Death By Shortcut

Fortune 500 Company Reputation Destroyed. How’d you like to be a CEO of this company seeing some variation of this headline about your company splashing across the media? Under the headlines are stories about a huge stock price drop and billions and billions of lost shareholder value.

And there is much darker news. The company’s actions caused the death of 346 people.

I’ve been trying to imagine how Dennis Muilenburg, CEO of Boeing, is feeling these days and what he’s thinking about the decision of his predecessor to try and upgrade the 737 with fuel efficient engines instead of designing a totally new airplane…which is what they initially wanted to do. It seems the original 737 was designed in a way that did not allow the extra-large new engines to fit on the wings properly, so Boeing had their engineers come up with some workarounds that led to significant structural changes that, among other things, changed the aerodynamics of the plane. These changes then required quite a few software fixes.

Why this cutting corners?  Boeing felt the need to get a new fuel-efficient airplane out to customers quickly to counter Airbus’s new A320neo. The new fuel-efficient engines fit fine on the Airbus airplanes, meaning that it was easy and quick for Airbus to get the planes off to customers and potentially take away lots of sales from Boeing. And pilots of the new A320neo needed minimal new training since it is essentially the same plane, just with better fuel efficiency. No workarounds needed.

The Boeing engineers knew there were going to be some issues with their reconfigured 737Max airplane so they developed a warning light to alert pilots when there was some disagreement among sensors. Really! Boeing knew there were going to be difficulties for the pilots and they still released the airplane.

Then someone made an even worse decision. They decided to make the cockpit warning light designed to tell the pilots that the airplane was facing a significant problem…an option. An $80,000 option. Yup, on an airplane costing around a hundred million dollars Boeing wanted to squeeze an extra few bucks out of their customers for a safety feature the engineers thought the airplane needed to warn the pilots about a major problem in process. Hardly an option.

Neither Lion Air nor Ethiopian Air purchased the warning light option, apparently figuring that such a wonderful well-respected company as Boeing would not sell an unsafe airplane. And they probably also thought the well-respected FAA wouldn’t allow a dangerous airplane to be sold.

Oops, I see I made a mistake. I meant the previously well-respected Boeing and the previously well-respected FAA. Both accelerated their drop in respect by continuing to proclaim how safe the airplane is while the rest of the world was grounding the airplanes rather than risk a third crash.

One more thing to consider, due to cutbacks in FAA funding they are short staffed and unable to fully fulfill their responsibility to inspect and certify new aircraft. They solved this problem by getting the fox to guard the henhouse. They delegated crucial evaluations of the airplanes’ safety…to Boeing. Boeing, the very same company rushing to release the 737Max to keep sales and profits high. Anyone see a deadly conflict here?

And there was further ineptitude. Pilots of the first of the 737Maxes to fly reported problems with controlling the airplane soon after takeoff. The same problem that led to the crashes it seems. Perhaps if Boeing had listened to these pilots and fixed the airplane or at least provided better instructions to the pilots and told the airlines that the pilots needed significant and expensive training to fly the 737Max safely, the necessary fixes and training would have been completed and even with the design and manufacturing defects the crashes never would have occurred.

There you have it.  Boeing’s rushed quest to not lose sales–led by the CEO and facilitated by the FAA–led to death for 346 passengers and crew, great and irreplaceable loss to their loved ones, a huge cost to Boeing in reputation and money, the FAA losing its revered position as the world’s best such agency, and unending horrible stories blanketing the media.

All because of rushing to get the airplane released by cutting corners in order to keep revenue, profit, and the stock price high.

Something for all of you to think about as you make decisions for how to do things at your company.





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