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The Boeing
Air Vehicle Development Process

"Our job is to keep everlastingly at research and experiment, to adapt our laboratories to production as soon as practicable, to let no improvement in flying and flying equipment pass us by." 

William E. Boeing, 1929

That was how Bill Boeing saw the mission of the company he founded.  These words were deemed to be so important, that they were cast in bronze and mounted on a chunk of granite that one had to walk by when entering the old corporate headquarters in Seattle.  Longtime Boeing executives had another way of saying pretty much the same thing:

"We build the best airplanes we know how,

and charge a fair price for them."

This attitude was meant broadly, and applied to everything the company did, not just airplanes.

The mission of a company is its reason for existence.  If a company is successful, it is because it has found a mission, executed it well, and the result is something that has found an eager market.  Earnings are not the reason, they are but the measure of success with these three elements:

  • On point with a mission.

  • Executing it well.

  • Connecting with a market that cares.


Prior to the take-over by a group of people with a very different sense of mission and purpose, Boeing was wildly successful in one of the more risky and dangerous businesses one can imagine.  We built aluminum cans, stuffed them full of paying passengers, and shot them through the air at several hundred miles per hour.

Alan Mulally had another way of helping people connect with the mission of the company.  He put the mission this way:

"Happy passengers, at their destinations, for a profit."

Alan had a gift for making complex ideas easy for anyone to understand.  If you pressed him to expand on his explanation, he would point out that passengers included freight and military and space vehicle payloads, and that every stakeholder in the business, including suppliers and customers, had to be making a good profit in the the endeavor.  He would often remind people that Boeing could only be successful if our suppliers and customers were also successful. 


On another occasion Alan described the mission of the 777 program as: "Denver to Honolulu on a hot day."  That one phrase implied a long list of incredibly challenging high bars that that had to be met.  Some even said that meeting them would be impossible.  But then he understood that with the process that had been developed over the previous generations, and with the proper support of the leadership team, the obstacles would be met, and pretty much on schedule.  For as you will see, the true nature of the business Boeing was in, was one of simply inventing on a schedule.

The key to making it all happen was imbedded in that original 1929 mission statement of Bill Boeing's, but it was the combination of two subsequent events, one March 18, 1939, and another on February 18, 1943, combined the experience of the WWII war effort that really transformed the ideal into the core of the culture that would transform his ideal into reality.  The attitudes that Boeing people brought to work and they way we worked together would define the company for several more generations.  

The two dated events were the crashes of prototype aircraft which cost the lives of highly respected and well known flight test leaders, and in one case, a team of guest engineers from a Boeing customer.  The first crash caused a transformation in Boeing's design engineering (DE) culture.  The second brought that same transformation into the factory with the manufacturing engineering (ME) and assembly culture.  The experience of the war extended the cultural transformation out into the customer support system due to the many factory representatives stationed with the Army Air Corps at their forward operating bases.


In the cases of both crashes, mistakes had been made.  In any ordinary business, the lapses would have been so trivial as to be of no consequence.  But in the business of flying, even the seemingly small and insignificant can become magnified and have impacts far beyond what they might at first appear.  Some would say that the whole business of stuffing people into those aluminum cans and shooting them through the air is an insane undertaking, and yet, we did it, and for quite a few years we did it very well indeed.  The reason was the culture and the example set by the leadership.  In the old Boeing, compromises in product and service quality were simply not tolerated.

The culture required in a successful aerospace company is quite different from and more demanding than what it is in most fields of human endeavor.  The key attributes of that culture are exceedingly high levels of:

  • Personal integrity

  • Transparency

  • Respect for one's coworkers

  • Respect for one's own discipline

  • Engagement

  • Trust in the process


Having a culture with these attributes is baseline.  If an aerospace company has it, then it has a chance.  Without this kind a culture, it has no chance at all.


This description of the Boeing air vehicle development process is a high level overview.  The goal is to provide the reader with an understanding of some of the key elements which made the process successful and enabled the company to successfully tackle increasing complex programs, and make a profit doing so.  

Boeing programs on the defense side of the company could be quite small, perhaps running only a year or two and involving fewer than 100 people.  The product could be an experiment to see if some concept had any promise, or it could be a huge program that would go into production, and last many decades.  

On the commercial side of the company, the goal was to produce something that would be a workhorse for the airlines.  Early efforts were not that successful, sometimes because of a political misstep (e.g. the 247), a war changing priorities (e.g. the 307) or systems complexity that required a maintenance regimen that was incompatible with the demands of commercial air carriers (e.g. the 377).  But, finally everything came together with the 707 program and worked incredibly well through the 777.  Then it fell apart as a result of the deliberate discarding of the process and its demands on the 787 program. 

Winston Churchill may not have been the original author of the quip "Never let a good crisis go to waste," but whether he said it or not, the idea expressed explains how the successful Boeing approach to product development originated.  Those two fatal crashes of prototype Boeing airplanes combined with the war experience early in the company's history created a culture within the company that amounted to its secret sauce.


The culture is the process!


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