Koz’s tale: How crisis forces change

Sometimes, you have to jolt productivity upward by halting it. Here’s how it works:

C-17 aircraft are built in a series of stations within a huge manufacturing plant, with each station called a “position.” In each position, you complete a series of tasks—assemble the main fuselage, attach the tail—and then the plane moves on to the next position.

A hangar will have two or three planes in production, employing some 1,500 people handling many thousands of parts.

Under the old industry standard, the plane moved through its positions according to a schedule. If the work wasn’t complete when the plane was supposed to move on, it moved anyway, with unfinished work left until the end.

Of course, taking a plane apart at the end of the line to add parts and then reassembling it created error and delay. But that’s the way it was done.

In this true story, a new plant manager named Koz arrives and lays out his priorities for the C-17 program: to excel in quality, schedule and cost, in that order. He wins plenty of superficial buy-in, and people do try harder. But even though the workers make small adjustments, nothing really changes.

So one day, Koz announces that no airplanes will move until they’re finished at each position. “Until the plane is done and done right, no movement,” he says. “Period.”

In the uproar that follows, dedicated employees look on with mounting urgency as production grinds to a halt.

“If his words didn’t win us over, all day long, we had to look at a plane that was not moving until it was complete in position,” recalls plant employee Debbie Collard. “All day long, there it was, not moving. Nope. Sitting there.”

Suddenly, things began to change. Nobody wants to be the reason a plane stops. They don’t want to be embarrassed, don’t want to hurt the company, don’t want to mess up their careers and don’t want to let Koz down.

So, they start punching through barriers. If they can’t find a way to speed production by themselves, they bring ideas to Koz for how to solve the problem. If he needs to talk with the president of a parts company, he does.

Holding up production solved all kinds of bad habits, including passing the buck. The result: Quality rose and now, the planes are delivered not only on time, but early. And employees still tell the story: “He said the plane would not move. Period.”

— Adapted from The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations, John Kotter and Dan Cohen, Harvard Business School Press.