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The Meaning of Personal Integrity in the Old Boeing

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The challenge that all commercial airplane companies faced right from the beginnings of the industry in the 1920s, was to earn the public's trust.  The goal as articulated by Glenn Martin as early as 1912 was to move routine human travel into the air.

In the early days of aviation, the business was heavily promoted, and perhaps even subsidized, by airmail contracts with the post office.  A dark side of that, was an almost monthly stream of news stories about young pilots being killed flying the mail.  The industry's goal became one of zero accidents.  By the late 1980s, this goal had nearly been achieved.  The public trusted Boeing in a way that they trusted few other companies.

The path toward earning the public's trust started deep inside the aerospace companies with they way air vehicles were conceived, funded, designed, built, and then supported when in service with the customers.


As a young auditor with experience in tax accounting, entering a world in which the focus was exclusively on the suitability of products for the needs of the customers, and in which both budgets and earnings were seen as mere tools for achieving customer needs - well that was a transformative experience.  If one was going to survive or even thrive in that world, one's world view was going to be totally changed.  Accounting may have been about trusting the monetary numbers, but those monetary valuations had a kind of primacy that was almost totally absent in Boeing.  Here was a company that was making a lot of money and paying its people well, but it was quite clear that was not what they were about. 


As mentioned elsewhere on my website, when I first joined the company I thought I would stay a couple of years and then move on to the next accounting gig.  My friend Ralph who had hired me to help with his networked computing project knew this.  After I had been there about a year he called me into his office one day for an interesting discussion about my future.  He explained that I would not get rich working for Boeing, but that I would make a good income and be able to have a nice house and send my kids to college (I was single at the time).  It was a very different kind of sales pitch from what one normally encounters in the world of finance.  But this company was about something else.  It would be a couple more years before I personally decided to commit to the company for good, but the several implications of what he told me that day were definitely on my mind.  This place was different, and after the first year, I was being asked to consider staying for good.  And oddly, or so it seemed to me at the time, it was more about completely buying into the customer focused culture than any of the details about the work.

If I had to distill down into just a couple of words what the Boeing culture of integrity was all about, it would have to be something along the lines of always being able to be relied upon to meet one's commitments.  If you had a deliverable that was due on a particular date, you delivered on that date, if not a tad earlier - period.  If your deliverable was at risk, you explained the problem and asked for help, but missing your commitment was simply not acceptable.  If you missed, you had better be in the hospital or dead.  If one of your teammates needed some help and you could provide it, you did.  It wasn't just your own deliverables for which you were responsible, you were also on the hook for those of your whole team.  Boeing people took care of each other in ways I had never seen outside of family relationships.  This may have looked and even felt like altruism, but it was something a little different.

In the old Boeing, the primacy of the customer's mission demanded a level of engagement that was different.  Committing to do something was more like a blood oath than a normal business acceptance of a task or responsibility.  Failure was not an option, or at least if something was going to fail, it was the whole company that was going to take ownership for it, and not just the corporate entity, but all 135,000 plus employees (roughly the size of the company in 1983 when I joined it).  This became crystal clear in 1985 with the JAL 123 crash.  Instead of lawyering up the way the current leaders of the company do, T Wilson, the CEO at the time, publicly took personal responsibility for the crash and told the JAL and the world that we would do whatever it took to make it right and fix the problems.  And, in what would have been almost unthinkable in most other companies, a process of change and transformation began almost immediately, although I wouldn't personally become involved in that transformation for almost a decade.  T made it clear.

Everything we did was to enable the customer to fulfill their mission - period, end of story.

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