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Is Boeing safe to fly?

Yesterday I read yet another scandal is breaking at the beleaguered Boeing. In this article I ask, is Boeing safe to fly with? The BBC this morning are covering a story from another whistleblower at Boeing. It seems the business isn’t learning the way to handle a whistleblower.

The usual whistleblower playbook seems to be being read by the managers at Boeing.

  1. Cut them off all communications
  2. Stop inviting them to meetings
  3. Threaten them with termination
  4. Exclude them from projects
  5. Deny them reasonable requests for medical leave
  6. Assign them work outside of their expertise
  7. And effectively declare them persona non grata to their colleagues…

You would think, for a company the size of Boeing, who are already under the spotlight, the last thing they would want to do is draw attention to yet another leak. Yet inexplicably, they think treating someone who is blowing the whistle on safety concerns by deploying the above tactics is OK. At least that is if you believe what the whistleblower’s lawyers are saying. BBC report here.

Will large corporates learn?

Are boeing planes safe to fly - intelligence & risk solutions

The world is changing. And it seems senior leaders in very large businesses aren’t keeping up with that change. It seems that men, because let’s face it they mostly are, are not reading the room. The world in 2024 is a vastly more connected place. And one where if you don’t deploy an anonymous communications system, with a whistleblowing policy AND a listening and supportive culture, these stories are going to go public and very, very quickly. No matter how powerful they are in the boardroom, the leaders of Corporates aren’t important in the court of public opinion. In fact, the only court they really, really need to understand is that of public opinion.

Just watch the share price to see why.

Is boeing safe to fly and watch its share price - intelligence & risk solutions

The shares are tanking as the story breaks. This has wiped $2.7 billion off Boeing’s value. In one day. With one whistleblower.

You would think that the CEO and the board at Boeing would understand that an event like a whistleblower leak in the current climate is significantly damaging to public confidence in the firm AND it’s share price. Is boeing safe to fly, maybe the share price tells us

And yet they seem to fail to grasp this. And they fail to grasp the need to support whistleblowers now more than ever. To provide anonymous routes to report, to enable the company to deal with safety concerns very quickly, very efficiently and very effectively.

Unfortunately, the world has changed for them. People are much more aware and tuned in to corporate bad behaviour in all of its guises. Wrong moves in the boardroom no longer stay in the boardroom. They get broadcast internationally.

At the beginning of March I travelled to Cape Town in South Africa. For the first time ever, I actually checked what plane BA were using to fly me there. With bits dropping off Boeings, I was making sure it was an Airbus. I have never done that before and had the plane been a Boeing I may have shopped around. Who knows because I didn’t have to make the decision, it was an Airbus.

How many others are starting to think like this?

You could call me paranoid. But then I wasn’t one of the souls who went down in an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8. When those planes were grounded I was living in the Cayman Islands. Cayman Airways had just leased two from Boeing. Almost every day I drove past the aircraft at the George Town airport. My wife said she would swim back to the UK before getting on one of them. I chastised her and told her to get real, this is Boeing for goodness sake…

How wrong was I.

So is Boeing safe to fly?

There is a renowned business book called ‘Black Box Thinking‘ and in that book the author, Matthew Syed, recounts how safe the aviation industry is. He tells the story through the events of a crash. The book is mostly about high performance and how to succeed but I raise it here because of Matthew’s assertion the aviation industry is safe. And of course it is the safest way to travel, so the statistics tell us.

But Boeing are putting that cherished reputation to the test. More and more incidents of failures of aircraft equipment, including engine panels falling off and a door being jettisoned mid-flight. All frightening stuff when you are a mile from the ground. Stories are emerging about changes to protocols within the manufacture of their planes and those stories tell of short cuts to process, and this is making us ask is Boeing safe to fly…

It appears this is being driven by Airbus taking the lead on Boeing in terms of fuel efficiency and cutting edge technical improvements. It is certainly this that caused Boeing to alter the engine mounts on the Max8 – causing the weight to shift on the aircraft. To mitigate that shift they used software to keep the planes in trim.

Those changes led to two catastrophic crashes and the loss of hundreds of lives. When regulators globally grounded the Max8 it cost Boeing over $80 billion in lost orders and fees. With every Corporate, they are sensitive to the share price. In September 2019 Boeing traded at $379 per share. By March 2020 it was down to $98. That is a colossal loss of $171 billion in capitalisation value.

Of course Boeing has recovered since then, the Max 8 is back in the air and the capitalisation has recovered marginally to $106 billion. Still short of the pre-grounding by some $125 billion.

This loss I think is compounding Boeing’s woes. It is probably causing a ‘streamline of its operations and manufacturing processes’. And that is leading to these errors. I have every faith in the company, driven by the FAA, whose motto is;

Providing the safest, most efficient Aerospace system in the world

FAA

It would appear due to Boeing’s previously impeccable record, the FAA became deferential to the business and the amount of rigour in its examinations fell short of what was required. So the world is now watching as Boeing comes under increasing scrutiny to maintain safe systems of engineering and manufacture. No longer can ‘Black Box Thinking’ be given as a standard bearer for safety, as outlined by Matthew Syed in his book.

How can Boeing establish itself as a Safe Airline again?

There are two aspects to this and they both relate to culture. I am a great believer in culture and that if it is closely managed by excellent leadership firms will flourish. But what can Boeing do to drag itself back from the abyss?

Two things. The boardroom needs to be assessed against the OCEAN personality trait model. And they need to introduce the ‘Balanced Scorecard’ to monitor not just the financial success of the company.

Firstly, what is the OCEAN personality trait model?


Openness to Experience

Ocean- boeing made safe to fly - intelligence & risk solutions

This trait is often referred to as the depth of a person’s imagination or mental experiences. It identifies the desire to try new things, be open and think creatively.

Conscientiousness

This trait measures reliability and dependability. People who score highly in this trait are very organised, can control impulses and are goal driven. People scoring lower tend to procrastinate and can be less focused.

Extroversion

The extroversion trait indicates how social a person may be. Those scoring high in extroversion are more assertive, good at managing and interacting with people and are confident socially.

Agreeableness

Agreeableness identifies how good people are at getting on with others. These People are usually well-liked, affectionate, emphathetic and sympathetic. Those not too agreeable are rude, blunt and can be sarcastic.

Neuroticism

The last trait can be described as emotional stability. It measures how well they can control emotions like anxiety and sadness. Scoring high in Neuroticism suggests that the person may be prone to those emotions and may also have low self-esteem.


The point to the OCEAN model is to measure people and put them on a scale in each of the traits. It would identify those boardroom members that maybe tend not to keep a check of the traits that force focus on financial performance and a drive to win at all costs. To drive down cost and drive up profit while not considering the wider company health. And to use their personality to drive this rather than listen to the messages being sent subliminally at first and now outright obviously.

Secondly, the Balanced scorecard.

Is boeing safe to fly- the balanced scorecard will tell us - intelligence & risk solutions

Anyone who has done a business degree will recognise this measure of performance model. It will stop any drive that is focusing solely on the share price and profit and to balance that drive with the softer side of business performance and aspects that manage quality and risk in the business. During the industrial age companies focused on earnings-per-share and return-on-investment. But as the world has become more technical and IT driven, those type of metrics don’t influence team behaviours and the wider company culture to succeed. With employees needing to be more skilled in their jobs, any manager that tries to drive them with higher output at all costs, is likely, at some point, to push people out of the business. The drive for increased profit also means driving out costs. And it is specifically this that Boeing are in danger of.

Safety doesn’t come cheap. It starts with research and development to identify and test the components that go in to making planes safe. It then drives training and fault finding to rigorously check the theories and practice of development and operational activity. Then H&S puts in place safe working practices to ensure the actual build of an aircraft is rigorously controlled to safe working practices. And then H&S monitoring ensures those standards are foolproof and issues and anomolies identified and risk eradicated or mitigated to acceptable tolerances.

It would appear from the whistleblowing reports, it is the rigorous manufacturing processes that have slipped. Trying to enforce ‘just in time’ processes to push planes along a production line where deadlines are all important, is causing slippage in the checking and rigidity of the build. This is being driven by the pandemic slowdown and subsequent grounding of aircraft. Boeing are playing catch up. Catch up in performance measured against Airbus and catch up with orders and customer demands.

What you measure is what you get…

Anyone who has worked for a length of time and maintains an awareness of the processes of work, knows that what the leadership measure, the firm produces. This certainly happened to me in one of my workplaces where they introduced performance management as a culture. No longer did quality matter. It was about volume. The statistics are bare figures on a page. If you make one widget more than the guy to your left you are performing. No matter that widget broke after being sold to the customer.

By introducing the balanced scorecard and Total Quality Management within Boeing’s production lines, the culture will shift to meet the aspects the balanced scorecard measures.

The BSC measures Learning and growth, business processes, customers, and finance. BSCs will mean Boeing pools these measures into a single report. That report will provide information about service and quality in addition to financial performance. It will also help to drive efficiencies in production while maintaining the quality of the work. Safety will once again be on the agenda.

Find more here

You can read more about the OCEAN model and the BSC in the links at the bottom of this page. What I can say about Boing’s current prevails is this;

When your back is against the wall and someone has a gun to your head, stop fighting. Listen and communicate, because listening to your peers, the industry, your staff and your customers will point you in the right direction. Only when the boardroom start to do this can we say yes to ‘is Boeing safe to fly with?’

If an employee is forced to blow the whistle externally to the firm, it is usually because they are getting no traction internally and fear for the company and their livelihood. Indeed they fear for the livelihood of others if it is a safety issue they are reporting and you are an aerospace company.

What you must never, ever do is try to silence them. Treat them badly and thereby lose control of what they are trying to tell you. Whistleblowers save lives, businesses, careers and money. They should be openly welcomed when you role is so critical to public safety.

That is the lesson for Boeing today. To listen. Because the share price won’t move until people can trust them again…

BSC

OCEAN