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More delays with the Boeing 787
July 23, 2009 1:15 AM   Subscribe

Bob Bogash's diatribe spells out the saga of a corporate trainwreck regarding the Boeing 787 widebody project, his readers responding with a slew of theories. Bob, incidentally, was a manager at Boeing's commercial group. The Boeing 787 rollout was celebrated in 2007 right here on MeFi when the prototype was rolled out. Two years later the plane remains grounded with development costs approaching $10 billion, and Boeing announced further setbacks in a conference call yesterday. The hobbyists and pros and the press weigh in on the news. Bob's site not only addresses the 787 program but raises larger questions about oblique technical and management dichotomies in America's Fortune 500 board rooms.
posted by crapmatic (44 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
OK, when do I collect my clairvoyance bonus?
posted by Skeptic at 1:44 AM on July 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


Could Boeings management woes have anything to do with them moving their corporate HQ to Chicago from Seattle but leaving their major manufacturing facilities Washington and California.
posted by PenDevil at 1:58 AM on July 23, 2009


Suppliers can be a lot like I was when I went to college - I was assigned a term-paper in September due in May, and started it the night before it was due. Continual on-site surveillance, coordination, and help, is what is necessary to make all this come to fruition. Without it, you get "nasty surprises," which is what the 787 is getting now.

How does the business world continually forget how to do outsourcing properly?
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:09 AM on July 23, 2009


Having read one third of the diatribe I think I get it, therefore let me make two wild references to the world at large.

Firstly, corporations seem to get too fat past a certain point, as we recently could observe in the case of Microsoft and its convoluted production process of Vista. It may seem that this is caused by two things:
- corporations grow into a separate species intent solely on its own survival for which, just like people, they sometimes employ self-destructive techniques based in instant gratification;
- democracy gets out of hand - democracy is not a system for achieving maximum efficiency, but for minimizing risk, and also potential benefit.

Secondly, efficiency no longer appears to be necessary in our western lives. With food plentiful it has become more important to keep people occupied. Consumerism did the trick so far, but now that a new resource-saving paradigm is catching on, the concept of reducing efficiency in order that everyone has something to do may become prevalent.

It is sad, but with no cold war or any imminent need to toil just for the basic necessities we have to watch these huge lazy whales of corporations wallow over our heads doing nothing but siphon money from the many to the few.
posted by Laotic at 2:15 AM on July 23, 2009


I'd like to reread this with about half the folksy sayings and sports metaphors taken out.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:19 AM on July 23, 2009


He's certainly mastered the Crazy Person Web Design (colored background, everything centered, no navigation, one long scroll with updates at the top, 99% width hr tags as 90% of the separators, thick-bordered callout boxes apropos of nothing but folk wisdom appearing at random), so he must be committed.
posted by adipocere at 2:27 AM on July 23, 2009 [6 favorites]


The big problem with Boeing is their airplane numbering system. The 747 started carrying passengers forty years ago and now we're worrying about the 787. Boeing should announce the 952 right now. Ten years from now Boeing could admit the failure of the 952 and release the 801 and people would actually be grateful for the progress.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:31 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


BrotherCaine Outsourcing is just a symptom, not the problem. What Boeing's management (like the management of many other industrial companies) is most criticised for is for having disconnected itself from all the technical part of the company. It's a broad trend in industry, with the "suits" regarding engineering and manufacturing capabilities and staff as merely replaceable commodities.

In the case of Boeing this has expressed itself in several ways: there was the management's move from Seattle to Chicago, far away from any of their production or development facilities, then the sale and outsourcing of much of the company's engineering and manufacturing backbone, but above all there was the way in which the 787's development has been driven top-down. I saw trouble brewing as soon as I set eyes on the initial concept drawings for the 787 in the press. It was pretty obvious that those were marketing tools drawn by artists and industrial designers with close to no input from actual engineers. The engineers were left with the unpleasant job of making a decent plane which still bore some remote resemblance to those concept sketches. Likewise, management seems to have set a target for the use of composites based only on expected weight savings, regardless of their practicality.

This said, Boeing is still an impressive company which will manage to build a very good plane that will populate the skies for years to come. But I do hope they, and many others, will learn from this, go back to basics and rein in the "MBA culture" in the future.
posted by Skeptic at 2:36 AM on July 23, 2009 [11 favorites]


What Boeing's management (like the management of many other industrial companies) is most criticised for is for having disconnected itself from all the technical part of the company.

See also: General Motors.
posted by maxwelton at 2:52 AM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


What Skeptic said. I saw stuff like this at IBM, the CEO Lou Gerstner came from RJR and didn't know a thing about engineering software or hardware. Management had absolutely no interest in developing software and either just bought companies for their products or outsourced the work. Again, engineering is just a commodity to them, they don't care who does it or how well it's done as long as it's done as cheaply as possible.
posted by octothorpe at 4:24 AM on July 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh man, this still looks nuts even after a pass through Readable. Next stop Instapaper.
posted by fightorflight at 4:44 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Perhaps Boeing should outsource their management team as well.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:18 AM on July 23, 2009


"It is sad, but with no cold war or any imminent need to toil just for the basic necessities we have to watch these huge lazy whales of corporations wallow over our heads doing nothing but siphon money from the many to the few."

And drive employees insane. They're good at that too. Someone I work with (in a big corporation) is under doctor's orders to quit, as the job is driving them crazy. Really. If you actually care about your job and it's place in the big picture, corporations will break you.
posted by y6y6y6 at 5:18 AM on July 23, 2009


This long article from 1983 about the development of the Boeing 757 is worth reading. via
posted by exogenous at 5:38 AM on July 23, 2009


I have a sure winner for all you stock market enthusiasts: every time airbus starts building a prototype buy boeing. every time boeing starts building a prototype buy airbus.
posted by krautland at 5:49 AM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


LastOfHisKind: there exists a corporation with proven expertise in bringing big airliner projects to fruition who would certainly be happy to take over Boeing's outsourced management team requirements.

It's called Airbus.
posted by cstross at 6:01 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's very interesting that Ford got it's act together... fixing reliability issues, improving the fit and finish of their product, putting a focus on style and design, improving relations with their unions and suppliers, and getting out on the leading edge of hybrid design and high-power/low-consumption engines... just as Boeing falls to pieces.

Alan Mulally came to ford from Boeing, and put in place the same management style that made Boeing a success, at the same time Boeing's board decided to put in place the same management style that made Ford a failure.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:02 AM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's called Airbus.
And what a godawful name "Airbus" is for it too. We managed to come up with "Concorde" the last time we all collaborated, but the best we could do this time round was to reference a poxy, rattling old bus? Yes, planes are planet-killers and airports are horrible, but could we at least try to cling on to some of that jet-age glamour? Get that damn bus off my lawn.
posted by fightorflight at 6:04 AM on July 23, 2009


cstross Airbus management is no marvel either. Although it's more tech-conscious than Boeing (that with most Airbus managers being engineers), it's riven by the kind of Byzantine nationality politics that hamper most European projects. Much of the A380's troubles stemmed directly from Airbus France and Airbus Germany refusing to use the same CAD tools, for instance.
posted by Skeptic at 6:16 AM on July 23, 2009


exogenous : This long article from 1983 about the development of the Boeing 757 is worth reading.
"I think when you build an airplane for the first time it's an excitement because it didn't exist. Take the 757. Somebody said, 'We'll cut out this piece of sheet metal and we'll bend it this way. And we'll go get this wire and we'll string it this way. And this pipe and bend it.'

"And they put all these things together and they're inanimate. Nothing's moving. Then they fill it up with fuel, light it up, and it takes off and flies! It becomes alive all of a sudden."
Sounds like building airplanes was much simpler in the 80s : )
posted by memebake at 6:20 AM on July 23, 2009


Speaking as someone who has looked at strategic plans for various complex and technical projects and said things like, "I wonder if anyone has told them Dilbert is not a How To type of publication?" I can see a lot of Bob's points, but, well, I think he (and Boeing management, and Microsoft, and my own corporate overlords) make their big mistake right here:

Yes - I know - she'll say 'I just don't understand.' Airplanes and systems and avionics are more complex and didn't exist nor were they as challenging to build in "the good old days." What a crock! Only 19 years elapsed from the first flight of the Model 40 fabric covered biplane to the sleek six-jet B-47.

If you're building a machine with one moving part you can be accurate to the nearest foot and probably still get the job done. But as complexity goes up, the precision and accuracy you need to maintain doesn't go up linearly. A small turbine engine with 0.005" precission will die a glorious death in pretty short order.

Somewhere I read an essay by Eric Raymond that was basically further musings on the nature of "The Cathedral and the Bazaar." In it he talked a lot about complexity and interactions and, for example, why, in hindsight, it's so obvious that big centrally planned economies are doomed to fail.

Why would you expect a big centrally planned corporation to succeed?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:38 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


> Secondly, efficiency no longer appears to be necessary in our western lives. With food plentiful it has become more important to keep people occupied.

Really? It's not gainful employment, it's just private daycare?

Even before the crash, most corporations aimed to provide the most products/services, at the lowest quality they can get away with, with the least number of employees, at the lowest possible cost. Salary/wages and benefits have been stagnant or eroding, work hours increasing... employees are no longer seen as long-term assets.
posted by Artful Codger at 6:52 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


corporations grow into a separate species intent solely on its own survival

Corporations start out intent solely on their own survival. This is a great thing when survival means "producing better products at lower cost than our dozens of competitors". Not so great when survival means "maintaining the oligopoly in a market that new competitors have too much trouble entering" because you've managed to merge with and buy out all the competition.

It's especially ugly in the aerospace industry, of course, because those competitive barriers to entry aren't just unnatural ones, they're partly consequences of the fact that designing an improved state-of-the-art jumbo jet is a hell of a lot harder than designing a better mousetrap. But I wonder if we aren't subsidising the process with more than just government purchasing contracts... charging the same corporate tax rate for a company with 150 employees and a company with 150,000 might be less fair than it sounds.
posted by roystgnr at 7:17 AM on July 23, 2009


If you can't get enough here's an excellent blog that talks details.
posted by Edward L at 8:14 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


The rot at Boeing started with their merger with McDonnell Douglas. McDD were, by the early 1990s, marketing their airliners as a cash cow with no engineering R&D to speak of, while going after lucrative military contracts. Boeing were still a technology-driven, principally civilian-market focussed company. But after the merger, execs with history at McDD ended up on the board, and their grand strategy was to cut Boeing's R&D and make all the mistakes McDD had made in the preceding ten years (culminating in their being relegated to an also-ran in the civilian market).

My suspicion is that the Boeing 787 is the start of a very painful re-learning process, in which Boeing realize that their core competency is -- and must always be -- engineering management, not sales/marketing and military contract finagling.
posted by cstross at 8:19 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Boeing's ultimate problem is that they thought that by moving to Chicago they'd be closer to their customers (in DC) and have better control over the old MD plants in the Midwest. In a sense, they were positioning themselves to collect more military contracts at the cost of commercial contracts.

In doing so, they no longer could just jump in the car and drive to Renton or Everett and see what the hell the problem was. Instead, they'd have to call a middle manager in Everett who'd tell his boss everything was fine and his boss would call the CEO's assistant and leave a message.

That they proceeded to outsource just about every part of the 787 to umpteen companies around the world they'd never dealt with before -- and had to build a supply chain of planes and boats and trains to ship them from umpteen places to Everett -- just compounded the problem. Mind you, they've outsourced things before -- metro Seattle is littered with shops that make parts for Boeing -- but they'd never yielded control of big things, like fuselages, to outside vendors before.

Their first step in correcting this mess seems to be to take control of the vendors. This, of course, is freaking out politicians in Olympia. But honestly, Boeing isn't in a position to shutter their Puget Sound plants because they have nowhere else to go for final assembly, and acquiring a skilled workforce to build planes for cheap isn't just about hiring some Asian kids to spread epoxy and weld joints. Right now, they don't have the money to make such a move. So they're stuck with the mess they've made for the time being, all while losing those military contracts they were so set to pick up by moving closers to the other Washington.

As skeptic said, Boeing is an "MBA culture" now, and MBAs don't build airplanes.
posted by dw at 8:24 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Putting this into perspective. Boeing is *always* 2-3 years late on every aircraft type delivered. Why they or anyone else would think this project is any different is hard to image, especially given just how new this aircraft is.
The high levels of composites means that they have a lot learn as the work through this. Fastener failures and structural issues are signs of that.
The next issue will be onboard systems. These planes are very, very chatty both in the air and on the ground - the data has to be good and the maint. systems have to show they work for it to be allowed to fly.

Finally, there is a lot of technology on the 87 that is not supposed to be 'flying around'. For example, any hit to the carbon body needs to be repaired per the SRM (structural repair manual) but this now contains all sorts of sensitive information. For this reason, Boeing have to be able to support the airframes anywhere in the world, flying out techs if required (They're trying to sell GoldCare, a 'support as a service' model where airlines lease the aircraft, outsource the maintenance to Boeing, so they can get on with the job of filling and flying them).

In essence, this isn't an aircraft, it's system of systems. It is really very different from any non-military jet currently flying and a real departure from anything Boeing has done before, partly because, unlike airbus, they are always very conservative in design. (/used to work on the maint. platform for the 787)
posted by fingerbang at 8:24 AM on July 23, 2009 [5 favorites]


Boeing's problems did not start with the MD merger. By the time the merger was going through they began having serious problems with the 737 Next Generation line which caused them to bleed money in the late 90s. Had there been two years difference it would have been McDonnell-Douglas buying Boeing not the other way around.
posted by Edward L at 8:28 AM on July 23, 2009


Sometimes when you are on the bleeding edge of technology, you bleed.

That's no way to run a company, unless you are Steve Jobs, who farts miracles.
posted by Xoebe at 8:41 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


For what I read, it sounds pretty typical of changes in management culture pushed from top down, especially without an understanding of the in's and out's specific to a business. The killer part is a lack of oversight and control for the new setup, and, most importantly, and unwillingness to admit a mistake and backtrack. You end up throwing good money after bad in the hopes that enough will eventually pan out.

Of course, specific to Boeing, the "hand holding" niceties might include an unwillingness to lay off mechanics every year or two, like they did in the 80's. Because, you know, hire and fire for projects might be a financially great plan, but boy, what a shitty ethic in terms of caring for your workforce. (Spoken as friends of mine are shat out from the contractor mill at Microsoft...)
posted by yeloson at 8:44 AM on July 23, 2009


Thanks for posting this. Other folks have said it, but to reiterate (based on experience in technologically complex projects):

- Technology is now very complex, and the gap between those who manage technology and those who understand technology is now very large - often unbridgeable it seems

- Technological projects are now very complex, with many more levels of integration required, and many more examples of 'fixing X now causes problems with Y and Z' types of unintended consequences, and emergent complex outcomes

- The Peter Principle, with a vengeance, especially with MBA/middle management types, who confuse the outcome of a privileged education (e.g. a degree from an Ivy League university) with actual competence and/or knowledge of the world

- Distributed/remote corporation comms supported by VOIP, intranets, knowledge management tools, groupware, etc., is still no substitute for face-to-face

On many levels, in these large-scale projects, no-one really knows what is going on any more.
posted by carter at 9:17 AM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Every now and then I feel like the little kid in the Emperor's New Clothes.

The plane is too big.
posted by philip-random at 9:24 AM on July 23, 2009


That's a pretty serious design issue, btw - where the wing meets the fuselage. It's not like a toilet that doesn't flush properly ...
posted by carter at 9:26 AM on July 23, 2009


What Boeing's management (like the management of many other industrial companies) is most criticised for is for having disconnected itself from all the technical part of the company.

HP under Carly Fiorino would be another example. And might explain why Apple is doing so well under Steve Jobs.

But on the other hand, while this may be a problem that affects huge companies, what about all the small companies that go under due to engineers going wild and producing utterly impractical designs and ideas? I think practicality ought to be something that engineers consider but how often does every other consideration take a back seat to awesome. The F22 might be an example of this, or like the Apple Newton.

Somewhere I read an essay by Eric Raymond that was basically further musings on the nature of "The Cathedral and the Bazaar." In it he talked a lot about complexity and interactions and, for example, why, in hindsight, it's so obvious that big centrally planned economies are doomed to fail.

Eric Raymond is an idiot.
posted by delmoi at 9:36 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Because, you know, hire and fire for projects might be a financially great plan, but boy, what a shitty ethic in terms of caring for your workforce.

It isn't just wrong ethically. When you are dealing with a highly skilled workforce it's downright suicidal. If you're in a burger-flipping kind of business, hire-and-fire may work out financially, as you have a wide pool of labour from which to hire when you need to ramp up. If, however, your business requires workers with a very specific skillset, your potential labour pool shrinks rapidly, especially if you've previously alienated half of the people with that skillset by firing them for short-term gain.

There just aren't that many qualified aircraft mechanics and engineers, and previous redundancies certainly haven't encouraged anybody to join those professions. Why go through all that training when learning a handful of management-speak platitudes may land you a better paid job in which you can decide who's getting fired next?
posted by Skeptic at 9:48 AM on July 23, 2009


What about all the small companies that go under due to engineers going wild and producing utterly impractical designs and ideas?

These are very few, because these companies can't get funding (late '90s notwithstanding.) VC's generally hire tech-heads to scope out the operation, and insist on having some say-so in the company, just so they can catch and correct this sort of mistake.

Small tech firms go under, generally, for two reasons. First, the market research didn't pan out, and the demand just wasn't there in the levels required to make a go of it. Second, the market research didn't pan out, and there was too much demand, forcing the company to toss aside their business plan, growing too quickly and taking on too much debt/capital to do it - a glitch in the supply chain or product development will kill it dead, as will a sudden lowering of demand back to levels originally forecast.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:55 AM on July 23, 2009


Dream on. . . .
posted by Danf at 9:56 AM on July 23, 2009


Delmoi's comments are intriguing. I looked at a number of CEO profiles just now on Wikipedia and am just astounded at how unprofitable or abominable leadership is almost always never the end of an executive career but results in a compensation increase or being recruited by other big companies. Instead of big tycoons like the Rockefellers who live and die with their companies, what we have is a system of individual-scale corporate raiders moving in and out of the highest echelons of American business. There's no point in firing the board when slipshod executives from some other bloated corporation will just take their place.

American business has achieved some kind of strange success during the last 25 years in institutionalizing horizontal incompetency and a vertical glass ceiling. I guess in the end, companies with poisonous management will get what's coming to them, but when the people responsible are already off on plum assignments elsewhere, the company can't compete on the global marketplace, and only handfuls of Americans can find decent jobs, this is really, really not a good direction for the country. The marketplace is supposed to fix all this, but I think it will -- the chickens are coming home to roost and the sky is awfully black in that direction.
posted by crapmatic at 10:20 AM on July 23, 2009 [16 favorites]


crapmatic, if I could favorite your comment a dozen times, I would.

That said, it's a meta-problem. And meta to that, is the educational system in this country. And so on. However, there are issues specific to Boeing, in addition to all the problems you mentioned and the problems that are the result of yet bigger issues.

Besides there simply are not that many manufacturers of large commercial passenger jets. As a customer, what choice do you have, but smile thinly, when there's yet another issue with your jet order. And so, the incentive to fix problems is not as strong as it should be.
posted by VikingSword at 1:14 PM on July 23, 2009


Just did the tour of Everett this morning. Funnily enough, none of this was mentioned, despite it being splashed all over the Seattle front pages yesterday. I did however learn that it will change the way we fly. Because it will cure jetlag, won't have window blinds and the wings flap like a bird. And there will be a free colonic irrigation for every passenger using water from Mount Rainier. I might have made that last one up.
posted by jontyjago at 2:51 PM on July 23, 2009


Delmoi's comments are intriguing. I looked at a number of CEO profiles just now on Wikipedia and am just astounded at how unprofitable or abominable leadership is almost always never the end of an executive career but results in a compensation increase or being recruited by other big companies. Instead of big tycoons like the Rockefellers who live and die with their companies, what we have is a system of individual-scale corporate raiders moving in and out of the highest echelons of American business. There's no point in firing the board when slipshod executives from some other bloated corporation will just take their place.

Philip Greenspun made a succint summary of this noting that almost all the increased wealth generated by companies in the 90s and subsequent went into the pockets of their executives.
posted by rodgerd at 6:24 PM on July 23, 2009


Greenspun was just jealous, but he's since joined the wealth-pocketing executives with the demise of ArsDigita.
posted by Hello Dad, I'm in Jail at 12:45 AM on July 24, 2009


Boeing is an "MBA culture" now, and MBAs don't build airplanes.

This is an endemic problem amongst large swathes of industry (or what remains of it) in the US and UK. If I was the best engineer in a large plastic shower-curtain ring manufacturer, I couldn't get an engineering job in a tech firm. Specific industry knowledge and experience is deemed a must. But if I was the worst exec on the board of the shower-curtain ring company, no-one would bat an eyelid if I got hired on the board of a tech firm.
To a certain extent, you can get away with it, as long as those with general management and finance experience are balanced on the board by those who actually have any fucking clue what you make, how you make it and why your customers want it made that way. When your entire board is populated by the MBA guys who see the manufacturing process as a costly black box between investment and profit, you're in trouble. And, as the MBA guys like hiring others of their own ilk, the ineptitude has spread like a virus and led us to our current parlous situation. I'd pack the fuckers off to the stars along with the telephone sanitisers, if I had my way.
posted by Jakey at 5:38 AM on July 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


I am an aero engineer by training; I graduated in '96 at the trough of the aerospace job market (right after the Great Merging that left basically Boeing and Lockheed standing). Myself and a large chunk of my classmates ended up in software instead. Our timing was right (before Bubble 1.0) and our skills translated (aero engineering is very software-heavy due to cost necessities). Add to this that the geographies of the two industries intersect quite a bit (California, Washington, Texas, Atlanta) and I wouldn't be surprised if a big chunk of my generation of aero engineers followed suit and joined the software industry: it wasn't (just) the money, it was also the opportunity to work in smaller, nimbler companies that don't subsist on government handouts/contracts.

I wonder how much of the troubles of the aerospace and automotive industries in the last few years are due to a brain-drain of engineers to software, consulting and yes, investment banking.
posted by costas at 9:52 AM on July 31, 2009


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