The domino effect: How production pressure caused yet another crisis for Boeing

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun has been questioned about the speed at which the company can increase the output of its 737 MAX after a series of quality issues. He initially stated that the company would return to 38 jets a month and was "anxious to build from there as fast as we can." However, a modern jetliner left Boeing's Renton factory with a loose door panel, setting the clock ticking on a terrifying mid-air blowout on January 5. This has triggered soul-searching about quality controls and plunged Boeing into its second safety crisis in five years.


Regulators have suspended Boeing's plans to ramp up 737 output, and Calhoun now says it's time to "go slow to go fast," casting doubt on the shape of its recovery from back-to-back crises. Interviews with a dozen current and former industry executives suggest that the pressure to produce coupled with an exodus of experienced workers contributed to a slow-rolling industrial train wreck. Boeing has been more focused on investing in higher production rates than taking its quality system to the next level. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has raised serious questions about Boeing's quality inspection processes. The seeds of problems that have beset Boeing were sown many years before but accelerated after the crisis caused by the MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019 and the industry chaos during the pandemic.

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Boeing and Airbus have been increasingly relying on the car industry to improve their factories and supply chains, resulting in cheaper parts in exchange for high volume. Both companies have dropped criticized supplier cost-cutting projects during the COVID pandemic, and Boeing's supply chain chief Ihssane Mounir has urged suppliers to join a forum of over 30 companies to help untangle supply chains. Airbus and others have also faced quality and staff shortages as the pandemic disrupted an already stretched supply chain.


Speed alone was not the problem, as Boeing had reached a peak of 57 jets a month with fewer quality problems before the second of two MAX crashes interrupted output in 2019. However, as Boeing rebuilt production in the wake of the pandemic, it grappled with a series of high-profile manufacturing defects that slowed or even stopped airplane deliveries. Boeing will now be under pressure to connect the dots more quickly, but industry executives argue that human inspections are essential and raise questions about the lingering effect of previous cost cuts and Boeing's culture. Boeing and others are now trying to woo back workers but face a brain drain just as output speeds up. The classic manufacturing playbook requires that production stays in sync with the capacity of suppliers to provide parts and the familiarity that workers develop as they repeat new tasks.

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