Boeing's Cultural Shift
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Boeing's flawed design of a flight control system is one of the major factors that caused the crash of a Lion Air 737 Max airplane a year ago that killed 189 people. Indonesian investigators released their report on the crash yesterday and said that system had a single point of failure, something that is almost unheard of in safety critical systems. Many people both inside Boeing and out say that it may reflect a significant cultural shift at the company. NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Cynthia Cole loved working at Boeing and took a lot of pride in her work.
CYNTHIA COLE: As an engineer, I had a lot of authority to do the right thing.
SCHAPER: The now-retired Cole says in the early part of her 32 years at Boeing, she and her colleagues had a lot of conversations about safety.
COLE: You think about what could go wrong. That was the big thing about - and being an engineer at the Boeing company, we would always think of the worst-case scenario.
SCHAPER: After all, she says, there's no room for error.
COLE: When you've got something up in the air flying around, you can't just park it off to the side of the road and fix it. It has to work all the time.
SCHAPER: But Cole says that safety-first company culture began to change after Boeing bought rival McDonnell Douglas in 1997. And it got worse over the last decade or so.
COLE: Safety and quality were taking a second seat to schedule and cost.
SCHAPER: Cole, who went on to lead the union for Boeing's engineers, says that greater emphasis on maximizing profits over safety caused all kinds of problems as the company developed the 787 Dreamliner, which ended up three years behind schedule and billions over budget. And just 14 months after finally entering passenger service, authorities grounded the 787 because its lithium-ion batteries were catching fire.
Cole says having Boeing's next new airplane, the Max, pulled from service, too, is demoralizing.
COLE: It just makes me sad.
BJORN FEHRM: Safety has always been a high priority at Boeing. There's no doubt about that.
SCHAPER: Bjorn Fehrm is an aerospace engineer and aviation industry analyst with Leeham Company.
FEHRM: But it hasn't been high enough. And that is evident today.
SCHAPER: Fehrm, too, sees a dramatic shift in Boeing's corporate culture in recent years. But he says that focus on boosting profits and shareholder value has come with a tragically high cost - two 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people.
Carnegie Mellon University business school professor Brandy Aven says there's often tension between ensuring safety and increasing profits. But when times are good, employees can feel enormous pressure to stay quiet about safety concerns.
BRANDY AVEN: There's sort of a social expectation that you are aligned with the goals of the company and the group, and you want to do as little as you can and - or you should do as little as you can to get in the way of the success of the endeavors of the organization.
SCHAPER: Furthermore, she says employees often find channels to communicate safety concerns lacking. She points to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle as similar examples.
For its part, Boeing recently announced an overhaul of internal safety procedures and reporting protocols, and the company insists safety is always the top priority. But as it faces intense scrutiny from global regulators, Justice Department investigators and Congress, Aven says Boeing must do more than just talk about safety.
AVEN: They also have to really put their money where their mouth is in terms of their culture, making sure it is clear to all employees that that will be the focus moving forward if they're going to come back from this.
SCHAPER: Real systemic checks and balances will be costly, she says, but critical to regaining the flying public's trust in Boeing's airplanes.
David Schaper, NPR News.
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