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Monday, September 2, 2019
A senior member of the union representing Boeing’s engineers says Boeing’s cost-cutting culture is to blame for production problems with the 737 MAX and other planes.
Stan Sorscher, a Labor Representative at the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) is the author of the letter, offered to the Seattle Times as an opinion piece.
“The cost-cutting culture is the opposite of a culture built on productivity, innovation, safety or quality,” Sorscher writes.
“Boeing’s experience with cost-cutting business culture is apparent," he continues.
"Production problems with the 787, 747-8 and now the 737 Max have cost billions of dollars, put airline customers at risk, and tarnished decades of accumulated goodwill and brand loyalty.”
It’s the first time since the grounding of the Max that a senior figure in Boeing’s engineers union has spoken.
Though investigations into two fatal Max crashes are incomplete, evidence of engineering errors have surfaced – errors that were not discovered in testing. Questions have also been asked about the degree to which Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration collaborated in certifying the plane as airworthy.
Sorscher, a former Boeing engineer, points to a major change in Boeing’s internal culture in the late 1990s.
Before that time, the company was focused on the performance of its products.
This was the era of the bold bet on the 747, and it was also a time when a low little plane called the 737 got its start. That plane became Boeing’s best-seller and remained so over many iterations.
In the 1990s, according to Sorscher, Boeing put workers at the center of its performance-driven universe. That plane of that era was the 777. It was a time of partnership between workers and executives as they learned together how to produce the plane, and many engineers speak of this period as the most fulfilling in their professional lives.
Among the most glorious moments – Boeing executive Alan Mulally hugging a worker who had helped to solve a problem, getting grease all over his thousand-dollar suit and plainly not caring.
“It would have been career-limiting to withhold negative information from managers” at the time, Sorscher observed.
But that has changed. With the 787 program in the late 1990s, Sorscher says, Boeing reset the playing field. Washington state would have to compete with other jurisdictions, offering tax breaks to secure production lines. Suppliers would have to compete with rivals around the world. Workers would discover their positions were precarious.
The atmosphere inside Boeing changed.
In an interview with KUOW, Sorscher said Boeing engineers receive clear cultural messages that identifying problems is thought of by management as making trouble.
“If the message is “follow the plan” and you watch co-workers who raised an objection and the problem isn't taken seriously or are they're considered troublesome, then that's a cultural message you pick up,” he said.
From a shareholder perspective, Boeing’s approach to its business has been wildly successful. The company is enduring its second worldwide grounding in recent memory.
However, worldwide demand for airplanes is riding a high. And Boeing has diverted cash flow into dividends and share buybacks that have helped boost the company’s stock.
From 2000 to the present, Boeing’s stock price has grown from $44 to $356. The stock hit a peak of $440 just before the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Max jet last March.
A spokesman for SPEEA confirmed that the union had given Sorscher permission to produce the letter, however he could not say that the union specifically endorsed it.