An employee works on a Boeing Co. 737 MAX 8 airplane on the production line at the company's manufacturing facility in Renton, Washington, U.S., on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. Boeing Co.'s latest 737 airliner is gliding through development with little notice, and that may be the plane's strongest selling point. The single-aisle 737 family is the company's largest source of profit, and the planemaker stumbled twice earlier this decade with tardy debuts for its wide-body 787 Dreamliner and 747-8 jumbo jet. Photographer: David Ryder/Bloomberg
Boeing has said it is focusing on running the 737 Max jet production line at a manageable pace © Bloomberg

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Am I safe? Are my family, friends and colleagues safe? The coronavirus pandemic has exposed how thin the frontier is between security and insecurity. Citizens are looking to fallible leaders for reassurance.

Employees rarely pose the same questions to business leaders. Yet they should. The evolving case of how Boeing’s ill-starred 737 Max jet was produced reveals why.

Indeed, the most striking testimony presented to the US House of Representatives committee looking into the design, manufacture and certification of the aircraft came from Ed Pierson, a former senior manager on the 737 production line. He asked exactly those questions — and received an unsatisfactory response.

In June 2018, just before the first 737 Max crash, Mr Pierson emailed the programme head about what he later called a “factory in chaos”. He wrote: “For the first time in my life, I’m sorry to say that I’m hesitant about putting my family on a Boeing aeroplane.” He claimed no action was taken.

The House committee referred to Mr Pierson’s testimony in preliminary findings that included a coruscating attack on Boeing’s “culture of concealment” and its overriding desire to beat its rival Airbus. “The desire to meet these goals and expectations jeopardised the safety of the flying public,” the committee said.

What struck me about Mr Pierson’s account was not only his highly personal reaction to the problems on the production line, but the fact he had also spotted many weaker signals that Boeing’s culture had broken down.

His initial email listed employee fatigue combined with schedule pressure as reasons why he was requesting the line should be shut down, “to allow our team time to regroup”. In a later email, sent after the fatal 2018 Lion Air crash and just before the Ethiopian Airlines accident in 2019, he also drew attention to “a large number of high hazard safety incidents” on the production line. Employees were reluctant to log “near miss” safety breaches because they did not have time, he claimed.

That reminded me of my discussion last year with managers at Linde Engineering. The project management arm of industrial gases group Linde instituted a coaching programme — encouraging team leaders to ask open-ended questions and “actively listen” to the responses — after it noticed a pattern of small accidents, such as falls and puncture injuries, that seemed impervious to traditional safety management techniques. Not only did safety improve, the “ask, don’t tell” approach also changed the relationship between managers and teams and enhanced the culture as a whole.

Financial services employees would also recognise the “production pressures” piled on to the Boeing engineers. Whether in the Libor interest rate-fixing scandal or mortgage mis-selling, banks have repeatedly subjected staff to dangerous competitive pressure, amplified, in some cases, by ill-begotten incentive schemes. Like Mr Pierson, financial salespeople might ask themselves whether they would recommend their products to their own family members.

Boeing denied at the time of Mr Pierson’s testimony that production problems caused the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes. In one exchange with the House committee last October, then chief executive Dennis Muilenburg sparred over a 2016 internal survey that showed 39 per cent of Boeing staff surveyed had experienced “undue pressure” and 29 per cent were concerned about the consequences if they reported it. Mr Muilenburg preferred to draw attention to the finding that over 90 per cent of staff were “comfortable raising issues”. That was evidence, he said, of a “culture where employees can speak up”. Mr Muilenburg has since been replaced as Boeing chief executive by Dave Calhoun. In a recent interview with the New York Times, he said he was focusing on insulating engineers from business pressures and running the production line at a manageable pace “one airplane at a time”.

Boeing now faces the additional pressure of a pandemic that has thrown the aviation sector into disarray. But one positive feature of the early corporate response to the coronavirus outbreak is that employers are offering to listen to their fearful staff’s concerns. Whether they are equipped to do so is another matter, but if they were not before, they should be afterwards.

As Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization and proponent of “psychological safety” at work, wrote recently, in Harvard Business Review, while it “takes courage to choose transparency” — over, say, a culture of concealment — “organisations that explicitly value and make paths for speaking up happen are more effective in dealing with challenges of every kind”.

Twitter: @andrewtghill

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