There have been multiple reports on the Boeing Max 737 disasters and also several other articles about ongoing quality problems at Boeing. The New York Times recently did an investigation that included problems at the South Carolina plant where workers’ quality and safety concerns were often ignored, or they were disciplined or even terminated because they spoke up about what they were seeing. In April of 2018, Stars and Stripes, a military news media source, reported the Department of Defense also had ongoing quality issues with Boeing fighter planes. And on Monday, the head of Boeing, Dennis Muilenberg had to face numerous questions at a stockholders meeting regarding his ability to lead the organization and to produce safe planes. His response was that he would continue as the CEO of Boeing and he would ” …continue to lead on the front of safety, quality, and integrity.”
What are some things Dennis Muilenberg needs to do if he wants to lead the front? When it comes to issues involving quality, involving everyone is crucial. In a YouTube video from the Deming Institute, economist and former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, and quality guru, W. Edward Deming, discuss the importance of involving workers. In the video, Dr. Deming tells how workers sometimes get blamed for inferior products. He says it’s not the workers that are usually the problem but more than likely it’s the system or management because they are normally in charge of the system and the culture. In the New York Times article, employees at the Charleston plant were repeatedly blamed for leaving tools or debris behind in the plane that could result in safety issues. Those that tried to correct the problems or bring it to management’s attention faced retribution or were let go. Dr. Deming said in the video one of his 14 points was people need to be trained and re-trained. It’s critical, he said, that people understand “why” something is necessary. There has been some concern Boeing did not properly train pilots for the Max 737. During the stockholders meeting, Muilenberg blamed the pilots for the accidents because they did not follow all the procedures but that does not appear to be the reason for the accidents. Did the pilots on the Max 737 fully understand what controls were available to them? Did Charleston workers understand why shavings, other debris or tools could cause safety issues? Some workers said the emphasis was more about getting things done than on quality so it doesn’t sound like training or re-training were done or workers were given any other explanations.
Another one of Dr. Deming’s points he brings out is workers need to recognize their fellow workers as their customer. In other words, as something is completed by one worker will it meet the standards of the next worker in line? Again, experienced employees working in Charleston who oversaw the problems of work being done by employees who were just hired were ignored, disciplined or fired. Some of the experienced employees said unlike Seattle where there were plenty of experienced aerospace people to do the jobs, it was difficult to find that in Charleston. Recruiting had to be done through community colleges from other locations. Experienced union workers were not allowed to transfer to the plant for fear they would encourage union representation.
That brings up another of Deming’s 14 points is the need for managers and supervisors to be leaders. Has Dennis Muilenberg been leading Boeing on those values he identified? He blamed the pilots for the fatal errors. Is that really helping employees to understand what they need to do? As a leader, has he been helping them learn and has he listened to them?
On the American Society for Quality (ASQ) website, a big mistake that organizations sometimes make is to put more control on the system or process. The correct improvement to a system or process is to allow workers to have a voice in the process so they can call out when there are problems. According to articles, it sounds like Boeing put more pressure on the system and less reliance on those who actually did the job or saw the problems that were occurring.
Last week, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown called on Boeing to change its workplace culture and allow workers to have a voice in the decision-making process. That suggestion is a great one. As we have been blogging about the Federal Reserve and their encouragement to invest in employees, Senator Brown’s suggestion fits in to that same underlying principle. Senator Brown knows quite well how labor and management can work together to do great things.
When we work with labor and management, either in a union or non-union environment, on problem solving, we use quality tools and techniques to develop a continuous improvement process. In fact, last week when we trained a group, we told them to always go back and review their process. We showed them a problem solving process they could use that helps them to identify the problem and not symptoms, identify possible solutions, select a solution and implement it, and finally, evaluate it. This wasn’t Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act process but it was very similar.
We also show them how a problem solving process specific to labor and management can be used with a quality problem solving process. Not only can quality issues be addressed but relationships can be improved, too, which is something that probably could benefit Boeing and their employees. As it stands now, there is a lot of mistrust and finger-pointing going on which is typical in a traditional adversarial culture when only one side is allowed in the decision-making process. In addition, Boeing announced over 400 quality positions would be eliminated and that does not help create a positive relationship especially when quality appears to be a huge factor in the latest catastrophes.
Most workers want their organization to succeed. That is a common interest most people in an organization share with each other. On the IAM(International Association of Machinists) website, they appreciate Senator Brown’s efforts and also go on to say the safety of people flying on the planes they help build is a top priority for them. In other words, they’re looking out for us. They want to make sure those planes are built without any defects so that people can get to their destinations safely. They are very willing to help Boeing managers make improvements to work processes.
During the ’80s and ’90s, quality processes were THE thing. Total Quality Management, or TQM, or quality circles were the buzzwords. Teams worked on quality projects and were successful. Labor-management cooperation was part of it, too. Whether it was TQM or labor-management cooperation, it worked. People LISTENED and TALKED to each other. They found out they had a lot more in common than what they thought and could work together to come up with ideas to solve workplace problems. But we suddenly became divisive, focused on where we were far apart and all sense of working together went out the window.
We need to get back together and there may be some hope. We’ve heard from people who are tired of arguing and the combative nature of relationships and want to start working together again. Let’s hope more people think that way, too, including those at Boeing. Those problems Boeing faces can be overcome but it can be done best if everyone is working together.