The failure to complete (or even attempt) the 787 test flight recently, has unleashed a flurry of information and discussion.  See Jon Ostrower’s post below.

 Then follow links to the Andrea James blog regarding this and other problems for Boeing, as well as illuminating comments from readers of Ms. James’ blog.  One of the problems that we are facing is that the problems are so large and systemic, it is hard to see the whole picture, to grasp their true breadth and depth.  And Boeing makes a habit of creating as difficult time as possible for anyone wanting to get to the bottom of things including federal oversight authorities. 

More comments will no doubt be posted on the Seattle PI blog, so check back in later for updates as well. 



Commentary: It’s time for Boeing to talk.  To itself.



Jon Ostrower

 on July 9, 2009 5:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (46) | TrackBacks (0) | ShareThis

 On July 9, 2007, ZA001, or what was later to become ZA001 wrapped up one final photo op for the morning television news shows. The aircraft sat at the head of the 747 line gleaming brand new. Once the camera lights dimmed, the 787 was rolled back to  Building 40-26 and the real work to prepare for flight had begun, a task that continues two years later. White plastic decals were  removed from the wings, painted foil covering unfilled fastener holes were removed, the  full extent of the show N787BA had been prepared for the day prior could no longer remain unreconciled against the work that would be required to make it fly.

Those working directly with the airplane knew full well that the first 787 was far from its maiden sortie, but why pronouncements like this from program vice president Mike Bair at the Paris Air Show in June 2007?

“The aircraft will be structurally complete at rollout but will still have systems, ducting, wiring and similar work to be done before first flight. When those tasks are completed, it will be powered up and proceed to ground test before it flies.”

Vought would confirm publicly a year later that the first aft fuselage barrel was only 16% structurally complete at the time of shipment to Everett.

At the time the roll out festivities came to a close, August 27th was the target for first flight, one month and 18 days later. What followed is well documented.

Almost exactly two years later, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Scott Carson said assuredly (June 15) to the gathered crowd of reporters at the Paris Air Show: “We remain absolutely committed to our forecast that it will fly in the second quarter of this year. If you count the way I do, that means within the next two weeks roughly.”

Carson would also later tell CNN at the show, “The technical issues are largely all behind us.”

Just over a week later, Boeing revealed the extent of the weakness in the wing to body join.

Yet, in that statement, there lies a question of how it got to that point? How could an executive near the head of a Fortune 50 company make such a statement? Was it just a breakdown in communication? Or something more telling about the state of the program? The information, or the gravity of the information, didn’t flow where and when it needed to.

Mr. Carson, in responding to questions on the delay announcement said:

When we were at Paris last week we had been through the preliminary analysis of the data and were of a mind that the airplane could enter flight test with a credible flight test envelope as we worked relatively minor modifications. The work done by the team through the week last week narrowed the envelope to the point where on Friday we determined that to fly would be such a small envelope for us that it would be an interesting exercise in having the airplane in the air but not particularly useful in terms of preparing the airplane for certification. So at that point is when we made the call to delay the process, identify the fix, test the fix, install the fix, and then enter a flight test program that is fully robust.

A program built on global transparency did not live up to its own early expectation and the lessons continue to be manifested in changes like the 50% acquisition of Global Aeronautica in March 2008 and the establishment of the Production Integration Center, a mission control nervous system for the global supply chain that became operational in December 2008, and most recently this week with the Vought South Carolina buy out.

Many program sources have suggested privately that as Boeing has improved its visibility outward, it still struggles with communicating with itself. Good news flows freely to the top, yet the bad news is not elevated to an appropriate level. They talk of a ‘kill the messenger’ culture has established itself inside the program, where the push to move ahead and show marked progress is often in conflict with requiring the often uncomfortable task of ensuring that ‘power’ has ‘truth’ in its hands to make good decisions and communicate progress outwardly.

During my time in Paris, I received a message from South Carolina on Tuesday morning (June 16) that told of “emergent first flight issues” with no other details available. Another message from Washington, just a day later (June 17) suggested a rumor about possible delamination in the wingbox stringers, but the source added, “it is just a rumor to my knowledge.”

From the point of view of covering the program, those rumors were almost impossible to substantiate. Separating the wheat from the chaff, takes a fine tooth comb that appears much more difficult when nine time zones away.

Yet, if this outside observer could know of these two hints a week before the delay announcement, how was this information flowing inside the company?

The story is far from unfamiliar and Boeing is far from the first aerospace company to face such a challenge.

At the height of the A380 delays facing Airbus, broken communication, both internal and external, drew the ire of airline customers, Wall Street and the media. On June 20, 2006, Flight International weighed in on the situation:

[Airbus Chief Operating Officer John] Leahy says it was the “low-tech stuff” that got them – the wiring harnesses – but this will hardly reassure the customers. More worrying is how Airbus management was apparently unable to hear the timebomb ticking in the A380’s Jean-Luc Lagardère assembly plant a few kilometres from its Toulouse headquarters. Especially given that the join-up of sub-assemblies for new aircraft had been on hold for two months and working parties were furiously trying to rectify problems on completed aircraft.

The problem of communication not only impacts the outward credibility of the company’s leadership, but how Boeing’s own employees view those running the ship of state. If information isn’t able to flow freely to the top without perception of fear of reprisal or penalty, then any report of information being disseminated from the top down may lack the credibility that the leadership needs to motivate employees to solve the challenges facing the program.

A 2006 speech by Boeing CEO James McNerney given in the wake of the US Air Force tanker scandal tackled this culture head on:

So then we had to ask ourselves some really tough questions: Were these lapses symptomatic of a larger issue with our corporate culture?…Did our people feel confident enough to speak up about ethical concerns without fear of retaliation?

McNerney discussed the solution to the problem:

To make sure everyone understands this, I think that you have to create a work environment that encourages people to talk about the tough issues–business- or ethics-related–and to make the right decisions when they find themselves at the crossroads between hitting their numbers for the quarter and stepping forward when there’s a problem.

Boeing should ask itself if McNerney’s vision has yet to become a reality.


To read Andrea James Seattle Post Intelligencer online blog and her readers’ comments, follow this link: