High flying: Lean-thinking at Avianca

Published on
April 1, 2024
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo is editor at the Lean Global Network and Planet Lean
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We speak with Avianca's VP of Maintenance and Engineering to learn more about the airline's efforts to fulfill its promise to passengers.

Roberto Priolo: Can you tell us something about the work of Avianca's Maintenance and Technical Department?

Albert Pérez: Safety is of course our main goal: with our maintenance schedule, we make sure that all components and engines are inspected regularly and that any problems are addressed quickly. This means responding immediately to any problems that are identified, but also - increasingly - trying to anticipate problems using the huge amount of data we collect from each flight.

We work to ensure that aircraft are available to our passengers day in and day out. This is part of our commitment to getting them to their destinations safely and on time. This is particularly important to us now: the airline has an ambitious expansion plan that includes more routes and more frequent connections.

RP: Avianca is one of the oldest continuously operating airlines in the world. How do you change a 104-year-old company and why do you think Lean-thinking might be the way to do it?

AP: Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, in which all airlines suffered, we had realized that we needed a transformation, and we have been working on it for two and a half years: our current focus is to make flying accessible to everyone(something Europeans, for example, are more accustomed to, given the presence of established low-cost carriers like Ryanair, Wizzair or Vueling). People want and need to fly, and we are transforming ourselves to make it possible for them to do so.

Changing culture and behavior in a legacy organization of 14,000 people is not easy, of course, but we believe Lean-thinking is the perfect approach for us to succeed. There are two main reasons for this. First, it enables a culture of problem solving by encouraging people to bring up problems, talk about them, analyze them and solve them once and for all. Second, Lean creates accountability by empowering people to take the initiative to solve problems, challenge the status quo and own their work.

These two ideas were not widespread at Avianca before Lean-thinking entered the picture, and I believe they are the methodology's greatest contribution to our transformation. The result of our deep understanding of Lean means we become faster at solving problems, attacking them as soon as they emerge, before they become too big and costly to manage.

I also think it's hard for people to change their ways without a reference and Lean certainly acts as a beacon for us in that sense.

RP: Avianca's Lean-travel went through a transition of itself, making people increasingly aware of the importance of transforming the culture - not just the process.

AP: We always talked about culture change because we knew that tools alone could not transform the DNA of our company. However, it is true that the first phase of our journey was focused on giving people a basic understanding of Lean principles and techniques. What we are doing now is trying to develop leadership skills and behaviors to bring them to a level where we can effectively support the change we want to see at Avianca: helping our leaders to visibly change their behavior and develop new management habits to set the right example. This is the only way for Lean to take root.

RP: What kind of daily behavior are you trying to encourage, both on the front lines and in leadership?

AP: I can tell you what we do with our technicians. We have about 1,000 of them in our facilities in Bogotá and Medellin and another 1,000 scattered in various other locations. It is their work that really makes the difference! The biggest change in the way we interact with them is that we now communicate daily what is expected of them. What are their goals? What does it mean to do the job well? In the past, we talked about strategic goals, and they struggled to understand how their work could potentially impact those. So we recently started translating those business objectives into meaningful indicators and goals that they can really get behind.

This was made possible by the introduction of Daily Management. Now we have a debriefing at the end of each shift in which indicators are tracked and discussed. When a gap is identified, someone is made responsible for its resolution to ensure follow-up.

One of the indicators we track with them is delays. Aircraft will occasionally have "technical problems" - a faulty external light bulb, for example - but that doesn't mean the aircraft has to leave later than planned. During briefings, we discuss with technicians what we can do to ensure that we resolve the problem quickly and still allow the affected aircraft to depart on time. For example, we can set standards to correct the problem immediately by using the effective communication flow we now have established in our operations.

What we still lack is the understanding that troubleshooting is part of daily work, not a nuisance or an extra job. It is our responsibility to carry out the maintenance schedule, but also to deal with any unforeseen circumstances as quickly as possible. That is the "step back" we take as leaders, to close the gap in people's understanding of what their job entails. There is more: as leaders, our role is also to create problems from time to time, be it because we want to improve the standard or innovate.

RP: With people scattered in different locations, how do you make sure the same message reaches everyone?

AP: It's not easy, because the most direct and effective way to change a culture is for leaders to be directly involved. It is up to them to lead by example with their behavior. As VP of the area, I have to make sure that the 15-20 leaders I interact with directly and constantly are perfectly aligned with our strategy to change and that their daily behaviors and actions will help others complete that transition as well.

We also have an improvement team that participates in all daily management teams and supports the work of leaders by coaching them and giving them feedback. Those leaders will then go to the gemba every day to make sure the work is done as it should be and to help people with whatever problem they encounter. This is our approach to bringing Lean to everyone in the department.

RP: How has your day as a leader changed? What have you learned since the beginning of this journey?

AP: I joined Avianca two and a half years ago. One of the first things I did was gather information about how we did things, how we solved problems. We used to have early morning meetings with about 150-200 people to discuss what had happened the day before and what we could expect the current day. These meetings often focused on the wrong things. So, using Daily Management, we changed the way we meet: we have a tiered structure of smaller meetings, where indicators are tracked and gaps are addressed. The 7 a.m. meeting now takes place at 9:30 a.m., which gives us time to develop an understanding of the problems we are experiencing, gather all the information we need, and select the ones we need to prioritize.

I have learned to delegate consciously. I am always available to go to our hangar and see the work myself when needed, but it is important for the progress of the organization that everyone addresses the problems they are responsible for. Managers should not spend all their time dealing with Type 1 and 2 problems. They can't just focus on putting out fires. Therefore, we need to make people accountable and help them develop a sense of ownership. If we do that, our work as managers can focus on improving things and innovating (Type 3 and 4 problems).

RP: And the results? What have you achieved so far?

AP: There is nothing more satisfying than seeing our hard work pay off. We have already improved the productivity of our technicians by 40%. Technical punctuality has improved by 30% and the availability of our aircraft has more than doubled. In 2019, we had 6-7% of our fleet in maintenance at any given time, while we are now at less than 3%. Of course, we still have a lot to do, especially in transforming leadership behaviors. That's the hardest thing to change!

We also hope to involve other parts of Avianca in this transformation. Lean-change is most effective when it involves everyone in an organization, and we are pleased to see increasing interest in this radically different way of working from other areas.

Albert Peréz is VP of Maintenance and Engineering at Colombian airline avianca

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