Going to School on Boeing’s 737 MAX Crisis

Did Skewed Priorities and Procrastination Contribute to the Aircraft Manufacturer’s Escalating Problems?  

5/7/19 – – As reputational storms go, they don’t get much bigger or more threatening than the tempest pounding Boeing right now. Mounting evidence suggests that the aircraft manufacturer, facing stiff competition from Airbus, rushed its 737 MAX into service, resulting in design, software and pilot training problems that likely contributed to fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

We still don’t know all the facts, but I believe there are valuable crisis-prevention lessons to be learned from Boeing’s turbulence.

In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Where Crises Come From”), we examine nine sources from which the majority of survival-threatening situations spring: People, Products, Priorities, Policies, Performance, Politics, Procrastination, Privacy and Past. At least two of these sources, Priorities and Procrastination, are applicable here.


Less than two weeks after the crash of Ethiopian Air flight 302, this headline in the March 23, 2019, New York Times raised a serious red flag: “Boeing Was ‘Go, Go, Go’ to Beat Airbus with the 737 MAX.” The article explained:

“Boeing faced an unthinkable defection in the spring of 2011. American Airlines, an exclusive Boeing customer for more than a decade, was ready to place an order for hundreds of new fuel-efficient jets from the world’s other major aircraft manufacturer, Airbus.”

To meet this urgent competitive threat, Boeing decided to quickly upgrade its very popular, safe 737 plane. The company went to work getting the 737 MAX into production at what a former Boeing engineer described as a “frenetic pace.”

Did the burning organizational priority to maintain American Airlines’ loyalty create an environment in which short cuts (very uncharacteristic of Boeing) were tolerated? Intense performance pressures and skewed incentives can lead companies to do bad things. Whenever the end justifies the means, crises are right around the corner.

Volkswagen engineers installed software in diesel engines to cheat emissions tests at the same time the company was locked in on the audacious goal of beating GM and Toyota to be the top-selling global automotive manufacturer. Facebook ignored clear signs of trouble as it chased exponential growth by connecting more and more people with little regard for the nature of the discourse on its platform. Wells Fargo’s retail bankers opened sham accounts to achieve unrealistic, hour-by-hour sales targets to deliver unsustainable growth.

Nothing wrong with tackling big projects or setting lofty goals. But a win-at-all-costs strategy inevitably leads to trouble. The investigations now underway will determine if Boeing cut corners and answer these questions: What did Boeing know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it? Things don’t look good on that front either.


This shocking headline appeared on the front page of the May 6, 2019, Wall Street Journal: “Boeing Knew of Problem for a Year.” Here’s what the Journal reported:

“Boeing didn’t share information about a problem with a cockpit safety alert for about a year before the issue drew attention with the October crash of a 737 MAX jet in Indonesia . . . It was only after a second MAX accident in Ethiopia nearly five months later that Boeing became more forthcoming with airlines about the problem.”

As we discuss in The Crisis Preparedness Quotient, “The vast majority of crises simmer before they boil. Allowing a known problem to fester, a small issue to grow larger, or an important need to go unaddressed is often the prelude to crisis.” The media’s coverage of and the public’s reaction to a crisis are far more harsh when it becomes clear that people within a company knew about something and did nothing about it until lives were lost. Everybody makes mistakes. But willful procrastination is hard to forgive when two passenger planes fall out of the sky.

It’s always better to go to school on someone else’s crisis than to suffer through a crisis of your own. Boeing’s unfolding 737 MAX crisis will be fascinating to observe and analyze. But don’t just watch. Crisis communicators and counselors should take this opportunity to initiate discussions within their own organizations to honestly assess if pressures from skewed priorities are creating problems or if procrastination is allowing correctable issues to go unaddressed. Such timely self-awareness within Boeing could have prevented a crisis and saved hundreds of lives. 


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