This wasn’t on my list of things to talk about on the Improve! Blog but, the news was sad, and I just decided it would be a good time to talk about an old friend who has passed on into history. And it really does relate to continuous improvement. It is a prime example of where just saying you do continuous improvement isn’t good enough. You see, my old friend wasn’t a real person but an airplane. A beautiful airplane.

Back about a dozen years ago I was blessed with the opportunity be the Vice President of Manufacturing for a little airplane company called Columbia Aircraft. It was the brainchild of Lance Neibauer who began with a single home-built aircraft back in 1985. Despite many trials and tribulations, he eventually built his business into Columbia Aircraft. We made the Columbia 350 and 400, the all-composite, fastest 4-place single engine piston powered aircraft in the market. When I joined in 2005, we had an order board close to 300 aircraft deep. Good times.

Running that factory was the most challenging, scary (and the most fun!) I have had so far in my career. That little company survived so many challenges due to the sheer tenacity of the 500+ great people who worked there on and around the shop floor. Despite all the difficulties, we produced up to 5 per week at peak rates. But alas, in late 2007, due to circumstances way too complicated to go into here, the people holding the financial purse strings made decisions that led to a part 363 Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, ultimately selling the company to Cessna, a division of the goliath conglomerate, Textron. At first, we were all relieved and hopeful that Cessna, a long time, highly respected aircraft manufacturer would give us financial stability and a future for this beautiful aircraft.

Columbia had been using lean practices very successfully, taking over $18,000 out of manufacturing costs in the previous 9 months. Textron was big into Six Sigma, so they said, but the Cessna senior executives said it they were looking forward to learning from our experiences in both composites and lean. They said they had much to learn from us. I remember as clearly as if it had been yesterday, at a big dinner for all the Columbia executive staff where our new owner’s CEO said, “I just want to assure all of you Columbia Vice Presidents, that we have a place for each one of you.”

While that statement was technically true, what they did not tell us was that the place they had in mind was the unemployment line, a truth we all learned in the coming months. It turns out that while their senior execs had some lofty ideas about how Columbia and its composite technology would fit into their small aircraft business, Cessna was at that time a cash cow for Textron, a bloated bureaucracy fed by their highly successful business jet business. Their middle management was recalcitrant, insular and opposed to any changes to “…the Cessna way”. They also believed since Columbia had gone bankrupt, it was obvious to them that we did not know what we were doing. While that could not have been further from the truth, it was impossible to tell them otherwise.

All too soon, I was on the outside looking in. C’est la vie, that’s business, but what they did to Columbia was much worse. I learned from my friends still inside that they had brought in teams of Six Sigma “experts” (another future blog topic). As is often the case when experts come in from the outside to just tell you want to do, there was mistrust. And after telling everyone how superior Six Sigma was, when they got done, the programs they introduced were nearly identical to their predecessors but without employee engagement. To make things worst soon thereafter, they offshored all the composites to a poorly trained and unprepared factory in Mexico, laying off a third of the Oregon factory. Collectively, these issues would prove to be the beginning of the end.

When the 2008 financial crisis struck, a perfect storm converged to cripple the product in ways it never recovered from. Textron had recently gotten a new CEO who determined he needed to get cash out of Cessna to keep the rest of Textron solvent through the great recession. He deeply slashed jobs and cut back on programs. The now renamed “Corvalis TT” (Yep, Cessna misspelled “Corvallis”) went on the expense chopping block and soon the Bend factory was no more. Production shut down for almost a year while they moved all the tools to Kansas and tried to retrain people without the knowledge base of the folks who had built Columbias for so long. So much for putting people first and trusting continuous improvement.

To add insult to injury, the first eight aircraft they made in the new production stream in 2010 proved to defective with an FAA test pilot barely landing a plane after a wing skin de-bonded from the spar. The resulting investigation and substantial $2.4 million fine from the FAA was a black mark that the product never really recovered from.

During the three years before the sale, we delivered 452 aircraft in Bend. In the ten-years after Cessna purchased the Columbia line they managed to produce only 345 aircraft. 124 of those were Columbia legacy factory orders before they closed the Bend factory. Only 221 were ever built by the Cessna factory in Kansas. In 2011 and 2012, they only delivered one in each year. Thus, while it was still a sad moment last week when Textron announced the end of production for the TTx 240 (its third rebranding since being at Cessna), it was not entirely unexpected.

The moral if any to this sad tale, is that continuous improvement must done as an authentic effort over a long time to bear the best fruit. In the case of Cessna’s ownership of the Columbia product, there was a lot of lip service given to the promise of continuous improvement of that line, and what they could do with the technology, but the reality was that it was never given the care and attention it deserved. Instead it suffered a slow death at the hand of a huge faceless corporate monolith, a tale not unlike many others in business history. (think Saturn as just one example). And even though your company may not be as large, giving lip service to lean or any other continuous improvement methodology without the care, servant leadership and consistent follow up is a sure-fire prescription to lost opportunities and in some cases the whole company.

Article by Chris Redgrave

Chief Improvement Officer (and owner) of IMPROVE!