Boeing And Johnson&Johnson: Two Different Responses To Crisis

Over the last few months we have observed two horrible plane crashes, both involving a new plane, the 737 Max. Two national carriers, one Indonesian and one Ethiopian, experienced fatal crashes killing all passengers on board. Quickly air safety agencies all over the world began to ground the 737 Max, but Canada and the United States were hesitant. Eventually the FAA and Canada followed by grounding the planes. This blog post is not about those actions, but about the actions of the company, Boeing.

First, I am a Boeing retiree. I loved my career at Boeing, working there for 30 years. I am still friends with many of the people I worked with, and during the summer play golf with many who still work for the company. Just because I am writing about a serious shortcoming of the company, does not mean I am not thankful for the wonderful career and retirement Boeing has given me. Now let’s get down to the issue, Boeing’s arrogance.

The arrogance of Boeing can be a strength and a weakness. Resilience is a result of self-confidence. Self-confidence can be seen as arrogance, but when arrogance leads to ignoring or not listening then you have an issue. In the late 70’s when Airbus was emerging from the shadows, I asked one of my bosses what he thought about Airbus. He said they would not be able to compete. I think he was reflecting the overall sentiment of the company at the time and was extremely shortsighted. Later, after Airbus received a big order from Eastern Airlines, this same boss would say, “let’s see if they can deliver on time,” once again reflecting the sentiment of the company. The rest is history, and Airbus emerged as a strong competitor that, on the positive side, has driven Boeing to be less arrogant and more flexible. That is until now.

Old habits die hard, and arrogance is a habit that I thought Boeing had put aside, but it seems its demise was overstated. The headlines of today’s WSJ, “Between Two Deadly Crashes, Boeing Moved Haltingly.” It took several days for Boeing leadership to make a public statement on the tragedies, and other comments appear to place the blame on the pilots of Lion Air and Ethiopian Air. As the WSJ notes, “After the first crash, a top Boeing official told a gathering of U.S. pilots they wouldn’t encounter similar problems, contending they were better trained than their counterparts in other countries.” Pilots are not necessarily the most humble people, but this seems a little over the top for me.

Boeing has since made public comments about the crashes to attempt to repair its damaged image. “A Boeing spokesman said Monday the company is continuing to work with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other world regulators on the software and related changes.” The spokesman then rightly stated, “Safety is our first priority, and we will take a thorough and methodical approach to the development and testing of the update to ensure we take the time to get it right.” Having worked at Boeing, having shown videos on the work Boeing has done in the past to find why crashes occur, I know this statement is true. I also know, that the people of Boeing who work in every facility, every assembly line, and every office feel horrible when what they work on hurt people and their families.

I’d like to contrast Boeing’s response to this event with the response of Johnson and Johnson to the Extra Strength Tylenol scare of 1982. On September 29, 1982 our greatest fear became true. Someone had poisoned Tylenol capsules resulting in seven deaths. Twenty years later the New York Times would write an article, “Tylenol made a hero of Johnson and Johnson: The Recall that Started Them All.” Johnson and Johnson took immediate action on the situation by choosing to pull “31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules” from the shelves in stores. This event cost the company $100 million but endeared the company with the world. I’d like to say Johnson and Johnson has been perfect since this time, but no company is. At that time though, James Burke, company chairman, exercised admirable leadership in how he communicated with the public and took action.

Boeing’s action was a little different. “Days after Lion Air flight 610 crashed, the company and the FAA maintained the 737 Max model was perfectly safe, so long as pilots precisely followed emergency procedures on which they were trained.” That comment sounds like a cover-your-butt comment to ensure people wouldn’t be able to sue Boeing. The WSJ notes after the Ethiopian crash, “Boeing publicly announced the final details of its planned software update that went beyond what many industry officials familiar with the discussions had anticipated.” Seems like a little too late.

The New York Times article that praised Johnson and Johnson noted that normal procedure for companies when facing a crisis is “fiddle while Rome burns.” I think that is the case with Boeing’s slow response to the crashes. There is always a contrarian view to this. Of all the new Max’s out there, only two crashed. Does that constitute a crisis? Should all Max planes be grounded? Prudence is the greater part of valor. I also know the company takes these things very seriously. I just think they could have responded a bit differently than what they did.

Although the company started working on a fix right after the Lion Air crash, was there a sense of urgency? I think if Dennis Muilenburg, CEO, would have appeared to discuss the first crash and outline actions being taken the image of the company may not have been shaken. And after the second crash, if he would have been a bit more proactive in communicating to the world how the fix would be the primary goal of the company, they could have been seen as a current Johnson and Johnson. Instead, Boeing’s stock took a hit, and its image tarnished.

Take heart children, Boeing will get this issue fixed. Flight safety will be enhanced. And as the WSJ reported, “engineers working with regulators and suppliers, were careful not to rush the fix through rounds of deployment, testing and tweaking before more testing as the changes evolved.” This is the company I know and love, but leadership could have been a bit more out-front dealing with the situation giving the flying public assurances needed to support a very good company and airplane.

And that is my thought for the day!

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