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'Lean' process helps Boeing manage leaves of absence

Aerospace firm saves millions of dollars, hours of productivity

'Lean' process helps Boeing manage leaves of absence

PORTLAND, Ore.—Boeing Co. applied a “lean” manufacturing process to improve absence management while merging its short- and long-term disability program administration with its leave-of-absence offerings.

Toyota Motor Corp. pioneered the lead philosophy that allows practitioners to simplify and become more efficient by identifying and eliminating waste, said panelist Jacqueline Coulter, program manager in the leave management services for Boeing, at the Disability Management Employer Coalition's annual conference.

Boeing's leave management program underwent the lean process beginning in 2007 because of several inefficiencies, Ms. Coulter said.

The company with 147,000 employees administers 11 different, complex leave programs, and its workers generate 59,000 intermittent Family and Medical Leave Act absences annually and 16,000 non-FMLA absences.

Poor administration of those cases was costing millions of dollars and lost productivity, she said.

“Not only were there significant costs and waste in the process, but we were not getting our employees back to work as quickly as we would have liked, so there was significant loss in productivity,” Ms. Coulter said.

There was dissatisfaction all around, she said. Employees and managers were very dissatisfied with the complexity of Boeing's cumbersome leave management administration; the company told its leave management services unit, “You guys are in a world of hurt and you need to fix it,” Ms. Coulter said.

Past Boeing attempts to improve leave management services applied a “vertical-view” approach that focused on “single functional areas,” Ms. Coulter said. In contrast, when Boeing used the lean philosophy, the aircraft maker “zoomed out” horizontally to evaluate the entire leave process from “the point an employee requested to leave to the point where they are back to work behind the rivet gun or behind the computer,” Ms. Coulter said.

That required examining the minutiae of every step in various leave processes to find improvement opportunities. It also allowed establishing an integrated absence-management program.

To do that, Boeing teamed with Aetna Inc., which has been “an integral part of our day-to-day operations for a number of years,” providing short- and long-term disability support, Ms. Coulter said.

Aetna helped Boeing create a “current state map” of its leave processes. That required a “painstaking” look “where you go though and map out every single step along (a) leave and every organization, or every person involved, every single transaction, every system, and every handoff,” Ms. Coulter said.

Then each step is quantified for the time it requires and a determination of whether that step can be removed.

“The lean process is really about breaking things down into its most minute function and recognizing which things can be removed,” said panelist Ophelia Galindo, national leader for absence and productivity solutions for Buck Consultants L.L.C. in Orange, Calif.

Savings and efficiencies result from removing a couple of minutes here and a couple of minutes there, and multiplying those by the tens of thousands of times Boeing employees seek a leave, Ms. Galindo said.

Boeing also made major changes.

Two service centers for leave-of-absence and short-term disability cases were consolidated into a single site, said Krista S. Moore, senior account executive for national accounts for Aetna in Seattle.

Paperwork and redundant communications to employees were combined or eliminated, among other changes. In all, 57,000 e-mails sent to employees a year were eliminated.

Among other improvements, the amount of employee time involved dropped 45% while back-office processing time dropped 29%, and end-user satisfaction increased to 87% from 80% when Boeing launched its improvement program.

There were financial savings as well.

“That is an awful lot of change and no small task,” Ms. Coulter said. “But I can definitely say it was well worth the investment.”