example of the versatility of lean. GE has used it to improve manufacturing and services, reduce inventory, simplify its office operations and, now, speed up innovation. “This is a game changer,” says GE Aviation’s Eric Gatlin. The story is here.

Change It Up

Every hour a GE 7F gas turbine isn’t making electricity can cost power producers tens of thousands of dollars. Which is why it’s essential that service crews perform scheduled maintenance as quickly as possible and finish the job on time. “I’m always asking questions,” says Ezra Laurent, a director of global field services at FieldCore, the GE-owned service-and-maintenance subsidiary. “What can we do better? How can we change things? Who are our best performers? What can we do differently?”

It helps that Laurent is an expert in lean. Using lean, Laurent and teams as far apart as Hungary and South Carolina were able to find a way to cut the time it takes to replace a critical turbine component from 25 hours to 13. “It was a beautiful thing to watch,” said Funmi-Lola Ajayi, North America Region fulfillment leader at GE. Read the story here.

Getting Better All The Time: How Lean Management Is Helping Transform GE

Efficiency Generator

Building on Michael Faraday’s discovery in the 19th century, early electrical generators consisted of an electromagnet spinning inside a steel tube, inlaid with copper wire, called a stator. The same principle still governs today’s generators, though Faraday would scarcely recognize them: The ones made by GE Gas Power in Schenectady, New York, for instance, weigh many tons and generate electricity for customers the world over. As generators have gotten more complex, of course, so has their manufacture — and not long ago in Schenectady, bottlenecks began to slow down plant production. Delays weren’t uncommon; neither were defects. It was clear something needed to change. Plant operators turned to lean, which emphasizes waste reduction and continuous improvement. In Schenectady, one of the first steps was mapping the plant to identify root causes of the slowdown. It quickly became apparent that one part of the plant’s manufacturing was responsible for more than its share. The shop was making 300-pound stator bars that fold together like a 3D puzzle to form the inside wall of the stator. To get further clarity, the team created a 1:20 model of the plant to track the movement of a single stator bar through production. By focusing on eliminating unnecessary waste and retraining operators to understand holistically the whole manufacturing process, the plant’s managers were able to make huge gains: 18 months later, they’ve halved lead time while also reducing inventory and freeing factory space. GE Reports has the story here.

Winds Of Change

Lean is at the core of GE’s turnaround, and the management strategy is also at the center of a plan to overhaul how GE Renewable Energy services a continent-wide network of onshore wind turbines in Europe and Asia. “Lean gives you the tools, it slows you down and it forces you to step back and say: What exactly is wasting money and resources that I don’t need to spend?” says Bob Karl, who runs global operations for Digital Services at GE Renewable Energy. The company had a good reason to ask: GE Renewable Energy has grown into a global giant over the past 20 years and now has 49,000 onshore turbines in 35 countries. But as recently as last year, it had an oversupply of expensive inventory spread around the world. Starting at two large warehouses in Spain and the Netherlands, Karl and his colleagues set out to untangle the operations by centralizing inventory. The plan is working: At the end of 2020, the team reduced service inventory by tens of millions of dollars. And they’re not slowing down. Go to the story here.

The Detangler

GE moved into Greenville, South Carolina, in 1969 to manufacture huge turbines that burn natural gas to generate electricity — and achieved conspicuous success over the next half century. By a few years ago, the plant had grown to 1.5 million square feet, and the HA class of turbines it produced was setting world records for efficiency. But then demand dried up temporarily, and Greenville was left holding millions of dollars in parts it couldn’t use; compounding the problem was the fact that the turbines took too long to make. “It hurt us a lot,” said Jon Boucher, an executive at GE Gas Power. But he had an idea for how to get things back on track.

In Greenville, the implementation of lean started with a bucket: That’s the name for a turbine blade that Boucher describes as “the heart of the turbine.” To get a comprehensive look at how the factory worked, Boucher and colleagues created a scale model on several folding tables. Then, using yarn, they traced the bucket’s journey from start to finish. They found that it traveled 3 miles on an 85-day voyage through the plant that resembled a bowl of spaghetti. The task? Untangle that spaghetti. Now the bucket travels just 165 feet — in way less time. The improvements have allowed the team to cut overall production time for the HA turbine by nearly half. That story is here.

Virtual Lean

In March 2020, employees from GE’s grid operations — who work with utilities and other customers to bring electricity to consumers around the globe — were set to gather in Florida for a working session associated with lean. GE has applied lean to fix production lines in its factories in places like Batesville, Mississippi, and Greensville, South Carolina, but it can be equally powerful within the office for project management, software development and other commercial challenges. Still, a problem presented itself even before participants could gather in the Sunshine State: The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns prevented them from getting there. Could lean work as well online?

That was a dilemma, given the problem-solving power of people working in the same room together. Virtual gatherings, said GE Digital’s Paul Sloup, had to find a way to “tap into people’s creativity and their problem-solving skills, but also to draw out of people their ideas and their thoughts.” Sloup and colleagues settled on a whiteboard software that made virtual collaboration easy, and soon found that, despite the challenges, the online method yielded surprising benefits: instant digital storage of ideas and insights, for instance, and the ability to share them with more people. “I would never have been able to scale a physical event that easily in that way,” Sloup said. When in-person meetings return, they won’t be the same — thanks to the virtual tools discovered by Sloup and his colleagues, they’ll be better. GE Reports has the story here.

Lean In A Hurry

Angie Norman is comfortable with uncertainty. As one of GE’s experts in lean management, it’s her specialty to crack complex problems in urgent need of a solution. So in March 2020, when GE Healthcare needed to set up and attach accessories to thousands of medical monitors in record time to serve patients during the pandemic, she was exactly the right person for the job. These monitors track heart rate and other vital signs, and doctors and nurses need them to treat ailing patients. It was a complex task to complete in a small window of time. Norman doesn’t even work for GE Healthcare. At the time, she worked for GE Aviation, and she now serves as executive lean leader in finance. But it was her lean expertise that mattered in this case, and Norman got down to brass tacks. She secured space to assemble the monitors in GE Aviation’s Cheltenham, England, plant, which typically makes aircraft power systems. She spearheaded worker training and drafted a plan with her team, who were soon putting in two shifts a day assembling the monitors. The first batch was ready to ship in early May 2020, just six weeks after the project had begun. It was all about having a plan to execute, Norman said — and the teamwork to execute it: “It shows how powerful a common goal can be.” The story is here.

Taking Off

Workers at a GE Aviation plant in Batesville, Mississippi, used lean to reduce the number of parts moving through production before inspection from 50 to just a handful. Inspecting parts individually as soon as they reach the measurement-and-control station, rather than doing it in batches, allows them to spot problems as soon as they crop up. Using lean, the Batesville plant was able to reduce losses by more than 60% at the end of 2019, saving millions of dollars’ worth of waste. That story is here.

Image credits, from top: FieldCore, GE Renewable Energy, FieldCore, CFM International, GE Additive, FieldCore, GE Reports, GE Reports, Tomas Kellner for GE Reports, Tomas Kellner for GE Reports, GE Digital, GE Aviation, GE Aviation.