Obituary - Seattle Times

Jim Blue Sr. started at Boeing in high school

Obituary
Jim Blue, Boeing executive who streamlined production, dies at 78

By Dominic Gates
Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Boeing executive Jim Blue sent top management on trips to Japan to study the production philosophies and assembly lines of Toyota.

At the highest levels of the company, he pushed for the quality improvements and cost-saving efficiencies from what became known as "lean manufacturing" — an initiative that over two decades transformed the jet maker's production methods.

In another contribution to this region's aviation history, Mr. Blue was the key figure in bringing the Concorde supersonic jet to Seattle's Museum of Flight.

Mr. Blue died Wednesday from complications related to diabetes. He was 78.

In an e-mail Saturday, Alan Mulally, former chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes and now CEO at Ford Motor Co., described Mr. Blue as "a mentor and teacher."

"Many of us will always have his customer-focus and working-together and continuous-improvement attitude, his leadership by example, and his positive spirit, with us forever," Mulally wrote.

Mr. Blue's friend and Boeing colleague Bob Bogash said: "He was a hard-charging, pedal-to-the-metal kind of guy, very much an extrovert."

Legendary Boeing engineer Joe Sutter, who led the 747 jumbo-jet program, described Blue as "very, very capable."

"He was irreverent toward all the rules and conditions at Boeing. He irritated the top management at times," Sutter said. "But he was one hell of a Boeing employee."

Mr. Blue was born in Wichita, Kan., in 1929. His father had worked at Boeing there, first in a warehouse job, later managing airplane parts needed for production. For a summer job while still at high school, Mr. Blue also worked in the Boeing warehouse, unloading boxcars.

After a couple of years in the Marines, Mr. Blue returned to Kansas and worked the late shift at Boeing while studying full time at Wichita State for his degree in business administration.

"He just didn't sleep much," said son Jim Blue Jr., a manager at Boeing in Everett.

Jim Blue Sr. moved to Seattle in the late 1950s to work on the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic-missile program. Thornton "T." Wilson, who later became chairman of Boeing, took him under his wing and helped develop his career.

Mr. Blue worked in management on the 747 jumbo-jet program, and later managed the organization providing after-sales support to airlines.

In the mid-1980s, when airlines complained to Boeing President Dean Thornton about airplane-quality problems, he appointed Mr. Blue head of quality management.

Bogash, who worked for Mr. Blue, recalled pushing his boss to take an interest in the "total quality" systems then being pioneered by Japanese manufacturers. He gave Mr. Blue books on the subject to take with him to his condo in Mexico for the two-week Christmas break in 1985.

"When he came back, he had been converted," Bogash said, "He became an evangelist."

Mr. Blue set up seminars in Japan for all executives, who went in small groups and spent up to two weeks there studying production.

Boeing was slow to adapt to the Japanese methods, but by the 1990s the leadership was totally committed, and since then the company has fully embraced the quality and efficiency improvements that are now labeled "Lean."

The change has streamlined Boeing's production, dramatically shrunk its assembly plants and increased the outsourcing of lower-level parts work.

Mr. Blue spent the last years of his Boeing career as vice president responsible for parts from outside suppliers.

"Whatever steps Boeing has taken [toward Lean methods] ... can be attributed directly to Blue," Bogash said.

As a senior Boeing executive, Mr. Blue met high-level business leaders around the world. His friendship with Lord King, former chairman of British Airways, is the reason Seattle is one of the few cities in the world with a retired Concorde supersonic jet on display.

Bogash said King and Mr. Blue were buddies, sharing a taste for whiskey, cigars and bird hunting.

Years before the Concorde retired, King had promised T. Wilson that the museum would have one of the jets at the end of its service life. But when the time came in 2003, there was a huge demand from aviation museums for the 18 Concordes that were retired.

With Wilson dead and Lord King retired, the new British Airways management had scratched Seattle off the list.

"Jim called Lord King two days before they announced the list," Bogash said. "Jim Blue got us the airplane."

That wasn't his only contribution to the museum's collection.

While still at Boeing, on a visit to aircraft maker and parts supplier Aero Vodochody in the Czech Republic with Joe Sutter's son, Mr. Blue saw a fleet of MIG-21 fighters destined to be scrapped. He promptly bought one for $10,000, arranged for it to be sent back to Seattle, and donated it to the museum.

Bogash said that in his professional and personal life, Mr. Blue was a loyal and steadfast friend.

Mr. Blue's son recalled that when his own son needed help and direction in his early 20s, his father mentored and encouraged the young man. "He never gave up on him," said Jim Blue Jr. "He was a great exhorter of people."

Besides son Jim, of Snohomish, Mr. Blue is survived by his wife of 58 years, Jeanne Ann Blue of Lake Stevens; and children Teri Cantu, of Houston, Texas; and Pam Benson, of Arlington; eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. No services are planned.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Sunday, May 27, 2007 - 12:00 AM

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