Bosses at Boeing face the ultimate challenge
“Chris, when you see a B-777 take-off you see a beautiful airplane. When I see a B-777 take-off, I see over five million parts flying in close formation.” Thus spoke a senior Boeing engineer to me during one of my regular visits to Boeing’s Everett plant in Seattle, where all the Boeing wide-body jets undergo final assembly.
The Everett building is the largest under a single roof in the world: at any one time, it is usual to see seven or eight wide-body jets in various stages of assembly, on each of the B-747, B-767, B-777, and now B-787, assembly lines.
At Iona we supplied Boeing, in all of its then 17 manufacturing plants in the US, with the networking software which tied together each of the myriad of manufacturing and assembly control systems, tracking every part in every single subsystem of every aircraft on the production lines.
The complexity of a modern jetliner is staggering. There is intense care and oversight of the design and manufacture, ensuring in principle that the failure of no single part can cause a disaster.
The electrical fires in production B-787s are thus very surprising: how could Boeing have such a damaging design failure? How come these issues did not arise in the pre-production models during testing? On what basis did the hitherto well-respected US regulators approve the B-787 for commercial flights to begin?
As Iona CEO in 1999, I recall the intense professional concern I felt when somewhere deep within our own million-plus lines of software source code, a failure temporarily caused delays in the manufacturing lines at Boeing.
In addition to our best efforts not only to test for our software failures, we also built in defensive mechanisms so that if a partial failure did occur somewhere
that our software could at best recover, or at worst fail gracefully and advise us where the bug had arisen. A failure in a production system at such a high profile customer was a spectacular embarrassment.
Engineering systems are frequently complex, and often too large for any single human being to understand every single part. Innovation requires risk, as things are done which have never been done before, thus gaining a competitive edge over other companies in the same market.
The damage to reputation when things go wrong can unwind years of respect carefully nurtured in customers. It can also rapidly empower competitors: the grounding of the B-787 fleet worldwide may well remove Boeing’s headstart over Airbus in this category of airliner, and so enable Airbus’s A-350 XWB to catch up and enter full service.
Innovation can only be done by the brave. The real test of leadership of an organisation arises only when, despite extreme care, things go wrong.