A veteran engineer who has spent a lot of time around the 787 Dreamliner remarked to me late last fall that Boeing just needs to stop and "listen to the airplane."
Today, we saw the first signs that Boeing is beginning to listen to its 787, and this is a good thing. Both the airline and financial communities are rightfully angry about a lack of details surrounding production targets for the next two years. When building guidance forecasts, this point of ambiguity does not help Boeing's case. Though it is impossible to divorce this from the health of the program as a whole, Boeing must remember that doing work out of sequence was what got them in trouble in the first place.
Basing the program over the next year around flight testing and certification, rather than jumping ahead to production ramp up, allows the aircraft, the processes and the management of the supply chain to mature on a smaller scale that sets Boeing up for long term success with its production ramp up.
If the ramp up had continued as planned, any design modifications that would have come out of flight testing would have had to be applied to already complete aircraft waiting for certification on the flight line in Everett or stored in the desert. This is a tedious and costly process. By allowing flight test to be the core of this program, Boeing will save enormous energy by giving retrofit design change responsibility largely to the partners themselves.
However, even before these eventualities can be entertained, Boeing must ensure that its suppliers are able to perform at the required production levels in the first place, a goal that currently appears far out of reach for some.
Taking the significant step forward by placing "additional operational experts" in Everett and at supplier partners, Boeing is once again returning to its roots by restoring the value to skill and experience in this program. This is an incredibly crucial step that will likely yield immediate dividends. Up until now, suppliers had been struggling with a workforce that, in the words of one engineer, requires "an aerospace state of mind [that] just isn't here." Boeing built its aerospace preeminence on valuing skill and experience. Making sure partners realize that same lesson is absolutely essential.
The most painful part of this program is yet still ahead, as the production schedule and significant supplier questions are fleshed out. The answers will likely not be pleasant ones and they do need to come soon.
Increased transparency is something that has been sought after from Boeing for many months, and Scott Carson and Pat Shanahan took one very large step in the right direction today. While I originally felt that disclosure of a comprehensive recovery plan including specific timelines and goals were absolutely essential for this call, I am left feeling that the transparency created by today's announcement is actually found in not overreaching.
Boeing still has a long way to go in buying back its credibility on the 787, but that starts with realistic goals and forthright assessments of the capabilities of this program.
Image Courtesy The Boeing Company