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Boeing: What happened?

From a half-century as one of the world’s premier, most respected aircraft manufacturers to…well…

Meme purloined from the awesome Ken Lane. Now to the who, what, how, and why of it.

Suicide Mission
What Boeing did to all the guys who remember how to build a plane

John Barnett had one of those bosses who seemed to spend most of his waking hours scheming to inflict humiliation upon him. He mocked him in weekly meetings whenever he dared contribute a thought, assigned a fellow manager to spy on him and spread rumors that he did not play nicely with others, and disciplined him for things like “using email to communicate” and pushing for flaws he found on planes to be fixed.

“John is very knowledgeable almost to a fault, as it gets in the way at times when issues arise,” the boss wrote in one of his withering performance reviews, downgrading Barnett’s rating from a 40 all the way to a 15 in an assessment that cast the 26-year quality manager, who was known as “Swampy” for his easy Louisiana drawl, as an anal-retentive prick whose pedantry was antagonizing his colleagues. The truth, by contrast, was self-evident to anyone who spent five minutes in his presence: John Barnett, who raced cars in his spare time and seemed “high on life” according to one former colleague, was a “great, fun boss that loved Boeing and was willing to share his knowledge with everyone,” as one of his former quality technicians would later recall.

But Swampy was mired in an institution that was in a perpetual state of unlearning all the lessons it had absorbed over a 90-year ascent to the pinnacle of global manufacturing. Like most neoliberal institutions, Boeing had come under the spell of a seductive new theory of “knowledge” that essentially reduced the whole concept to a combination of intellectual property, trade secrets, and data, discarding “thought” and “understanding” and “complex reasoning” possessed by a skilled and experienced workforce as essentially not worth the increased health care costs. CEO Jim McNerney, who joined Boeing in 2005, had last helmed 3M, where management as he saw it had “overvalued experience and undervalued leadership” before he purged the veterans into early retirement.

“Prince Jim”—as some long-timers used to call him—repeatedly invoked a slur for longtime engineers and skilled machinists in the obligatory vanity “leadership” book he co-wrote. Those who cared too much about the integrity of the planes and not enough about the stock price were “phenomenally talented assholes,” and he encouraged his deputies to ostracize them into leaving the company. He initially refused to let nearly any of these talented assholes work on the 787 Dreamliner, instead outsourcing the vast majority of the development and engineering design of the brand-new, revolutionary wide-body jet to suppliers, many of which lacked engineering departments. The plan would save money while busting unions, a win-win, he promised investors. Instead, McNerney’s plan burned some $50 billion in excess of its budget and went three and a half years behind schedule.

Swampy belonged to one of the cleanup crews that Boeing detailed to McNerney’s disaster area. The supplier to which Boeing had outsourced part of the 787 fuselage had in turn outsourced the design to an Israeli firm that had botched the job, leaving the supplier strapped for cash in the midst of a global credit crunch. Boeing would have to bail out—and buy out—the private equity firm that controlled the supplier. In 2009, Boeing began recruiting managers from Washington state to move east to the supplier’s non-union plant in Charleston, South Carolina, to train the workforce to properly put together a plane.

That move, also, didn’t work out so well for the now-floundering aerospace company. The story details a toxic mish-mash of Wokesterism, the rise of a know-nothing MBA class, and a creeping, not-my-problem/not-my-fault corporate blame-shifting culture that replaced the former all-American can-do, git-er-done spirit which may well prove fatal to the once-mighty Boeing…and probably should, frankly.

It’s a sign o’ the times in Amerika v2.0, by no means unique but an increasingly commonplace story—and an extremely sad one.

(Via Ed Driscoll)

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