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Ask Boeing About “Efficiency”

January 23rd, 2020 by dk

Efficiency is overrated. It really doesn’t apply to human communications, and it’s dangerously irrelevant when it comes to building trust and respect. Just ask The Boeing Company. They moved their corporate headquarters from Seattle to Chicago in 2001.

At the time, Boeing promised everyone that moving the executive team to Chicago and leaving the engineers in Washington state would create new efficiencies. The supply chain built over decades would remain intact, but decision-makers would benefit from shorter plane trips to customers all around the nation.

Thanks to email and Internet connectivity, they claimed there would be no measurable loss of productivity by moving the bosses two thousand miles away. And stockholders were pleased with the tax incentives Illinois offered the company.

It was just a few years after that move that Boeing decided it was time to update their venerable 737 airliner. This would represent its fourth overhaul since the original 737 began flying in 1965. They opted for a “clean sheet” redesign, but later scaled back those ambitions to save money.

The 737 MAX is Boeing’s first commercial airliner designed entirely after the bosses left for Chicago. The disaster it represents has been literal for the 346 passengers and crew who were aboard the two verified crashes caused by design flaws. The company itself is facing a more metaphorical disaster, since the entire fleet of 387 airplanes has been grounded worldwide. Orders for additional planes have been canceled or postponed.

And then there’s the public relations situation, which counts as a disaster twice removed, but genuinely felt nevertheless. Felt, that is, by those who work for the company and its suppliers, but not by the man who led the company into these cascading catastrophes.

While Boeing’s suppliers are laying off workers, the company’s ousted CEO Dennis Muilenburg left the company with $62.2 million in compensation and pension benefits. If the company’s Seattle engineers designed a parachute made out of real gold, workers would have gladly shown Muilenburg the door — midflight.

Muilenburg was an executive with Boeing when they made the move to Chicago. He became the company’s CEO shortly after the 737 MAX redesign was made public in 2011. Whatever the corporate culture has become that produced the 737 MAX, it was under Muilenburg’s watch.

A trove of company emails reveal how that corporate culture devolved over those years:

2015: “…this is what these regulators get when they try and get in the way. They impede progress”

2017: “This airplane is designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys.”

2018: “I still haven’t been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year.”

2019: “Would you put your family on a MAX simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.”

2020: “We regret the content of these communications, and apologize to the FAA, Congress, our airline customers, and to the flying public for them.”

Might this debacle have been avoided if Boeing hadn’t moved its headquarters to Chicago? We’ll never know for sure, but other companies would be smart to question claims for newfound efficiencies before considering any similar moves. Trust is built by showing up.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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