Time Is Seductive

[Post by Chuck Krugh, May 19, 2023]

When I get asked, “What was the biggest adjustment moving from aviation to shipbuilding?” my answer always involves time. The difference in cycle time duration between the two industries seems vastly different. The difference lies in the cycle time of the build – airplanes are short cycle and ships are long cycle. But whether long or short cycle, time is just as important.

In the industry where I spent most of my career, cycle times were measured in days and months – short cycle. It wasn’t uncommon to work a 3-, 5-, 7- or 10-day production rate. That meant that a product (i.e., airplane, engine, wing, assembly, etc.) would come off the line or move every 3-, 5-, 7- or 10-days. Time passes rapidly, and if a problem comes up, it needs an almost immediate solution to keep the line moving. Time was really your enemy! It forced us into a mindset that we didn’t have time to wait for an answer. We would say that an answer yesterday to today’s problem was always best. That’s a bit tongue and cheek but it shows the sense of urgency with which we worked.

Such short durations require quick problem solving along with temporary actions (countermeasures) that will keep the line moving. This means problem resolution within 24 hours or fewer with many temporary solutions identified within the first hour or two. The pace is fast but becomes normal as you get used to it. When the entire company is working to this pace or production rate, it becomes second nature. Everyone has the same expectations on solving problems.

Shipbuilding is a lot different. Or is it?

In shipbuilding, time is seductive because of the long duration of the build. It takes more than four years to build these amazing and complex ships. That duration seduces you into thinking you have a lot of time to do your work. It tricks you into thinking that you could finish today’s work tomorrow, or you can wait to get the problem solved – what’s the hurry? After all, we have four years to build this ship!

But do we really? Of course not.

Our ships are way more complex, are much larger, have different materials, more processing and manufacturing steps – just more everything. That complexity means it is every bit as important to keep the schedule from sliding. We have no time to wait for problem resolutions. Today’s work needs to be completed today, not tomorrow, because we need to turn that part of the ship over to the next process – our internal customer.

Our product structure requires us to build each ship in a specific sequence so that we achieve our schedules for each unit of the build. That means we need answers today for the problems we run into, not tomorrow. In fact, our urgency should be exactly the same as it is in a short-cycle business.

In both worlds, the use of a plan of the week or day can be helpful in managing the work. While a plan of the week is good for managing the weekly tasks, the plan of the day is incredibly helpful in managing the daily work required by each team to meet or beat the plan of the day and week. It really allows the supervisor to organize the work so it’s ready for his or her team. A plan of the day is easily tracked and conveys a sense of accomplishment as the team crosses off the work as it gets done (like completing a task list). As the tasks on the list get crossed off, we can see progress more clearly than when tracking the larger ship schedule. Each of our teams can see and celebrate their contributions toward the bigger goal!

While it may go without saying, time is really not our friend especially in a long-cycle business. Time may trick us into thinking there is no urgency and may cause individual team members to procrastinate, but we really don’t have the time to wait. Long cycle or short cycle: both require the same urgency in finding solutions to keep the line moving.

See you on the deckplates!

Safely Execute High-Quality Work

President, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works

Click here to view more From the Helm blog posts.