Could Better Project Management Have Saved Boeing?

Our expert argues that the Alaska Airlines door fiasco could have been prevented.

Written by Nuala Turner
Published on Apr. 15, 2024
Could Better Project Management Have Saved Boeing?
Image: BlueBarronPhoto / Shutterstock.com / Built In
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Boeing, once a titan of the aerospace industry, has become a dumpster fire. Were it a celebrity, it would have been canceled and moved from receiving an invitation to the Met Gala to being invited to open a new club in Albuquerque. The issues keep rolling in and more, most likely, are on their way. 

4 Elements of Effective Project Management

  1. Control quality with a management plan that enforces standards and holds the team accountable through regular reviews.
  2. Compliance is always a top priority. Project managers are well-versed in industry regulations and ensure projects adhere to these standards.
  3. Foster a strong team culture by creating an inclusive and collaborative team culture.
  4. The iron triangle states that projects can be cheap, fast or high-quality, but not all three at once. Prioritize what is most important to the project and your stakeholders.

How did Boeing get here? It was a cluster of multifaceted issues, which I will touch upon shortly, but the one thing they all have in common is that effective project management could have helped the company navigate and probably avoid these challenges and maintained its reputation as a top industry player. 

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Quality Was Out of Control 

One of the most concerning aspects of Boeing’s recent troubles has been the discovery of quality control issues. This first came to light when the Alaska Airlines door opened mid-flight. And more claims are coming forth courtesy of Sam Salehpour, a Boeing engineer turned whistleblower. Last week, Salehpour accused Boeing of skipping necessary safety steps in the manufacturing of its 777 and 787 Dreamliner jets that could lead to catastrophic failure of the airplanes as they age and reduce the airplanes’ expected lifespan of up to 50 years in service.

How could project managers have helped to avoid this? They are trained to implement robust quality control measures at every stage. From design to manufacturing, project managers can identify and address potential issues before they escalate into major problems. They also ensure buy-in on the quality standards that have been set. According to Salehpour, Boeing had safety steps in place, but these were often skipped. A project manager enforces standards and holds the team accountable through regular reviews, so quality checks are never skipped.

 

Compliance Was a Low Priority 

Boeing failed 33 of 89 product audits that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conducted after the door plug blew out in January. 

Boeing’s failure to comply with FAA regulations underscores the need for a strong project management team. Project managers are well-versed in industry regulations and ensure projects adhere to these standards. Boeing could have implemented a more rigorous internal compliance program that complements quality assurance efforts. Such a program would have involved actively monitoring adherence to regulations, identifying potential infractions early and taking corrective actions. This proactive approach could have prevented many of the non-compliance issues that have surfaced. 

Project managers are well-versed in industry regulations and ensure projects adhere to these standards.

Along with assessing the risks of non-compliance as part of their broader risk-assessment responsibilities, project managers communicate those risks to leadership and the team executing the work. This process helps break down silos that often harm companies’ effectiveness. If there is a culture of open communication, this would work. If not, then shit may hit the fan. Can you guess what type of company culture Boeing had?

It is worth noting that the FAA runs a self-certification program, which allows airplane manufacturers to self-certify that they are following regulations. Boeing participated in the program, so one could argue that this process played a role, but in no way does it excuse Boeing. The onus was on the company to create an internal compliance program. 

 

The Workplace Was Psychologically Unsafe

Psychological safety is the unwavering belief that you won’t be punished or ridiculed for sharing your thoughts, concerns or even making mistakes. Numerous studies have shown that psychologically safe environments drive innovation, reduce turnover and enhance overall project performance, according to The Digital Project Manager studies.

Boeing’s environment was psychologically unsafe. The culture was toxic and employees were not encouraged to speak up. In fact, the whistleblower, Salehpour, stated that he repeatedly produced reports for management, using Boeing’s own data, to communicate his safety concerns. Not only were his complaints not addressed, but he faced retaliation from Boeing management. He was excluded from meetings and even received threats of physical harm.

While project managers are not magicians, an effective one can set the tone for the team culture. They can lead by example by practicing open, honest communication, setting clear expectations and establishing feedback loops by setting up regular one-on-one meetings and group sessions with the team. They are positioned to be a go-between from the team to leadership, elevating the team’s concerns and feedback and making sure they are heard. 

 

Boeing Was Plagued by Burnout 

Boeing has gone through many layoffs in recent years (some pandemic-related) and overworked its remaining employees and engineers. This has raised many concerns about resource management. 

Project managers are masters at getting projects complete with the resources available. They create realistic timelines, delegate tasks effectively and monitor progress to ensure the team doesn’t become overwhelmed.  

Eventually it gets to the point where there aren’t enough resources to get the work done, and it sounds like this is what has happened at Boeing. In this situation, an insightful project manager could have identified where the staff was stretched too thin and advocated for strategic hiring to maintain critical workforce capacity.

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The Iron Triangle Was Lopsided

A core concept in project management is the iron triangle. It dictates that projects can prioritize speed, cost or quality, but not all three simultaneously. In Boeing’s case, the pursuit of faster production and lower costs appears to have come at the expense of quality. 

A project manager, acting as a champion for the iron triangle, could have provided valuable insight into the tradeoffs involved in critical management decisions. They could have presented scenarios outlining the potential impact on quality as production ramped up or costs were reduced, allowing for more informed decision making.

While Boeing faces significant challenges, they can be overcome by integrating project management principles into its operations. Boeing can regain control of its projects, prioritize quality and safety and rebuild public trust. Good project managers who have the respect of leadership and expertise in resource allocation, risk management and communication can be the guiding force that helps Boeing navigate its current turbulence and soar to new heights once again.

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