November 18, 2004

Unique design brings Boeing workers together

  • Placing engineers near the assembly action has created a collaborative environment.
    Terra Property Analytics

    Photo courtesy Boeing
    Boeing relocated engineers above the production floor at its final assembly building in Renton. They can now interact with the production process.

    I recently toured Boeing's new 737 plant in Renton and was shocked by what I saw. I'm a jaded veteran of many "Boeing beige" tours, but in this case the architect and the client truly succeeded to form a whole greater than the parts.

    Known as "Move to the Lake," the idea came to Carolyn Corvi, the Boeing vice president and general manager of 737 and 757 programs, after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

    One of the buildings damaged in the quake housed 1,500 engineers and needed to be demolished. Employees from this building were shifted to the remaining buildings. Corvi wondered whether engineers could be placed in the same building as the assemblers, and whether this proximity might create a more collaborative environment.

    Working with NBBJ, Boeing put in place design measures that improve efficiency, and bring about a lasting transformational shift in the company's workplace culture.

    Moving the office

    They literally took the engineering and administrative offices that had been south of the lakeside assembly plant site and moved them into the plant so they could be alongside the assembly line. The offices were constructed in former three-story part racks along both sides of the factory floor. They are two- and three-story office structures with windows and transparent sheeting for separation walls.

    A major upgrade involved streamlining the system for assembly workers. The two formerly side-by-side assembly lines were changed to a single assembly line that is constantly moving. All frame parts are assembled within this building; subsequently, planes are fueled, tested and flown to a different plant for interior and paint work.

    Since new methods deliver new results, expediting this manufacturing process improves Boeing's overall performance, and enhances its competitive role in the global marketplace. At the same time, management reduced the square footage used for production by 40 percent, and reorganized the workplace with inventory and production requirements in mind.

    Clear zones

    The 1 million-square-foot space containing a hive of activity full of specialists can seem confusing, unless a person works there on a daily basis. The solution to this sense of chaos was to use activity clear zones.

    Zones were created using design elements such as a screen wall larger than an airplane fuselage, and color schemes and images that separate work areas from personal areas.

    Breaking away from the previous beige color scheme known as "seagull" and using a much wider palette, the color system lets employees know whether they are entering a large-scale work zone, an area full of conference rooms or offices, or a message-free zone where one can take a break from wall monitors and docking stations.

    Global references

    Another intriguing aspect of "Move to the Lake" is the inclusion of many design references to Boeing as a global company.

    Parts for the planes come from all over the world, are assembled in Renton, and then returned to their places of origin as completed products. Following through with this message, one meeting room has been paneled using plywood from Chinese shipping crates, while others are named after the distant cities that use the planes. This geographical scheme helps the building's users to navigate the vast space — using a north/south orientation with place names relating to the northern or southern hemisphere. At the same time, it honors Boeing's foreign suppliers and gives them a way to feel part of the team.

    The program has proved a huge success in demonstrating to customers what the focal point of the company is. When they visit, they are also seeing, hearing and smelling the environment of the assembly line.

    Information flow

    Another big improvement was with the internal flow of information. Like the rest of the project, this made intuitive sense. The engineer's new offices were placed directly above and adjacent to the production floor. And while some engineers may have wondered about this decision at first, they quickly saw the benefit. Open views of the plant allow them to keep their eyes on the products they design, reinforce the new idea process and help keep enthusiasm high. In this new setting, they are constantly reminded of their focus as well as the company's core mission.

    With information flows, comes information overload. Management responded to "over messaging" of employees by creating message-free zones and calming/oasis zones. Artistic focal points located within these areas emphasize a cultural or geographic affinity, based on the customer, mixed with a technical vocabulary grounded in air-frame engineering. These are also considered "technology-free" zones. There are no overt signs of technology: no wall monitors, no wi-fi access points, no docking stations.

    After years of seeing acres and acres of generic office buildout, it was great to see an exceptional merger of function and design. The solutions weren't just concerned with shifting the components of the plant, but in implementing strategic productivity upgrades. In total, more than 2,500 engineers and finance and program managers have now come together under one roof, in a spirit of efficiency, creativity and collaboration.

    Steven P. Price, MAI, CRE, is a founding partner with the commercial appraisal firm Terra Property Analytics LLC.

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