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OPINION

Updated January 23rd, 2024 at 16:24 IST

On close inspection, Boeing misreads quality guide

Alaska Airlines 737 Max mishap triggered costly concerns about Boeing's manufacturing.

Robert Cyran
Robert Cyran
Boeing 777-9
Boeing 777-9 | Image:Boeing newsroom
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Blank look. Boeing is flying in the face of best practices at a critical time. The midair loss of a fuselage panel on an Alaska Airlines 737 Max earlier this year has triggered costly concerns about the company’s manufacturing. Its initial response has been to increase inspections on multiple levels, but the late management guru W. Edwards Deming said it’s the wrong area to emphasize.

Deming, an engineer and statistician, saw his ideas widely adopted in post-war Japan. He stressed that quality, as a mindset rather than an afterthought, paid higher dividends. Fewer errors meant less wasted resources and higher production yields. Bigger gains came from a strong reputation. The path to excellence, he said in his seminal 1982 book later retitled “Out of the Crisis,” was through pride in work, instruction rather than numerical goals, and building trust among workers, management and customers.

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Such initiatives may be harder to implement in an increasingly cutthroat market dominated by the bottom line and where employees are easily fired, but Boeing once hewed closer to Deming’s ideas. The wipeout of about $30 billion, or 18%, of market capitalization over the past month, provides a good reason for Boeing boss David Calhoun to reread Deming, whose methods helped Japanese exporters upgrade from chintzy toys to practical automobiles. What’s more, Boeing’s 39% loss in shareholder value over the past five years, while rival Airbus generated a 71% return during the same span, should help inspire a return to first principles.

Deming distilled his theory into 14 points, including “cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality.” Such probes can provide a glimpse into whether a factory is up to snuff and reduce the number of duds reaching users, but inspectors also can’t catch every mistake. At worst, they add moral hazard if employees come to believe sloppy work is someone else’s problem.

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For this reason, Boeing’s early reaction to its crisis looks misdirected. It said it would open factories to customers, hire more quality inspectors and closely scrutinize subcontractor Spirit AeroSystems. It would be better off improving processes by, say, redeploying quality control staff to help supervisors train workers and ensure procedures are being followed.

Boeing is starting to take additional steps, such as appointing Admiral Kirkland Donald to assess the company’s quality. The former director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program will understand complex engineering and risk. If he’s a Deming devotee focused on fixing the corporate culture, all the better.

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Published January 23rd, 2024 at 16:24 IST

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