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The 737 MAX 9 on its first flight, with downtown Seattle in the background. (Boeing Photo)

Hackathons have become commonplace at Google, Microsoft, Facebook and other tech companies, bringing together employees from different groups to identify and creatively solve problems that span disciplines. Now Boeing is seeing the benefits, as well.

Speaking at the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce annual meeting last week, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Kevin McAllister described the company’s use of hackathons to find efficiencies in the process of building airplanes.

“We’ve launched some new things that are a little different to our normal Boeing culture, like hackathons, which we borrowed from Microsoft and many others,” McAllister said, explaining that the hackathons “take data scientists and partner them with mechanics on the floor, to find great ideas that we can solve in days, in small investments that help make the workforce and the workflow better.”

Kevin McAllister, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, speaks at the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce annual meeting. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Like what? After his talk, GeekWire asked McAllister for an example.

“We found a process where we paired an engineer and a mechanic on the floor with one of our data scientists here at the Renton facility on the 737, and they were able to take a process that took four hours down to under 17 minutes. The beauty of this stuff is it’s quick,” he said.

We asked him to describe that specific process in more detail but he declined, explaining that it was proprietary.

McAllister said he especially appreciates the structure of hackathons for their ability to focus people on specific problems to solve. “I love the process too because it makes you spend no more than two minutes telling your story,” he said. “So you’ve got to be clear and succinct on what you want out of it. And I think it’s something you’re going to see a lot more of at Boeing to help build a more digital culture.”

The hackathons started earlier this year inside the company, he said.

Named the Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO nearly a year ago, McAllister was previously CEO of GE Aviation Services. He now oversees a business that accounts for more than 60 percent of Boeing’s annual revenue.

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