Pursuit of a product work breakdown structure (PWBS)

In 1971, Panel SP-2 was created under the aegis of the Ship Production Committee (SPC) of The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. Since it was the last of such panels formed during the first phase of the National Shipbuilding Research Program (NSRP), Panel SP-2 was assigned a catchall group of projects and was given the title Outfitting and Production Aids. The SPC was then dominated by people who had experience only in traditional U.S. shipbuilding operations, particularly during World War II. Within eighteen months after the U.S. entry into the war, they were producing merchant ships faster than German U-boats were sinking them; at the same time, they were producing many warships. Thus, their achievement significantly contributed to the winning of the Battle of the Atlantic that one writer described as, “the only battle during World War II that the Allies could not afford to lose.”

During that period, and even in the decade following World War II, many new methods and facilities had been introduced, and with rare exception, without shipyard managers critically examining overall operations with the intent to rationalize, that is, bring reason to, how their shipbuilding systems were performing. They had much to be proud of but that pride may be the reason why they were not at least curious about how and why such rationalization was taking place in some Japanese shipyards during the 1950s.

As a consequence, the projects initially assigned to Panel SP-2 by the traditionalists in the SPC were mostly hardware oriented. They seem to constitute a wish list, for example, “We could improve our productivity if we had a better pipe joint…if the regulators would let us use electric-cable splices…if we had ventilation-duct standards, etc.”

The ensuing research overseen by Panel SP-2 produced significant results and necessary changes in the Code of Federal Regulations administered by the U.S. Coast Guard, in the American Bureau of Shipping Rules, and in the standards maintained by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. But during the progress of the research, Panel members were beginning to suspect that in order to significantly improve outfitting, there had to be improvement in how outfit work was organized, managed, and analyzed. That understanding crystallized when Robert E. Thomas (1926–1978), a member of Panel SP-2, reported after his prolonged stay in Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries’ (IHI’s) Kure Shipyard (as a member of a group sent there by Newport News Shipbuilding), that he had observed an extremely effective shipbuilding approach that he could not explain. His exact words were, “There was something profound in Kure Shipyard and we missed it.”

Because of Bob Thomas’ input, the Panel prepared a research specification in the context of its outfitting mandate that required investigation abroad. Per U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd) policy at that time, the project had to be given to a U.S. shipyard for implementation. I accompanied the individuals who investigated in more that one Japanese shipyard and who then submitted a draft about traditional industrial-engineering that did not reflect any insight into what we observed in Japan. Their services were discontinued and the resources that remained were assigned directly to IHI.

College-educated Charles S. Jonson, who had significant shipyard planning experience and who fortuitously became available, returned to Japan with me. Chuck Jonson immediately captured the key logic shift, that is, the shift from system-by-system organization of people, information and work, to zone-per-stage. Then he made sure that I understood it and shared with me the arduous chore of rewriting IHI drafts in what I call Jinglish into English. Thus Chuck Jonson is the first shipbuilding researcher in the West to discover the “something profound” in the East that many others had missed. The resulting publication, Outfit Planning–December 1979 (NSRP-0096) had immediate beneficial impact, particularly in Avondale Shipyards as described in the Shipbuilding Pictures Database at NSnet.com.

A few months before Outfit Planning was published, Panel SP-2 met in Campbell Marine, a shipyard in San Diego that built large fishing vessels. Gary Higgins, the yard’s General Manager, participated in the meeting and in a discussion about what should logically follow, Gary advised, “What our shipbuilding industry needs is a product work breakdown structure.”

Since none of the Panel members had heard that term before, Gary produced a copy of, A Study of Shipbuilding Cost Estimating Methodology dated 20 January 1969 that was prepared for MarAd by Engineering & Management Sciences Corporation. The then 9-year old publication addressed the most important thing in shipbuilding, that is, how to analyze, yet it seemed to have been totally ignored by U.S. shipbuilders. The publication emphasized the need for a product work breakdown structure. Following the one and one-half day Panel meeting, Chuck Jonson, Edward T. Antkowiak (then the head of the U.S. Navy’s Computer Applications and Development Office), and I spent an afternoon in a San Diego restaurant where we wrote the research specification Product-Oriented Work Breakdown Structure.

Even today, I am amazed at our collective foresight. The specification we produced required application to ships and end products other than ships, it defined interim products, and it required their classification per the problems inherent in their manufacture as needed to create effective work flows. Also, the specification required methodologies for converting product-oriented costs in order to fulfill accounting and estimating needs.

A 16-months project was assigned to IHI. The ensuing publication, Product Work Breakdown Structure – November 1980,” because of great demand, was republished as Product Work Breakdown Structure–Revised December 1982” (NSRP–0164). U.S. shipbuilders were thus informed of how IHI organized and smoothly operated work flows, even for a mix of one-off ships of different designs, while simultaneously engaged in heavy-construction other than ships, that is, IHI’s classic exploitation of Group Technology.

Louis D. Chirillo


To the best of my knowledge, Product Work Breakdown Structure–Revised December 1982” (NSRP–0164), is the only NSRP publication entirely incorporated in a report of Hearings by a U.S. Congressional Committee (See Hearings before the Subcommittee on Merchant Marine of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, House of Representatives, 98th Congress, Serial 98-57, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1985)

The disclosure of IHI’s PWBS was followed by additional Panel SP-2 research specifications and the following IHI-prepared publications:

Process Analysis Via Accuracy Control – February 1982 & Revised
August 1985 (NSRP–0214)
Pipe Piece Family Manufacturing – March 1982 (NSRP–0147)
Line Heating – November 1982 (NSRP–0163)
Integrated Hull Construct, Outfitting and Painting – May 1983 (NSRP–0169)
Design for Zone Outfitting – September 1983 (NSRP–0179)
Pre-Contract Negotiation of Technical Matters – December 1984 (NSRP–0196)
Product Oriented Material Management – June 1985 (NSRP–0210)
Flexible Production Scheduling System – April 1986 (NSRP–0238)
Flexible Production Indices – April 1987 (NSRP–0260)

The aforementioned NSRP publications were also quickly exploited by shipbuilders in the United Kingdom, in Canada and in some naval shipyards as described in the Shipbuilding Pictures Database at NSnet.com.

A substantial amount of the information contained in the publications, including photographs and diagrams, is reproduced in, Ship Production, Cornell Maritime Press, 1988.

Some of the publications have been translated into Chinese by China State Shipbuilding Corporation’s Shipbuilding Technology Research Institute and published in 1990 as the book Group Technology in Shipbuilding. Some have been translated into Spanish by Astilleros Espanoles (now IZAR) of Spain.

One thought on “Pursuit of a product work breakdown structure (PWBS)

  1. Admin

    Chuck Jonson wrote:
    When I went to IHI’s Kure Shipyard with Lou Chirillo, I must admit, it was a life changing experience. The more I saw and learned the more straight forward and simple it seemed. But, like most shipbuilders who had made trips to Japanese shipyards, what was going on was not immediately obvious. Thanks to a contractual arrangement made possible by the National Shipbuilding Research Program, the IHI engineers went out of their way to help us understand their basic approach. Our initial trip in 1978 led to our publishing “Outfit Planning.” That research paper was a truly collaborative work that took several months of back and forth until we, Lou and I, agreed that we had captured the essence of the logic and principles.

    The concept that led the way to our understanding was something the IHI managers called “pallets.” Prior to that time, my conceptual notion of a pallet was a wooden structure upon which parts and small assemblies were moved about by a forklift truck. It took awhile, due in part to the Japanese enunciation of English; “pallet” was “parrot” and “MLC,” the abbreviation for a component other than a pipe piece, sounded like “MLshi.” But when I finally realized that IHI was using the word “pallet” as a metaphor for a work package, a light bulb was illuminated in my brain.

    A pallet was the focus of their engineering and planning. It was the idea that provided IHI managers the ability to determine cost and schedule as well as provide the workforce with work instructions for a small increment of effort. It was their work package. This was the first real breakthrough in my understanding and ultimately led to the next several years of Lou and IHI partnering to take the logic and principles to shipyards around the world.

    In Kure shipyard, one could easily see what the pallet concept was all about. Work was organized to allow the right components to arrive when needed and the workers had the information they needed to perform the task at hand in a most efficient manner. In the context of my experience in production planning, I was very impressed at their ability to so organize the work and to beat the socks off of us in terms of time and cost to produce a ship.
    posted at 08:56:03 on 10/08/04

    Lou wrote:
    It’s hard to improve upon Chuck Jonson’s description, “A pallet was the focus of their (IHI’s) engineering and planning. It was the idea that provided IHI managers the ability to determine cost and schedule as well as provide the workforce with work instructions for a small increment of effort. It was their work package.”

    And as simple as that idea of a pallet is, it is also hard at this time to believe why it escaped so many observers from the West who preceded our investigation in Japan.

    Part of the difficulty is due to IHI engineer managers in the late 1970s, not having sufficient experience in teaching their methods, especially to Westerners. Before that, IHI exported its technology by either providing managers to operate yards like ISHIBRAS in Brazil and JURONG in Singapore, or by simply teaching by rote elsewhere. Our unique approach, as specified by Panel SP-2, required identification of the inherent logic and principles. Thus, even IHI’s young engineer managers, were among the many people worldwide who expressed appreciation for our highly illustrated publication, “Product Work Breakdown Structure.”

    Also, the idea of a pallet was not immediately accepted by some traditionalists in the West because they felt threatened by it. The pallet concept provided, in Chuck’s words, “the workforce with work instructions for a small increment of effort.” This feature opened the door for decentralized management as described in my 7 July 2004 blog, “Management is not just for managers,” and simultaneously, for more effective production control.

    How understanding of a pallet was exploited by U.S. naval shipyards for both modernization and overhaul work, is described in the Shipbuilding Pictures Database at < http://www.nsnet.com/shippi…>; see the category, “Naval Shipyard Applications of a PWBS.”

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