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How lean process mapping transformed the aircraft leasing industry

In the latest article in the Wonderful BPM series we revisit the topic of lean process mapping with our Six Sigma sherpa Peter Evans. In this case story Peter shares an account of a transformational moment in his career in the 1990s when his team adopted lean process mapping to radically accelerate the aircraft lending process at GE Capital Aviation Services. 

Key challenge in aircraft leasing: time is money 

Aircraft leasing is not an industry most people are familiar with but it faces similar challenges to most global enterprises in that time is money. 

In the 1990s airline travel was booming and companies like GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS) tapped into the opportunity of leasing top-of-the-line aircraft like Boeing 737 series and Airbus 320 series to commercial airlines. 

Only there was a catch - airplanes that are grounded cost the owner massively in overhead costs. At the time of the transformation it would take up to 90 days to negotiate a new lease of an aircraft. For GECAS time was literally money.

The catalyst for change was a new business leader, Henry Hubschmann, who was supported up the chain all the way at General Electric to the legendary CEO Jack Welsh. The new leadership challenged the business, facilitated by Peters team, to slim down the lease negotiation process from 90 days to 30 days, a seemingly impossible task. 

To add urgency to the challenge the business added a two hundred new commercial aircraft to the fleet amounting to a couple billion dollars of new investment. For Peter’s process transformation project time was of the essence.

The silver lining in this challenge was agility and trust with key vendors. General Electric had the reputation in the industry as a trusted partner and also a supplier of quality aircraft engines. These new aircraft could be leased immediately as soon as they left the factory because everyone recognized “aircraft that stay on the ground make no money.” 

Lean transformation requires change management

Before setting out on the project, Peter’s team recognized another challenge. The leasing process touched upon almost every key team in the organization, and many were already masters in their own ways. The organization had grown from its roots in Ireland to be a global market leader with some internal reluctance to change. 

“The cultural change impact was pretty dramatic because we changed the behavior of an industry that was actually formed in Ireland and created by the predecessor of our organization GECAS and was considered almost the inventor of the market,” Peter described.

For example, the highly skilled legal team had perfected a due diligence process that took 40 days to complete from start to finish. Imagine the time before the internet when a document would be filed and somebody would change it and it goes back to a loop over and over again. The simple response from Peter’s team: bring a lawyer as part of the mapping exercise to diagnose and fix the process. 

Another example of an internal process step was a transaction approvals committee where all new deals were confirmed. This committee was a staple showcase for successful marketers and sales people reluctant to give up the recognition of new business. However, through the mapping process it was clear that not all deals require formal approval. Consider, for example, the latest aircraft leased to British Airways or another global airline. Once the necessary approvals had been given to new vendors, they could be streamlined with existing, reputable partners.

“By drawing the big picture, using it not only as an analysis tool but also as a change management tool. People came in, had a look at their baby, realized it wasn't very pretty and decided they needed to do something about it.”

Lean process mapping at monumental scale

How did the process of analysis and mapping happen in the 1990s before process analysis software?

With the help of a couple talented Six Sigma Master black belts (Eleanor and Jennifer, Peter’s team dissected every process detail over a couple months’ period. Imagine a boardroom in Stamford, Connecticut with each wall lined with large process maps in intricate detail. 

Now imagine that that massive map spanned the room, not once, but one and a half times in length. The end result was a process map, as Peter’s American colleague would describe, ‘that picked apart the process from soup to nuts.’

“For us, the obvious thing to do was to create what, I like to call, a big picture. It was to basically map the process from start to finish in great detail. And then, add vast amounts of data to that process map a bit of a cross between a kind of standard, a multi-level process map.”

According to Peter, key elements can include:

  • a value stream map
  • data on cycle times and volumes
  • key people and customers.

“I've always believed that if you can draw a picture for people, they find it much easier to understand than just words or a bit of data analysis or a bit of stats” Peter reflected.

With the map drawn in detail the next step was to bring all of the key stakeholders together “We brought all of the key players into the room to start to understand what we were looking at. We walked them through step by step every aspect of that process. Most of the people at GECAS touched this process in one form or another, so it mattered to everybody. We brought in everybody, we had some workshops in Connecticut, we brought the key players into the workshop and stood them in front of this massive process map.”

One example of a breakthrough idea: “follow the sun”

In what ways did process mapping guide new process development? Not every improvement can be shared today, but here is one example.

A quite logical solution developed by the team to cut the leasing time from 90 days to 30 days was based on global operations and geography. His team had the benefit of having colleagues in Shannon, Ireland, across the United States and also in Hong Kong.

“We would change the way that we did a lot of the transactional work by following the sun. So if the deal was started in Ireland in Shannon, it would go off to Florida overnight, which is where our US sales and marketeers were. Then go off to Hong Kong. After that, and then come back round again. If work was needed, it was done as we went through by following the sun around.”

Parting thoughts on lean process mapping

“It was a big change, but that big picture map full of detail, full of analysis brought understanding. It brought clarity. It allowed us to go at the big chunks really, really quickly. We achieved our results in relatively short order. We got our deal process down to the 30 day mark, or into the thirties.”

Peter’s parting thoughts are surprisingly not about process mapping guidelines but again on change management.

“As always with these things you have to find groups of people who are willing and able to help. John P. Kotter speaks about a ‘guiding coalition.’ 

Sometimes you need the big boss to say, ‘we are doing this and get on with it.’ That sometimes can create a very slow process while you  gain trust. In other times, actually people are very open to change.

In our case hard work wasn't a problem. Open mindedness to change wasn't a problem. Breaking the mindset of ‘it's always been like this’ is something that we needed to change.”

“Henry Hubschman brought the imperative to us and created, if you like, in John P. Kotter’s words, ‘the burning platform’ that allowed us to start the change acceleration process. We started with a shared need, we then shaped a vision and finally we mobilized commitment. Those three stages are massive in your ability to eventually get to changing systems and structures.” 

Did you enjoy reading this story? See other Wonderful BPM stories by Peter Evans:

Benefits of Business Process Management with Peter Evans

What to do in the first 90 days of a BPM implementation?

About the expert:

Peter has over 30 years of experience in deployment of operational excellence, Lean Six Sigma, operational performance management, change management, and more. Like a Sherpa guiding thrill-seekers up Mount Everest, Peter guides us through the tough parts of BPM so we can reach our peak and enjoy a clear, 360 view of our business operations.

Written by

Lari Numminen

Chief Marketing Fellow