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Sustainability: Moving from Common Sense to Common Practice
2016 International Conference
Leesburg, VA - National Conference Center

September 18th - 21st

Managing Engineering Projects

Mark Fogle - Manager – Engineering Continuous Improvement at Delta Air Lines Technical Operations

Delta Air Lines operates the most complex airline in the world. Delta’s mainline fleet of more than 700 aircraft spans all the major types of aircraft from all the major manufacturers. In addition, there are multiple sub-configurations within an aircraft type such as unique avionics systems, engine types, and interior/cabin layouts and equipment. Delta maintains it’s equipment with constant oversight of fleet and sub-system performance. Delta’s Technical Operations Engineering Department is tasked with developing the scheduled maintenance and modifications to the fleet and equipment to ensure safe, reliable, and cost efficient operation. To implement recommendations for equipment maintenance or modification, Engineering creates Engineering Projects. Engineering Projects basically require an initial phase of defining where and when the work will be done. Then, after a business case review and approval of the proposed work comparing benefits and costs, the Engineer continues by writing the detailed work instructions and partnering with tracking system and ensuring the execution system is set up to properly implement and report the projects requirements.

Generally, the project work is required for safety reasons, to improve reliability for cost savings or operational reliability or to implement a change in the passenger experience to support marketing and revenue efforts. Roughly 300 engineers are on various teams and are typically focused on one or two equipment types (airframe or engine types) and sometimes are further specialized by a particular system such as structures, avionics, etc.

Most AAs have deadlines to complete and some of the deadlines are regulatory driven and Delta could have to pay fines if the work is late. Other AAs simply are needed as soon as possible to deliver value in terms of improved equipment reliability. The AAs are implemented in an enterprise system that ensures we understand current status, schedule the right work in the right places at the right times, and document that we have met requirements. Ultimately, there is a direct relationship with the speed and accuracy for which AAs are implemented and the ability of Delta to achieve continued improvements in operational reliability, cost savings and revenue growth.

Why was there a need for Change – what was the catalyst for change or why did you finally decide it was time to take action?

AAs deliver value and the faster and more reliably we can deliver AAs to the operational groups to complete the work, there was a direct coorelation to fewer flight delays and cancellations. Delta’s demand for AA work is increasing due to new aircraft deliveries and more improvements needed to maintain the world’s most reliable fleet. Engineers must help coordinate the implementation of the improvements BUT, the also need to spend more time on developing the solutions. In fact, the more capacity we can create to allow Engineers to spend time on developing solutions, the more value we create. Therefore, we must reduce the cycle time and time required by Engineers in implementing solutions so we can create additional capacity to develop solutions.

What needed to be changed? – or what was the problem as you see it?

Below is a sample of undesirable effects that are common across the AA development process:

  1. In some cases, the organization is unable to complete AAs by the deadline.
  2. There are resource related delays in AA implementation plan development.
  3. Engineers cannot focus on AA work only.
  4. Engineers are asked to work on many different activities other than AAs.
  5. Engineers working AAs are interrupted by operational issues.
  6. Engineers are frustrated and morale is impacted due to constant changes in priority.
  7. Maintaining real time status of an AA is difficult.
  8. Helping managers of engineers engage to resolve issues is difficult.
What was the intended future state? – if you could wave a magic wand and teleport into the future, describe a future characterized by desirable elements not present today (before the start of the implementation)

To help the organization focus, leadership set some clear goals including a AA development cycle time goal, a service level or on time goal for AAs, and a Throughput goal to deliver on expected volume. To achieve these goals, several desirable elements would need to be present:
  • There is available capacity for AAs at all times so we can be responsive to all customer needs.
  • AAs are created with increased accuracy and quality so that revisions are the exception.
  • Capacity for developing solutions is sufficient to ensure Delta continues to drive up operational reliability due to Engineering research of system performance issues and solution identification.
  • Engineers feel satisfied with their jobs because the administrative burden is much smaller than before and they are challenged to create and design solutions for the airline.
How was the transformation accomplished?

The transformation clearly started with the setting of specific goals by top level leaders. The goals were established as team goals, not by individual fleet or area, and this was important so that:
  • The leaders of various parts of the process worked in cooperation to solve problems
  • Capacity was not hidden and when work was needed, there were more options to solve the shortfall of capacity
Then, a team of individuals was established that had adequate capacity to help leaders understand the gaps between baseline results and the goals. This team was asked to leverage ToC/CCPM principles to help solve the gap. The following basic steps were followed:
  1. The baseline process was documented and some initial reporting and statistics were created to help the leaders better understand current state (ie. Baseline cycle time, WIP levels, Throughput, common delays)
  2. An initial project workflow or network was agreed to and using the current data, a control point or constraint point was selected based on where current bottlenecks appeared most common.
  3. Leader and team focus concentrated on the initial bottleneck point which was after Engineering Development and before the input of the AA into the system used for tracking
  4. The team leveraged a simple concept of ‘work scheduling’ to reduce the delays caused by Resource Dis-synchronization and Parkinson’s Law and this accomplished several things:
    • A. WIP was minimized based on a very aggressive cycle time that assumed resources were available
    • B. Full kitting was established as a best practice by leadership and work in the constraint phase did not happen unless all resources were available to support the effort – in our case, Full Kitting was primarily the right people.
    • C. Management engagement increased dramatically and was focused specifically on WIP and the work of management to resolve issues translated quickly and directly into reduced Cycle Time and increased Throughput.
    • D. Quality of work increased due to increased face to face collaboration while working on the same project that was previously attempted to be accomplished via email and other less direct forms of communication when resources were not synchronized.
  5. The result was that the bottleneck was eliminated within about one month and the throughput capacity of the group was increased by approximately 50% even though they experienced a head count reduction during the same time period.
  6. Unfortunately, there was not a resulting system throughput increase so the team then turned the focus to the next bottleneck upstream in the process which was infront of the Engineering Group.
  7. The Engineering Group also suffered from significant delays due to Resource Dis-synchronization and Parkinson’s Law, so a similar ‘work scheduling’ approach was used for three collaboration points in the Engineering workflow.
    • A. This work involved more resources so the effort was similar in approach but required more effort to schedule, full kit and ensure results during the scheduled event
    • B. The same desirable effects resulted because the simple change allowed for WIP reduction, less ‘polishing’ of decisions, and management focus to help overcome blocking issues.
How are we measuring, refocussing, sustaining and growing the change?
  • Cycle time vs. goal
  • On Time performance vs. goal
  • Throughput vs. prior period
What were the lessons learned? Successes, Challenges:

  1. Overall, the lesson was that sufficient capacity existed but needed to be repurposed in some cases and synchronized in terms of work priority to increase utilization
  2. To achieve the improvements, management benefited from having team goals because this allowed them to be willing to work on an area they did not have responsibility for and not distract away from the bottleneck needs
  3. Changes can occur extremely fast and the throughput capacity that was previously understood off by a factor of almost 100%
  4. Solutions that increase synchronization of resources tend to have a positive effect on cycle time, throughput, AND quality
  5. Individual contributors (engineers, analysts, planners) all saw more immediate results from the change and that convinced them to want to try to continue to improve vs. efforts where they change processes but cannot see results
  6. There was a significant amount of resistance to schedule work and more importantly, schedule completion of work, because uncertainty was too great. The team was concerned that they would be measured by the schedule compliance and they didn’t understand that the schedule was just to give us aggressive goals and to help us understand when AAs needed support to help flow.


Mark Fogle is the Manager – Engineering Continuous Improvement at Delta Air Lines Technical Operations in Atlanta. Mark is an Industrial Engineer and has worked in several industries and spent 18 years in various departments at Delta TechOps.

Co Authors:
Prakhar Aghamkar Sr. Project Manager - Delta Airlines. Engineering Continuous Improvement. Prakhar is an Aerospace Engineer and has worked previous assignments at Delta TechOps as the 747 Fleet Engineer.  

Magen Hammoud - Sr. Project Manager. Engineering Continuous Improvement.  Mazen is an Aerospace Engineer and has worked assignments at GE Engines and as an intern at Continental Airlines.

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