Kaizen is unlocking innovation in aviation

Originally posted in

By Takaoki Niwa, president of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America Inc.

The world of aviation has a good problem on its hands right now: More people want to fly. Year after year, the numbers keep rising. And aviation companies are eager to satisfy this demand with more advanced planes and new options that deliver comfort, convenience and safety. But the sophistication of these aircraft creates a big hurdle — producing more complex planes with limited resources, time and costs. How Kaizen philosophy can unlock this situation?

Technologies such as artificial intelligence and automation are changing almost every aspect of the industry, offering many new solutions. However, introducing new technology into an elaborate manufacturing process is inherently disruptive, leading to entirely new challenges.

In my almost four decades at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Group, spent mostly in aviation, I’ve learned that there is no single solution to such challenges.

But as I explained at the recent Washington Post Live “Taking Flight” event in New York, there is a highly effective approach that can unlock countless opportunities. It’s kaizen, the Japanese business philosophy of making continuous improvement. In an age of rapidly changing technology, companies in every industry must be more agile and creative. They must innovate — not every now and then, but constantly.

Being open to new ideas is the essence of kaizen, which is why I believe it’s so well suited to solve aviation’s challenges.  

Kaizen teaches us that by continually looking for improvements in techniques and processes — no matter how small — we can reap big rewards.

Ongoing improvements add up

I have witnessed the power of kaizen first-hand throughout my career. Developing a work culture based on continuous improvement helped me build and run a new $1 billion facility in Nagoya, Japan, manufacturing 787 aircraft wings.

This powerful Japanese philosophy traveled with me to my next role at MHI’s power plant factory in India. Within three years, Kaizen principles helped reduce operational costs and production lead times.

It also proved invaluable when my career took me to Europe, working at MHI Vestas Offshore Wind’s turbine blade factories in the United Kingdom and Denmark. Here, the team achieved target cost and production capacity within a year and a half of kaizen being implemented.

Kaizen teaches us that by continually looking for improvements in techniques and processes — no matter how small — we can reap big rewards. And adopting it will be critical for success in today’s aviation industry.

Soaring demand — particularly for regional air travel — is combining with heightened customer expectations around both pricing and environmental performance to challenge the industry to build the most efficient aircraft we have ever seen, and to do so rapidly and at low cost.

In the United States alone, regional air travel is set to rise to 1.3 billion passengers a year by 2037, from 819 million in 2017. Along with this expected increase in passengers comes a growing awareness of the need for cleaner, more fuel-efficient aircraft.

Manufacturers and suppliers need to be flexible, transparent and able to respond quickly to these changes in the market. They cannot do this by ramping up operations alone — the supply chain, including materials, parts, and assembly providers, is already at full capacity.

Instead, everyone working in manufacturing and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) should consider adopting kaizen to help identify improvements to existing processes and how best to use new technologies.

Kaizen is not simply about taking on a new technique or process. It’s also about embracing a new mindset. That’s what the industry needs right now.

The growth of advanced technologies

The good news for the aviation industry is that we live in an age abundant with technologies that can help improve different parts of the manufacturing and MRO processes.

Data analytics can improve supply chain efficiency, helping to predict when issues will arise or if new parts are needed. Robots can increase the efficiency of routine inspections and engineering work. And the latest 3D printers can produce lightweight components more quickly and cheaply than previous technologies allowed.

All of these developments are in some way supported by AI throughout almost every aspect of the aviation business. However, the more we use these advanced tools, the greater the challenge is to make the most of them.

A new mindset that reaps rewards

Implementing a culture of constant improvement isn’t easy. It changes the way people work and, naturally, some resist.

But executing kaizen in one area, on one team, creates a manageable change. Once you demonstrate the impact — a higher production rate using the same resources — the staff visualizes the success for themselves.

Some signs of a kaizen culture in a manufacturing plant are clear, whatever the industry. For example, production lines operate with low levels of inventory because each stage of the process runs smoothly, free from bottlenecks.  

Ultimately, the change is two-fold — it’s not simply about taking on a new technique or process. It’s also about embracing a new mindset. That’s what the industry needs right now.

I recognize this need because the challenges facing aviation are ones that MHI Group tackles daily. We are involved in many aspects of regional air travel, from airport air conditioning and rail lines to the jets themselves, through projects like SpaceJet, our new regional aircraft.

At the “Taking Flight” event, sponsored by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation, I was joined by others in the industry, and together we explored some of the most important advances in technology, efficiency and design and how these are reshaping aviation.

While none of us can predict the future, staying abreast of the latest technology helps our companies continually reassess the efficiency of our operations. This, in turn, nurtures a mindset for continuous improvement that is essential for innovation.

Takaoki Niwa

With nearly four decades of experience as both an engineer and a leader for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. (MHI), Takaoki Niwa began his career in 1980 as a manufacturing engineer for Boeing jet structures. From there he became an expert in both manufacturing and industrial engineering, with specializations in commercial and military aerospace and later in large-scale manufacturing process improvement, known as kaizen.

Mr. Niwa’s career highlights include his role as Program Manager in charge of developing the Boeing 787 composite wing box, the world’s first carbon fiber composite aircraft wing. He was responsible for the composite technology development, facility construction, and cost/schedule negotiation with Boeing, and final delivery of this innovative and transformative technology.

Building on his success with the 787 project, he was then tasked with applying the principles of kaizen to improve production technology and processes at MHI’s India, Philippines and Denmark factories. His achievements led to increasing responsibility and ultimately his appointment as the senior general manager of MHI’s commercial airplane division in 2017. Transferred to the United States as Senior Executive Vice President of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America, Inc. (MHIA) in April 2018, he assumed the role of President and CEO of MHIA in September 2018. He simultaneously holds the title of Executive Vice President of MHI.

Mr. Niwa earned a Bachelor’s degree in Aeronautics from the University of Tokyo in 1980.