The latest chaos with a Boeing 737 MAX reminds me again of the fallout when a company’s corporate culture begins to shift. I remember Mark Miller, a ski partner from long ago who had flown B-17s and B-29s in two wars and had just retired as the president of Boeing Aerospace.
Mark would talk about Boeing’s engineering culture, its focus on the fundamental nuts and bolts of building aircraft, and the critical importance of safe construction. Cost was secondary to getting that right — it had to be, given the risks of flying all those passengers.
But Boeing is a different company after several mergers and a shift to elevating stock price and lowering costs of production. Gone is the older culture that had built the company and its reputation, “I’m not going if it’s not Boeing.” Bloomberg investigative journalist Paul Robison captured this shift and its consequences in his book, Flying Blind, about the deadly crashes of two 737 MAX planes that took hundreds of lives.
That book, even though written a couple of years ago, gives a glimpse at the likely reasons behind Boeing’s current embarrassment — a door window that fell from the sky at 16,000 feet, leaving a gaping hole in the side of MAX filled with passengers.
The corporate shift is long story, started when Harry Stonecipher came from McDonnell-Douglas after its merger with Boeing. Stonecipher once said, “When people say I changed the culture of Boeing, that was the intent, so that it’s run like a business rather than a great engineering firm. It is a great engineering firm, but people invest in a company because they want to make money.”
There was the shift, the arguable cause in time of the MAX fiasco, in just two sentences. If you’ve lived here — especially in the age before Boeing shifted critical work to outside contractors and much construction to union-light South Carolina, and its headquarters out of Seattle to Chicago — Flying Blind is a must read. That change in the company’s internal culture has recently made vivid as the MAX door/window blew out in flight and landed on a Portland teacher’s lawn.