People-First: The Way to Accelerate Growth at Your MRO

GE Aviation’s Digital Group

One of the first things you learn in the Marine Corps is how to work together. Because if you don't have that critical layer of teamwork—that sense of unity that makes you feel like you´re part of something far bigger than yourself—you’ll never succeed.

In the Marines, you get to this point by drilling. By discipline. By practice. By doing it every day. The trick in this setting is that there's always a preparatory command. Before you execute, you prepare—and you're always given good instruction. With the command and cadence, you have everything you need to act as a unit. Once you have that, you have everything. 

As CEO of TechOps Mexico, we bring a lot of these philosophies into how we operate. These are the same philosophies we have shared with our MROH family. 

TechOps Mexico is an MRO facility started by Delta Air Lines and Grupo Aeromexico in 2014, being the first joint venture between these two companies. By 2017, we joined forces with Aeroman and Flightstar, to be part of MRO Holdings group. We became the largest Airframe MRO in the Americas (MHs) and the 3rd largest in the world. 

We are the dedicated full-service maintenance provider for not only 300 aircraft that make up an important part of the Delta fleet, but also to more than 320 A/C for third-party operators all over the globe. 

We have over 2,000 employees, and we're fortunate in that 20% of them are female and that our average age is 31 years old. That's rare in Mexico, but it's especially rare in aviation. Those 2,000 employees also translate to about 6,000 indirect jobs. All told, we're one of the biggest employers in Queretaro.

We’ve accomplished incredible things at TechOps Mexico, all by focusing on our employees. We want to give you insights into our approach so you can transform your own organization. 

Rules to Live By

Our six core values played a big role in our ability to get to this point. They're the principles that we live and breathe.

For us, everything begins with people. It’s Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Without the basics like food, water, and knowing your physical needs are handled, nothing else matters. Then, we focus on safety, personal security, resources, health, and property. 

Next, is teamwork. There's no way we'll tear an aircraft apart—and put it back together in the time allotted—if we’re not properly synced as a team. 

We have a great group of leaders all over the facility that ensure this success. From my experience at GE and following Jack Welch´s example, we run the company between HR, Finance, and Operations. 

Our HR Leader, Brandon Jauregui, came from a similar background and lives our core principles. He is a US marine and a former GE leader. He ensures that we recruit, train, and retain the right talent. 

Mauricio Heredia is an operations-focused finance leader who ensures all of our projects are on time, on budget, and have the Voice of the Customer (VOC) as the guiding force. 

Any of us can take the operation lead at any given moment. 

Integrity is also huge for us. To us, this means doing the right thing even when nobody is looking. Ultimately, it all comes down to the individual and what they choose to do. That goes hand in hand with respect. Even if we don't agree with you, we'll always admire your idea and your confidence. 

Servant leadership. We can’t work on the aircraft: we are no longer mechanics; no longer engineers. All we can do is go around to our people and say: "What can we do for you today, and how quickly can we get out of your way so that you can do your job?" 

The final one, perseverance, is vitally important in our industry, because nothing—and I mean nothing—goes according to plan. You’ll need to improvise, adapt, and overcome. You can’t get stuck! 

The question here is: Is this as good as I´m going to get?

That is why we are building a culture of coaching and mentoring at TechOps. Coaching is the next element of our culture; it represents a whole new level of awareness. A coach is a second set of eyes and ears that provides a better perspective of your reality. 

Productive, But at What Cost?

These values guide us when times get tough. In 2014, we had roughly 700,000 man-hours of productivity, which was incredible. But at the same time, we also had 63 people who lost time due to various injuries. That meant 63 people were out of work because of an error, because of a lack of equipment, or because we did something wrong as a unit. On top of that, we struggled as an organization to get our airplanes out on time. 

We had to do better.

We decided to dive deep to try to determine why this was our reality. Was it because we didn't have enough people? Did those people not have the right tools? Were we not focusing on our employees enough?

Right around then, we started buying better equipment. We invested more for employee training. We also started doing a more comprehensive level of risk analysis. By thinking ahead of the problem, we were in a better position to identify the cause and effect of our actions.

This led us to realize that about 45% of our issues had one thing in common: People were just working too hard. Overtime was higher than normal. Our employees were so focused on trying to get the airplanes out that they were losing their ability to make good decisions.

If your employees have the right tools and processes but are still making mistakes, look at their workload. Tired employees aren’t productive employees.

Based on that, we started a Fatigue Monitoring program. Now, we actively monitor people's time every day. They have to get their blood pressure checked. We monitor their cognitive decision making regularly. When they're ready to go home, they get in a cab—we don't let them drive.

This was the first program of its type anywhere in the country.

We also looked at the bigger picture in everyone’s lives. We started recognizing family events in a more outward-facing way. Mother's Day is a big day in Mexico, for example. And it’s even bigger for us, since 20% of our floor is female. For our moms, we knew we had to do something special. We had a big breakfast with mariachis. Every mom got a flower. They also got to pick one day of the year—any day at all—that they could stay home with their family, no questions asked. We also have "Family Day" events. During the last one, we rented out an amusement park and we brought in everyone's loved ones. 

If you invest in your people, you're investing in your business and in the future of your industry.

At TechOps, we train and we educate. We believe in teaching our team how to think when a situation comes up so they can innovate and improve our processes. 

Education at our hangars is key to improve quality, productivity, and customer service. 

Overall, we invest over a million dollars a year back into our people. We spend 40 cents out of every dollar back into soft skills. Those people don't always stay with us, but that's fine. We're not doing it just for employee retention. We're doing it because it's the right thing to do. When you take this approach, you're building leaders—the ones that will shape the aviation industry for the next 20 or 30 years.

Why would you overlook that opportunity?

Improving Turnaround Time Through Agile Maintenance

Turnaround time is a huge area of focus for any MRO. It's a throughput business, after all. Our first time with a Boeing 717, we came in 100% over budget and 11 days late. That, of course, was a problem. But thanks to our process improvement, we're able to turn them around 18% faster than anyone else in the world and keep them on budget. 

We found ourselves in a similar situation earlier this year with the Boeing 757. Based on the lessons we learned with the 717, we got our first one done on time. Not only that, we did it 5% faster than anyone else in the world. We have been able to scale those results into doing several checks at this rate in parallel. 

We got to that point by making agile maintenance a priority, and our local partners at GE Aviation were a huge part of that. We developed AgileMx™, a project management system that combines agile maintenance principles and theory of constraints (TOC) to improve aircraft maintenance.  We’ve made incredible strides over the last few years, but we haven’t done it without help. 

Also, being able to create synergies among the OpCos (Aeroman, Flightstar, and TechOps) has allowed us to share best practices and greatly improve our processes. When we first got the 757s, Flightstar helped understand the service, hour tracking, and how to perform with safety. 

Our work on the Boeing 717 and 757 outline the lengths that we're willing to go focus on a culture of continuous improvement. I actually worked at GE Aviation for about five years, so I knew what they could bring to the table. To maintain that constant improvement, we had to find a partner who could help us implement concepts like Lean, Six Sigma, agile maintenance, and TOC. 

So, I walked down to the local GE Aviation headquarters here, knocked on the door, and said, "What can I do for you in order to help me?" GE Aviation has about 1,200 engineers in Mexico. They have simulators, virtual reality, additive manufacturing—you name it.

But what they didn't have was aircraft engines. They are a group of engineers that write manuals for engines, and they don’t always have access to these engines. That is how we helped them, giving them that access, letting them learn at TechOps. 

In exchange for access to aircraft engines, they helped bring a continuous improvement culture to our facility. We have 85 Six Sigma Green Belts today thanks to that partnership. GE Aviation has used their expertise to help us transform our operations. 

The results of our AgileMx™ approach have been staggering. As I mentioned, in 2014 we had 700,000 man-hours, but with 63 people losing time due to injuries. Flash forward to today, and we're producing over 2 million man-hours and only had 11 lost-time injuries in the last year. 

In 2014, we only produced 60 aircrafts. Last year, we hit 150+. We went from less than 1,000 people to about 2,000, all in four years. We saw an amazing 39% reduction in damage year-over-year, and also had 48 risk analyses (SRA) performed in 2018 (an increase of 320% compared to 2017). We are transforming ourselves into a safety management system (SMS) led company. 

We didn't get to this point because we found some magic solution. There was no silver bullet that would let us accomplish all of our goals at the same time. We got here by working together—internally and externally. We’ve worked with countless partners like GE Aviation who have helped bring in expertise that we didn’t have. We’ve then taken this knowledge and worked as one unit to become better every single day.

Our experiences have worked for us in the MRO space, but I don’t think our solutions are unique to our industry. The idea of putting your people first—thinking of their development—can be universally applied. When you put your people first, they’ll do the same for your organization.