Monday, December 30, 2019

Boeing Chief Fired Over 737 Max Controversy

On Sunday, Dec. 22, members of the board of directors of Boeing held a conference call and decided to fire Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg.  Since the grounding of the company's 737 Max jetliners last spring after two crashes that killed over 300 people, Muilenberg has faced increasing criticism.  At issue is the jetliner's Maneuvering Characteristic Augmentation System (MCAS), a software patch that was intended to make the 737 Max fly more like its predecessor airframes, which date back to the 1960s.  But in documents released last October, Boeing's former chief test pilot Mark Forkner wrote in an email as long ago as 2016 about "egregious" behavior of the MCAS in flight-simulator tests.

Leaders in an engineering-intensive industry face constant conflicting pressures.  On the one hand, there is the need to make a profit so that your organization can continue its existence and benefit the public in some way with its products and services.  On the other hand, demands for resources to ensure safety and reliability of those products and services cost money, and the trick is to strike a balance between excessive engineering that runs profits into the ground, and skimping on due diligence that leads to shoddy products.  Not being qualified to run a lemonade stand myself, I have nothing but admiration for executives who manage this balancing act, and until recently, Dennis Muilenburg was apparently doing it well enough for the Boeing board of directors to keep him on.

But no longer.  After the fatal 737 Max crashes in Malaysia and Ethiopia were shown to be due to unexpected actions of the MCAS, both the U. S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and eventually the U. S. Congress began investigations into the development of the aircraft and the reasons why MCAS was designed in the first place.  As we mentioned in an earlier blog, a series of physical design changes involving bigger engines made the 737 MAX airframe behave very differently than its predecessors.  According to Gregory Travis, a software engineer and pilot who examined the issue, the right thing to do at this point was for Boeing to undertake a complete mechanical redesign of the aircraft, which would have been very costly in terms of both time and money.  Instead, Boeing chose to create a software patch—MCAS—that sought to make the plane handle more like it used to handle.

The problem was that under some combination of instrument failures, MCAS drew the wrong conclusions about what was going on with the plane, and took over the flight controls from the pilots in a way that was both startling and extremely difficult to overcome.  The Malaysian and Ethiopian crews were not able to do this, and their planes crashed. 

At first, Boeing blamed inadequate pilot training for the crashes, but as the firm has released more internal documents in response to Congressional inquiries and FAA requests, it's beginning to look like at least some people inside Boeing had grave doubts about the viability of the MCAS for safe flying.  Although the public has not yet obtained access to most of these documents, some emails released in October reveal that back in 2016, test pilot Mark Forkner had doubts about the MCAS even when it was only incorporated into the controls of a flight simulator.  The U. S. House committee familiar with the documents says that "the records appear to point to a very disturbing picture of both concerns expressed by Boeing employees about the company’s commitment to safety and efforts by some employees to ensure Boeing’s production plans were not diverted by regulators or others."

An organization's culture is one of the hardest things to describe, but it can be one of its most important assets, or just as easily a liability.  In the quasi-military structure of most commercial firms, leadership sets the overall tone of a culture, but it's a constant struggle to maintain that tone throughout all parts of the organization. 

"Transparency" is a word that shows up a lot when a firm like Boeing appears to have been concealing information that might have made it look bad, or caused regulatory problems and delays in production.  Obviously, transparency is a relative goal.  No firm in a competitive market can afford to be completely transparent about its plans and specialized technologies.  At various times, engineering-intensive companies have tried this in the form of technical newsletters, in which their engineers bragged about their latest developments in enough detail to allow competitors to copy and improve upon them.  Needless to say, such newsletters are found today only in the dusty shelves of libraries that keep material from defunct companies, such as General Radio and the original incarnation of Hewlett-Packard. 

But transparency is a necessity when it comes to issues that affect safety.  On an individual level, the moment you feel a need to hide something you're doing, this can serve you as an alarm to lead you to question why you're hiding it.  But in an organization in which the immediate pressures tend to be in favor of shipping products and minimizing any issues that would stand in the way of that goal, it's easy to simply not say something you ought to say, or not deliver the bad news that will disrupt the schedule that marketing wants to keep. 

The buck stops at the CEO's office, and in firing Muilenburg, Boeing's board of directors has acknowledged that the company's culture has to change from the top down.  Whether a new leader can take the company back to a point where its 737 MAX jetliners can be flown safely again is still very much an open question, however.  Scrapping them or recalling them for a major mechanical redesign would probably spell an end to Boeing as a commercial-aircraft firm, leaving the field to Airbus.  But it's hard to see how anyone is going to have a great deal of confidence in a fix that is mainly software, which is how the 737 MAX got into this mess in the first place. 

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