‘Faulty.’ ‘Vulnerable.’ ‘Egregious.’ ‘Jedi-mind tricking regulators.’
Quoting damning excerpts between pointed questions during Wednesday’s House Transportation Committee hearing on Boeing’s 737 Max crashes, members of Congress used Boeing workers’ own words from internal documents to tell an unsettling story of a company culture that weighs safety concerns against business goals—as well as a relationship with regulators that was equal parts cozy and disdainful.
Among the scathing documents revealed during the hearing was an email from 2015 showing that safety concerns were raised about a flight-control system on the 737 MAX when the airplane was still in development. A Boeing engineer asked if a single sensor’s failure could cause the system, known by its acronym MCAS, to malfunction.
The workers’ concerns appear to have come true in the two MAX crashes—Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019—when MCAS pushed both aircraft into fatal nose dives, killing all 346 people aboard the two planes.
During his two appearances on Capitol Hill this week, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg offered his sympathies to the victims’ families. He told lawmakers that Boeing takes responsibility and that the company made mistakes. He also highlighted initiatives the company has announced to make airplane development even safer.
However, Muilenburg rejected lawmakers’ assertions of wider problems with Boeing’s culture or the regulatory environment overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He insisted the company places safety first, and his answers characterized the company’s mistakes as specific and isolated bad decisions—and not indicative of anything more. While Muilenburg runs the world’s largest aerospace company and the U.S.’s largest exporter, he assured lawmakers several times that growing up on an Iowa farm, he learned “that you don’t run away from challenges.”
The CEO’s earthy backstory did little for Nadia Milleron, whose 24-year-old daughter, Samya Rose Stumo, died on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.
“Go back to Iowa. Do that,” she told Muilenburg after Wednesday’s hearing, CNN reports.
Muilenburg’s departure, though, will not cure the corrosive company culture that several lawmakers and former Boeing employees say is the root of the problem, according to interviews with experts on workplace culture and former and current Boeing employees.
If culture is indeed the root, they say, it is not at all clear that the company’s new safety initiatives will make much of a difference. These efforts include new board of director committees to review aircraft design processes and other safety issues, having the company’s tens of thousands of engineers report up through chief engineer John Hamilton, and opening a channel to anonymously submit safety concerns.
“Anonymous reporting is a double-edged sword,” says Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor and leading expert on workplace culture. While it allows communication without fear of reprisal, it also “inadvertently implies that speaking up is dangerous, (and) reinforces the idea that it’s not safe.”
A Boeing insider’s perspective
Speaking up can derail your career at Boeing, says Adam Dickson, an engineer who retired in 2018 after 30 years with the Chicago-based company.
Toward the end of Dickson’s career, the goals for managers, such as himself, changed to include specific cost reductions handed down from above. The pressure to hit cost targets even flowed down to individual engineers, he tells Fortune.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. John Garamendi pointed to previous public comments by Dickson when he asked Muilenburg if Boeing puts profit or safety first.
“Most important, clearly safety comes first and quality,” Muilenburg said.
“And we have the 737 MAX to prove that is incorrect,” Garamendi interjected.
The CEO pushed back, insisting that safety and quality are always the priorities.
“Would you like to talk to me about the quality of the KC-46?,” the California Democrat replied.
A seemingly stunned Muilenburg was momentarily speechless.
Prior to the hearing, Boeing had asked Garamendi to stick to the 737 MAX and not mention the problem-plagued KC-46 program, an air-refueling tanker for the U.S. Air Force based on Boeing’s 767 commercial jetliner, reports Business Insider.
“Or would you like to talk about the (787) Dreamliner?” another long-troubled airplane program, Garamendi asked. “You have a systemic problem in your company.”
A 2016 internal Boeing survey found 29 percent of engineers felt pressure to certify for the FAA work they themselves had designed, reports the Wall Street Journal. While many respondents said workload and pace were sources of stress, more than 80 percent said they could raise worries about pressure with higher-ups, the Journal reports.
“Things had to be done cheaper, faster,” a former Boeing engineer who worked on the 777X and other airplane programs tells Fortune.
A deep part of the problem, Dickson says, is that many workers are discouraged or scared to raise problems that could affect business goals. Several other current and former Boeing engineers shared similar views, but they declined to talk on the record.
“No one wants to be the first in line to say the airplane won’t be ready in time for its first flight” or other key deadlines, Dickson said.
Instead, he describes engineering teams feeling forced to play a demoralizing game of musical chairs. Even if one team knows it has a significant problem with its work package, it holds off telling that to management, hoping that another team has to blink first—and take the hit to careers and reputations.
That isolation increases further up the hierarchy, says Dickson, who was a longtime senior manager. “The further you get up in the tree, the less direct interaction you have” with frontline workers.
From his experience, Dickson says, most engineers know their boss and maybe their boss’s boss, but they have no idea which executive runs their program.
“The CEO is so far up there, really the only (engineers) who work with the CEO are the chief engineer and program directors,” Dickson says.
Executive isolation can cripple a company, cautions Hal Gregersen, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Questions Are the Answer.
CEOs have to actively fight c-suite isolation, he says. “The higher and higher you go, the forces of isolation are just furious.”
Most corporate executives don’t realize how isolated they are, says Gregersen, who has interviewed hundreds of powerhouse business leaders during three decades of research. Isolation almost guarantees a higher-up will be blindsided by something that could have been addressed with far less pain, he says.
“If I were a representative on the committee, I would ask, ‘Where and when do people ask fearless questions systematically?'” Gregersen says.
But with Boeing’s hearings now concluded, and Muilenburg back in Chicago and out of Congress’ spotlight, it remains to be seen if investigators will ever ever answer that question. It may simply remain another of the 737 Max crashes myriad unknowns.
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