Boeing down the pan

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.

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30 thoughts on “Boeing down the pan

  1. If the pilot can’t override elevator trim no wonder the thing is not airworthy.

  2. The whole thing goes back to Boeing fucking up the 787 program by trying to outsource everything, then having to take the resources that should have gone to a 737 replacement program to fix the 787.

    They had to do something to stay competitive with Airbus in the narrowbody market, and 737MAX was all they could afford to do. Unfortunately, it looks like the engineering compromises they made to get the MAX out the door have made the plane unstable. Whether they’re able to fix the problems or it’s just an inherently unstable design, time will tell.

  3. “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.”

    I understand that Boeing is able to ‘self certify’ that it is compliant with all the relevant safety legislation etc, so less need to butter up the FAA. Which is handy….

    I wonder what direction the career of the person in charge of self certification at Boeing would take if he or she decreed that the new plane/design feature/software fix wasn’t up to standard?

  4. Speaking of huge companies, I now work for a multinational food company based in Paris. I don’t have a whole lot of interaction with my new French overlords, but the few I’ve had have been suboptimal. I apparently was too passionate about quality control issues that could ultimately affect my job’s existence. They were sure to get 100% participation in the diversity survey though!

    I’ve read the few posts you’ve made about working in a French company and a few of those things have already come to pass. Any quick advice on how to stay off their radar?

  5. I now work for a multinational food company based in Paris.

    Oh blimey.

    Any quick advice on how to stay off their radar?

    With luck your boss will want a quiet life and to keep his nose clean. If that’s the case, you need to agree an impasse with him ASAP: he leaves you alone to do a good job and you’ll not be any trouble. If he’s someone ambitious and wants to throw his weight around however…

  6. Process and values are fine. Honda and Toyota build very good cars driven by that.

    The problem is that most organisations a) lie about their values and don’t take them seriously b) have processes that are stuffed full of pointless bullshit.

  7. Process and values are fine. Honda and Toyota build very good cars driven by that.

    Absolutely.

    The problem is that most organisations a) lie about their values and don’t take them seriously b) have processes that are stuffed full of pointless bullshit.

    Yup.

  8. I have to say that when I worked with Boeing aircraft, their field service reps were a damn sight more helpful than their BAe, Rolls Royce, Selex or Panavia equivalents.

  9. I recall that one of Airbus’s gripes was that since they build new aeroplane designs, they must meet current safety standards, whereas Boeing claim to be building derivatives of 1960 models, and hence meet 1960s safety standards – much lower and hence much cheaper.
    Airbus claim an unfair advantage, and they aren’t whinging, this time.

    Some years ago a max-loaded 747 rolled for take-off from Gatwick and suffered an engine failure just before V1. Before V1 so the pilot should have stopped on the runway. Plenty of room – according to the 1960s standards. The pilot was on the ball and knew the standards were cr*p. No chance in hell of stopping within the airport perimeter.

    So he started dumping fuel immediately and continued the take off. He cleared the fence and Crawley Hill – just – continued dumping fuel until light enough to land, and that was the trip to the Caribbean aborted.

    Point is, an identical Airbus plane would not have been allowed to take off at that AUW because the runway was too short (per 1990 rules). So the whole planeload was endangered by the “derived type” scam whose 1960s rules which said the runway length was ‘fine’.
    Hence Airbus less competitive.

    Then again, what I saw in Airbus….

    Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: you fly in a plane made either by a French company or an American one, both utterly destroyed by ‘process’, ‘diversity’ and ‘corporate values’. None of which includes safe competent engineering.

    A single AOA sensor….are they mocking us?

  10. 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.

    Nobody could have predicted something like this could happen. Nobody. It’s not like the same thing happened with the Challenger disaster. Someone was asked to take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat, perhaps? I seriously doubt anyone said the exact words, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?” though.

    I’ve only read one detailed article about this 737 thing, I think it originated from a transcript from the Rush Limbaugh (US) radio show. This use of software to “fix” a pilot/machine interface design issue seemed like a great big giant red flag to me. This kind of a fix in the context of software alone would have been called a kluge. Not something you would let into production, just a patch to get you through the weekend until you got some sleep and then found a more clearly thought-out solution to go into the very next release. But certainly not in a product where human lives were on the line. Though from what I read the problem was such that there really was no redesign possible except to design pretty much a completely new new airplane.

  11. Pilots have reported problems with the 737M8 since the engines were replaced. The alleged reason for the replacement was economic: a 14% fuel saving. But the new engines are bigger and to ensure ground clearance, their mounting positions were modified. The plane’s stability was compromised.
    Also, the attitude detector vanes, of which there are but two, may jam, thus giving the software conflicting inputs. Having only two detectors is an obvious recipe for problems – most critical aeronautical systems use “majority of three” decisions to avoid just the sort of unexpected and disruptive result a single sensor failure may produce.

  12. As business and society becomes more feminized , competence which feminists have interpreted as a manifestation of the male power structure will be relegated to an inferior poisition in favour of more subjective values.

  13. I write computer software for a living and much of the stuff I see written (by other people, naturally) is appalling. The idea that critical systems in an aeroplane are under the control of such people is, well, a little unnerving. Don’t believe their quality control standards on that software either – they are clearly unable to write tests that adequately cover the scenarios it is expected to perform under, let alone the unexpected ones.

  14. Pcar,
    yes, it’s MCAS, but there are just 2, not 3, attitude sensors feeding the software. These airflow vane detectors can jam, or give an inaccurate signal for various reasons: as there are only 2 sensors, the software cannot make a majority decision, so it does what it’s programmed to do and forces a dive.
    Boeing were aware of this weakness, but profits…

  15. It seems inevitable that companies grow in scope and decay in ability over time, which is why I think permanent organizations (government) need to be viewed with caution.

  16. Tim, reading this unsettling information about Boeing engineering …..reminds me about your remarks about Chinese aircraft, and quality? Maybe the West is losing its lead, due to an enthusiastic adoption of BS over traditional high quality engineering?

  17. Rob, I worked for some years as a maintenance programmer for a ginormous American oil company. I was the guy got rousted out of bed at 2 AM when the pay cheques stopped printing or the computer controlled oil pumps had the oil spraying out of the refinery at high pressure. Bet I’ve seen worse code than you. Most of it written by engineers who thought an object was something used to hit a nail and that comments or indeed any documentation were unmanly.

    Perhaps it’s time to divest Boeing stock.

  18. ‘If the pilot can’t override elevator trim no wonder the thing is not airworthy.”

    Worse still, the pilots didn’t even know that they couldn’t override it.

    Maybe they should just tell all of us where the hell MH370 went to, as some kind of compensation.

  19. “Perhaps it’s time to divest Boeing stock.”

    The smart money has already fled.

    I do think though that in the bigger picture particularly with the increasing demand for bums on aircraft seats across the growing air transport sector, that for the average armchair investor Boeing are still very much a long term buy and hold.

    Given their recent price dip, right now may well be looked upon as having been an excellent buying opportunity in the fullness of time.

  20. Zero hedge is running a story that the USAF has asked for an increased batch of a Boeing F-15X fighters, while scaling back orders for the Lockheed Martin F-35.

    Interesting timing.

  21. Maybe they should just tell all of us where the hell MH370 went to, as some kind of compensation.

    Heh.

  22. Maybe the West is losing its lead, due to an enthusiastic adoption of BS over traditional high quality engineering?

    I think they’re definitely regressing, but as Adam Smith didn’t quite say, there’s a lot of ruin in a corporation.

  23. “I think they’re definitely regressing, but as Adam Smith didn’t quite say, there’s a lot of ruin in a corporation.”

    I have a feeling we are entering the world portrayed in Atlas Shrugged, where everything starts crumbling around us, literally, because individuals no longer will accept responsibility for stuff, and its all about the feelz, and their ‘uman rights. I haven’t flown since 2007 and nothing I see would give me any encouragement to to so again. I think that a wise person will start to avoid as much as possible buildings, infrastructure and mass transport systems that require the user to trust that the designers, builders, operators and maintainers have done and are doing what they should, and haven’t abnegated their responsibilities in some catastrophic way.

  24. I don’t know anything about Boeing specifically, but I can think of a dozen pragmatic reasons why a company this size would have these diversity councils – indicative of societal degeneracy as they are – without it necessarily precluding business as usual.

    Not least that governments and universities involved in aerospace research make such pinkwash a pre-requisite before any business is done or grants, tax-breaks or favours are allocated.

  25. I was told today that MCAS stands for, “Might Crash Aeroplane Software”. Surely this cannot be true?

  26. Saw an AP/Reuters wire today

    The LionAir plane had same, but not fatal, MCAS incident day or so before – fatal only avoided as three pilots in cockpit.

    Flight Engineers coming back?

  27. Five questions about the Boeing 737MAX – Answered (29 March 19)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CD0JabYjF3A

    imo most important factor is Boeing & FAA decided pilots would not be told MCAS existed and it would over-ride pilot inputs.

    Imagine your car’s power-steering over-ruling your right-turn and instead turning left for no apparent reason and actively preventing you correcting it’s fatal error.

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