Note: In US-English this is Airplane Game and in non-US-English it is Aeroplane Game.
What you can learn
This game is a great way to illustrate how limiting work in progress can dramatically improve a team’s performance. It also illustrates how flooding the system upstream of a bottleneck causes waste and stress.
What you need
- A stack of white paper (you need at least 50 sheets per team of 6)
- 2 timers per team of six (people can usually use their phones)
- 2 sheets of a different coloured paper per team of 6
- 1 marker per team of 6
- A whiteboard or flip chart to record the results
￼￼￼￼￼How to do this
Split people into teams of 6. Ask each team to decide who the 4 workers will be, and who the 2 managers will be. If you have odd numbers you can have some teams of 5 where the person timing (the manager) records both times.
The managers need to have a stopwatch or timer function on a phone. Get the workers to sit next to each other so that they form an assembly line.
Explain that they will be manufacturing paper aeroplanes. There are 4 stations in the manufacturing line. Each worker represents a station. Demonstrate what each station needs to do.
Station 1: Fold the paper in half lengthwise.
Station 2: Takes the folded paper from station one, and folds one side down into a triangle (one each side of the paper), to form the nose of the aeroplane.
Station 3: Folds the nose again to for a finer point and part of the wing, and draws a star at the back of the plane. Again they do this on both sides. Note how the star must look.
Station 4: Folds the wings, and tests the plane by ensuring it flies across the table.
Let people practice the folds if they are unsure.
Explain to the managers that they will be timing two things. One of them will time how long it takes to fold 10 planes in total. They start their timer when you say go, and stop it when Station 4 has tested 10 planes.
The second manager is going to time the cycle time for a single plane. Explain that you will insert the coloured piece of paper into the stack of paper in position number 6. They need to start their timer when station 1 picks up the piece of coloured paper, and stop it when the coloured plane is complete (test flight). For this to be an accurate time for a single plane it is important that the team work in a first in, first out basis. i.e. if 3 planes pile up between station 2 and station 3, station 3 needs to take the planes in the order they were created. The coloured plane should always be the 6th one that each station folds.
Once everyone is clear what they need to do you can start round 1.
This round simulates what happens if you don’t limit work in progress. Tell people their goal is to work as fast as possible, but still pay attention to quality.
Hand each team a stack of paper, making sure the 6th piece of paper is a different colour. Note they will need more than 10 sheets because the stations need to keep working until the 10th plane is complete. i.e Station 1 will fold many more than 10 sheets.
Start the round, and make sure the first manager starts their timer. Encourage teams to work fast. Remind the second manager to start their timer when the coloured plane starts.
Check that teams are working in order as planes start to stack up between stations. Especially between stations 1 and 2 and stations 2 and 3. Also make sure the starting station keeps folding after the 10th sheet.
As soon as a team has completed 10 planes, ask their production line to stop. Now ask them to count how much work they have in progress i.e. incomplete planes. Also ask the managers what the total time was, and the cycle time for the coloured plane. Write these up on a flip chart or whiteboard for each team.
Once all teams are finished and you have written up their results, make sure you clear away all the in progress work. Teams will be starting again from scratch.
Explain that in round 2 you will be doing the same thing with only one change. If people want to improve the process or change roles, ask them not to because you want to illustrate the impact of the single change you will make.
The change is to limit work in progress. There will be a limit of 1 for each station. This means that Station 1 cannot start folding the second plane, until Station 2 has taken the plane from them. This applies to each station. There will be no queues building up between stations.
Again hand each team a stack of paper, making sure the 6th piece of paper is a different colour. This time each team should need no more than 15 sheets of paper.
Start the round, and check that people are following the limit. People might need to be reminded not to just fold quickly like they did in the first round. Focus on Station 1 for this, they will set the pace for the rest of the group.
Record the results as before: Work in progress, total time and cycle time.
Display the results of the two rounds to the teams and ask them what they notice. Usually the cycle time and total time are much better in round 2. Also the work in progress should only be about 2 or 3 in the second round. This is sometimes a big surprise for teams, and the reason we love this game. It illustrates beautifully how limiting work in progress massively reduces cycle time. Ask people what the implications of this would be for their work.
You can also ask people how they felt in each round, especially Station 3 which is the bottleneck, and how hard they worked in each round compared to the results they achieved. Another great question is asking which round most closely resembles their current work environment.
How we’ve used this
We play this regularly with teams who struggle to say no, are doing too many things at once and finishing none of them. This is a great game to help teams and managers realise that being busy doesn’t help the bottom line. We often talk about the importance of slack after this game, and how it is beneficial. Warning: Not everyone is ready to hear that 🙂
Who shared this with us
We are not sure of the original source of this game. There are also many different versions around on the internet. A big thank you though to whomever it is!