With every lie and evasion that Boeing utters about its 787 Dreamliner project the story becomes less about an airliner than the wider issue of cultural failures in corporations in the 21st century.
Why can’t contemporary corporations speak truthfully and candidly about their products, or services or innovations?
What makes them think that they own the ‘reality’ whatever they declare that reality to be, without reference to the true state of affairs.
Is there something common to the DNA of current corporate culture from manufacturing to services that allowed major banks world wide to securitise away the reality that sub prime bonds were the downstream consequences of giving people with no money loans for houses they could never afford.
In the case of Boeing and its Dreamliner has it become a case of selling and maintaining the fiction of a ‘game changer’ fantasy jet rather than dealing at a practical level with the organisation of the project, auditing its progress and ensuring that the design and its technology was deliverable within defined commercial parameters.
And if Boeing had become fixated on selling dreams, was it similar changes in their management cultures that made the airlines prepared to buy dreams.
There is no evidence on the public record that a single customer for the 787 commissioned an independent and comprehensive study of the claims being made for the Dreamliner even though it involved radical, and highly attractive, departures from current airliner designs and technologies.
There is however evidence of individuals within airlines like Qantas fiercely arguing over the details of new airliners with Boeing and Airbus. Boeing’s presentations on the 748 version of the Boeing 747-400 were ridiculed off the stage. By just about everyone, not just Qantas. And the Sonic Cruiser was similarly treated with rising levels of derision, right up to the point where it morphed into the 7E7 super efficient replacement for the 767 and was then rebranded the Dreamliner.
But the Dreamliner fable worked. Everyone wanted the airliner with a woven carbon barrel. Everyone swallowed the key metrics, 20% less fuel consumption, 30% lower maintenance costs, and incredible long range capabilities.
Even Airbus fell for it, eventually giving up on a suite of improvements to a version of the A330 in favour of a higher composite panel A350 XWB design which doesn’t, perhaps fortuitously, share the carbon barrel fuselage spinning and weaving technique used on the 787, a technique which no longer looks like a winner, since the results are consistently much heavier than promised.
Could it be that Boeing is simply having problems making the transition from selling a dream to manufacturing a real aircraft, while airlines like Qantas come to terms with their failing to correctly assess the technological improvements Boeing was promising.
When Boeing called off the first flight of the protoype 787 late last month it promised a quick and simple fix to the problem it had discovered in ‘the side of airplane’ and a comprehensive statement as to how that would be made within two weeks.
Almost four weeks later it can only offer a vague sometime-in- September announcement as to how this simple fix has turned into a possible fix, and what will happen from then on.
This is a company that can’t be relied upon for any concise and accurate guidance. It can’t help itself. It is one bullsh*t statement after another. And it has been churning them out ever since the project was announced as the 7E7 nearly six years ago. It said then that the composite technology it was going to use held no surprises. In September last year it promised first delivery of 787s to launch customer All Nippon next month, little over a week from today.
How totally, hopelessly out of contact with reality is Boeing to have made such a commitment? How dumb was All Nippon to endorse it?
All that Boeing can show as of today is a small fleet of test aircraft assembled with a fatal flaw in the wing root, and several static test aircraft one of which is broken.
The executive emphasis at Boeing since the mid 90s shifted from managing the product (including such trivialities as design, materials and processes) to leveraging hype, and in the Dreamliner example, arbitrarily defining design attributes and the schedule for flight testing and certification without reference to the work shop realities.
Similarly at the major airlines the emphasis is no longer on direct senior management engagement with technical matters like safety, maintenance or customer satisfaction, but branding, stock values, the outsourcing of services and streamlining distribution.
In each there is a disconnection at the very top from close involvement with those who design and manufacture the airliners, or maintain and fly them. With such disconnection comes the risk of massive mistakes.
Maybe in this situation Boeing and its 787 customers deserve each other.