I can’t say I’m overly surprised by the troubles Boeing is having with its 737 Max aircraft, which is now grounded until they can figure out how to stop it crashing. While the problem ultimately sounds technical (see also this post at the Continental Telegraph), this is the sort of thing which in the past proper business processes and management would have ensured didn’t happen.
I can’t claim to know how Boeing is run, but if they’re anything like most modern corporations they’ll prize unwavering loyalty to management diktat over and above competence, experience, honesty, courage, and character. Decision-making is likely to consist of bright young things in nice clothes giving PowerPoint presentations to their bosses telling them what they want to hear, and those bosses will do the same for their bosses right up through the hierarchy. If an engineer pipes up that something is badly wrong, he’ll be told in no uncertain terms to get with the program and realign his attitude or his career will suffer. In addition, it’s likely that as Boeing’s business became more about buttering up government and lobbying the FAA to turn a blind eye, they got worse at making planes which didn’t crash.
Back when I worked for an oil company they failed to deliver an expansion project in Russia on the third attempt. Twenty years before, when doing business in Russia was an order of magnitude harder, they’d managed to get the original facility built. Somewhere in the intervening period the company had lost substantial capability, not that anyone would admit it. I suspect the reason was experienced people retiring and being replaced by yes men and power skirts molded by a modern system of management which rewards aesthetics and compliance over getting stuff done. In other words, as companies increasingly obsess over process, diversity, and values they forget how to do their core business. On their corporate website Boeing boasts of:
Diversity Councils are integrated groups of site leaders, managers and employees, who work to improve employee engagement, provide learning and leadership opportunities, increase communication, and facilitate implementation of organizational diversity plans. Diversity councils are supported by a local executive champion. Boeing has more than 40 Diversity Councils.
40 diversity councils, and 2 catastrophic accidents of a new aircraft in the space of 5 months. Now air crashes are nothing new, but I can’t help feeling these two statistics are related. I also don’t think this is the last time we’ll be hearing a household name with a long history of excellence grappling with disasters that were wholly avoidable.