Boeing Lean Blowout: Losing It on the Fly

The news of loose bolts and other ‘installation issues’ in the grounded Boeing 737 Max 9 jets is undeniably concerning. However, there is a silver lining to this revelation:

  • The incident involving the Alaska Airlines plane, though unfortunate, has potentially saved countless lives. It serves as a stark reminder that the 346 lives lost in Boeing-related incidents in 2018/19 should have been a catalyst for change.
  • The hope is that the incident, if not the lost lives, will serve as a wake-up call for all Lean practitioners and prompt a reconsideration of the implementation of their overly simplistic “lean best practices.” The toll on shareholder value may be the necessary incentive to encourage a re-evaluation of such approaches.

I am confident that these appalling disasters are direct consequences of “lean” production, regardless of what it may be labelled at Boeing for political reasons. Ironically, it is now referred to as “Achieving Excellence” by some executives who may be excessively enthusiastic or unabashed. The issues with Lean and its contemporary iteration, Lean Six Sigma, are twofold:

Lean is a North American derivative of the Toyota Production System that has been stripped of its inherent culture-driven foundation. Instead of retaining its status as a comprehensive production philosophy, it has devolved into a primitive consumer-quality tool – essentially a set of “build your airplane in five simple steps” instructions. While this approach does “improve shareholder value,” it falls short of delivering the initially promised value for the customer.

The foundation of “Lean” (and “Agile,” for that matter) lies in the Pareto distribution. In other words, you are likely to achieve 80% of the expected results with just 20% of the effort (or cost). The problem arises when the remaining 20%, particularly aspects like safety and risk reduction, are not immediately evident. In theory, by disregarding what is not visible anyway, one could attain a five-fold “productivity improvement,” boost “shareholder value,” and earn a proportionally substantial bonus, all while maintaining a semblance of integrity.

This approach proves effective in low-risk environments. For example, in cases where your mobile app freezes or your entire network fails, the provider can issue an apology, reimburse you for the day of lost service, and confidently retain their bonus. Similarly, in a startup setting, the most audacious yet fortunate entrepreneurs may amass millions and find themselves on the cover page of Forbes, while numerous, possibly more prudent businessmen quietly go under without any press coverage.

However, real life doesn’t allow sustained deception to endure indefinitely. Judgment day arrives when the falsehood becomes apparent, resulting in billions lost in share price or the tragic toll on human lives.

In light of the recent Boeing accident, let’s see this as an opportunity for positive change. May it inspire business leaders to steer towards a more conscientious direction, fostering a culture of true excellence that prioritizes human values over mere shareholder value.

This brilliant strategic move Boeing “leadership” will match the powerful results achieved by Starbucks in 2018 when they closed “All Stores Nationwide for Racial-Bias Education.” The announcement sounds proactive and help move the focus away from the root cause, and buttress the share price, thereby improving the “shareholder value.”

On a more serious note, based on my experience working with an aerospace company, the issue of suppliers’ quality is their persistent nightmare. What’s even more concerning is that it can never be adequately addressed with the approaches that the leadership of these quasi-governmental agencies is able to come up with.

And there are quite a few being applied cyclically, such as reporting more “productivity cells” on the shop floor, opening an ABCDEFGH+ outlet on the ground floor, or emphasizing the critical role of unions in quality improvement initiatives.

Making things worse in the aerospace industry is the example of their governing body, which is supposed to keep everyone’s eye on safety – the FAA. Among other notable aspects, FAA corporate pages emphasize their “special emphasis on recruitment and hiring” of individuals with hearing and vision disabilities, missing extremities, partial paralysis, complete paralysis, epilepsy, severe intellectual disability, psychiatric disability, and dwarfism.

Could this be a reason (and an article idea) explaining the increased number of air traffic accidents and near-misses recently?