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Flying Safe: Boeing's Values and Culture Need to Change

Oct. 7, 2019
Now is the time for the beleaguered manufacturer to forge a path of recovery and renewal.

Six months after the 737 Max 8 crisis enveloped Boeing, it continues to unfold. The company hoped to have the aircraft flying by the end of summer. Nevertheless, fresh revelations are surfacing. Reports are released and recommendations made. Investigations continue. Most recently, attention has turned to the tenure and training of the pilots involved in the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air crashes.

Through it all, the 737 Max remains grounded, a costly burden for Boeing and the companies that purchased the aircraft. Questions persist about the future of this storied company. We are among those who have criticized CEO Dennis Mullenberg and other senior managers for their handling of these incidents.

We are also, however, among those rooting for the company’s survival and renewal. Large commercial aircraft are a principal vehicle for global physical connectivity. The United States, still the world’s largest economy, should be in the business of designing and building them. Further, this is a sector rich in potential for strategic innovation that can spur other commercial segments. As important, legion current and former employees—and their communities—are dependent upon Boeing’s economic vitality. Boeing also plays an important role in our national defense. Despite its missteps and misdeeds, the company is too important to fail.

Leadership Overhaul

The path to rebuilding stakeholder trust and regaining commercial altitude holds lessons for the leaders of any organization facing a major reputational challenge.

The first step is to overhaul Boeing’s leadership navigation system. This is not an engineering problem. It is a people problem. The MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) has been at the center of many analyses of what went wrong with the fatal flights—and that needs to be reengineered to correct for any shortcomings. However, MCAS troubles are but one example of the reported sloppiness and shortcuts at company facilities that manufacture other safety-sensitive aviation products.

The 737 Max crashes and the business nightmares are symptoms, not the core problem. Boeing’s moral compass itself is broken. Boeing’s values should guide decisions from the C-suite to the production line.

This begins by asking people throughout the organization, “What has to be true for Boeing aircraft to be the safest in the sky?” As that list of answers accumulates, each item should be addressed so that opportunities are seized and risks are mitigated or eliminated.

A company’s true values are not necessarily the carefully crafted words in the annual report. Real values are the defining tenets, explicit and implicit, that animate daily life at the organization. If “so long as we make the numbers” looms behind declarations of “people (or quality or customer) first,” managers, engineers, and assembly line workers will yield to the subliminal signals, and quality is likely to suffer.

In a company truly geared for safety, such as Schlumberger in the energy sector, every employee is convinced that when they act consistently with the organization’s stated values, no matter the short-term consequences, they will be heeded and supported. Courageous acts are recognized and applauded. Every employee is a sensor in the navigation system, indicating whether the company is holding itself accountable to its safety priorities, or not.

Culture redesign

Second, Boeing should engage in a deep culture redesign process. Much as its engineers agonize over the details of an aircraft’s operating systems, the company should engage in a rigorous and transparent exploration of how it can close the gap between the outcomes they wanted and the ones that they achieved.

Early reports indicate that such a systemic review is underway, and this is a good sign. While outside facilitation could be helpful in ensuring the fidelity of the process, the content of the discussion should not be driven by outside consultants. One of the stepping stones to recovery is to own the problem. Given the expertise at Boeing, most of the necessary knowledge to understand and solve these issues resides in the company. It is Boeing’s people—from board members to assembly line workers—who should lead this initiative and implement its outcomes. The company and people who ride its planes will all benefit from a safe environment where speaking truth to power is encouraged, along with minimal distortion in the information flow up, down, and across the enterprise.

The 737 Max crashes did not result from a single factor. Rather, a series of elements aligned in an unlikely, yet deadly way: The rush to market pushed Boeing to modify the 737 rather than design a new aircraft from scratch. Declaring that no additional pilot training was required to fly the 737 Max was a move to reduce regulatory hurdles and costs. The by budget airlines to keep expenses low led those companies to employ less experienced pilots and opt out of the optional backup alert systems.

Across the industry, training hours are declining as airlines push to maximize the utilization of both human and physical assets. Put these factors together along with the decision to not ground the Max 8 more quickly, and you find Boeing in the conundrum it faces today.  

The challenge for Boeing is to redesign its culture, engineering, and productions systems so that their aircraft are truly able to meet and exceed mission requirements in today’s environment. Assumptions about airmanship must match the reality of the pilots its customers employ, not the advanced abilities of more seasoned veterans and Boeing’s test pilots.

Learn from examples in the healthcare patient safety movement. From the theme of “to err is human,” healthcare leaders anticipate likely human limitations and mistakes and design systems in which it is much harder for humans to make mistakes. Their efforts are to make it as easy as possible to get it right and difficult to commit an avoidable error. Hospitals are safer as a result.

Such thinking and action requires Boeing executives to lead toward new standards of safety. This includes both the workforce inside its own walls as well as its aviation customers, government regulators, and suppliers. The flying public expects no less, and neither should Boeing investors. This is the responsibility which justifies their generous executive compensation packages. At the end of the day, Boeing is selling safety, and anything less will not do.

Finally, while the work ahead should focus on the system and not assigning blame to individuals, there must be full accountability for anyone who knowingly put lives at risk. If executives, all the way up to the CEO, ignored warnings or if supervisors told their teams not to report their concerns, those people must go. It is one thing to discover faults in a system the hard way. It is quite another to ignore a problem until the consequences cannot be ignored. The confidence of the public will remain fragile if people suspect that bad actors remain at Boeing.

All of this requires Mullenberg, his team, and the board to work quickly and decisively. There continue to be immediate engineering and software steps to get the 737 Max back in the air. The longer-term project—restoring customer, pilot, and passenger confidence and trust—will take years, not months. And that may mean that investors have to adjust their expectations. In the end, Boeing will be better-served by investors with a long-term perspective than by those looking for short-term, rapid earnings and growth. It will only get them when its leaders adopt that same perspective. The viability of this national icon depends upon it.

Eric J. McNulty serves as associate director for the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and the Harvard T. H. Chan Program for Health Care Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. Leonard J. Marcus is founding co-director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a joint program of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Center for Public Leadership. They are authors of the forthcoming book "You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most." The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.

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