This Project Manager's Workflow Hack Transformed How GE Builds Airplane Engines

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On any given day at GE Aviation, there are thousands of engine parts in circulation. Finding used parts has often meant calling up facility managers and asking them to physically search for material, sometimes to the point of walking to the shelves to see what was on hand. When a replacement request came in, there was no efficient way to sort through the materials available, stalling our process to get that plane back in the air.

This didn’t sit well with me. In a past life, I flew B-1s for the U.S. Air Force, where I provided Close Air Support for friendly troops in enemy contact. My training and experience helped me learn to diagnose a problem quickly, consider the possible solutions, and take action.

When I tried to do something similar at GE, my goal was simply to make the lives of my team members a little easier. Instead—and to my surprise—the simple workflow tool I created has changed the way the our aviation division operates.

Seeing Problems Through Others’ Eyes

If you’ve flown in the last year, chances are good that you were on a plane powered by one of GE’s engines—which are real labors of love. Hundreds of hours of work go into each one, from creating parts to assembly to testing. At the same time, we’re taking calls from customers and fielding requests for servicing and maintenance. Every second lost and every unfulfilled request impacts the level of service we’re able to provide. With so many things going on at at once, time management couldn’t be more critical.

We already had a pretty useful tracker that was available to each program manager, showing an updated inventory of used parts. But it was sent through email, cumbersome, and often lost in the shuffle. My time in the military helped teach me to see issues through the eyes of others, and I knew that if we improved on this email-based system, it could have a big impact—on customer interaction, engineers servicing engines, the materials team, and those tasked with identifying spare parts.

So I opened up a new spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel and got to work. I had a background in IT, but there was no need—or, frankly, reason—to start developing a full-blown software solution before testing a simple, scrappy prototype. In Excel, we started manually entering all the data that the ideal tool would ultimately do for us automatically. It tracked each spare part, along with the new and used costs, in one easy-to-digest form that would be updated in real time.

Simple Solutions Can Make The Biggest Difference

If that sounds simple, it was. But a lot of the time, the best solutions are those that can merely overcome the most problematic “best practices” rather than try to change everything all at once. Every workplace has its own standard operating procedures, and even an inefficient system, once learned, becomes part of the “way things are done.”

But just because it’s routine doesn’t make it right. The surest way to change course is often to show others how a less-than-ideal system impacts them, too. Sometimes the answer is right under your nose (or in your inbox), and all it takes is using the existing process as a foundation for a new one. After all, the best improvements don’t always overhaul an entire system. In my experience, the ones that create minimal disruption at first, with the most benefit for as many people as possible, are the ones to look for.

It wasn’t long before that Excel prototype turned into a fully developed software solution. Today, more than 70 people at GE Aviation are using it to track parts and make smarter decisions about inventory and repair. That number is continuing to grow.

The tool logged 9,000 minutes of usage in the last month alone. More and more, GE is using digital analytics and insights to improve productivity and connectivity, often in ways that start small and emerge from people right in the thick of things, like me, rather than being imposed from on high.

Rules For Turning Process Hacks Into Major Workflow Changes

As more and more people at GE start using this digital tool, it continues to grow—and it’s spitting out much more data about our workflows that we didn’t have before. So we’re constantly discovering new ways of utilizing that information. For one thing, that’s proved really useful for gaining new users within the company, but it blurs the original intent of the tool as people try to pull it in different directions.

I’m fine with this. In fact, I’m excited by it. The key, as I see it, is to regularly revisit the primary use of the tool and its impact on the users it was originally developed for—even as others put it to new uses. As their needs change, the tool should change, too. For me, though, keeping that original mission in sight is important. You shouldn’t get caught up chasing good ideas and over-complicating something that’s already proven itself useful.

Probably your team isn’t trying to track thousands of spare airplane engine parts. But maybe you’re trying to locate specific information from within your company, or you’re trying to cut down the time spent on administrative tasks. As you look to tackle your own challenges, it’s important to remember a few lessons I learned watching my software tool catch on at GE Aviation and beyond.

First, take good notes. Make sure that the process, adoption, and results are all well documented, even as you experiment and tinker. That way you’ll have a drawing board to go back to if you need to, and (if it’s an immediate success and you don’t) you’ll be able to demonstrate the value of your idea.

Second, be careful of implementing any change that might erode the value of your original solution. And finally, don’t just build it and step away once you see it working. It’s important to regularly evaluate the purpose and the focus of your idea or solution. As circumstances evolve, your idea needs to evolve with them. Today’s inventory tracker is tomorrow’s…something else. That’s something innovators look forward to.

Paul Thienprayoon is CFM56 Engine Fulfillment Project Management Lead in GE Aviation’s Junior Officer Leadership Program.

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