Changing Boeing’s corporate culture won’t be easy

Systemic errors can sometimes be very difficult to track down and eradicate.

David Calhoun has his hands full. He has to repair the seriously damaged reputation of the Boeing Company and change the organizational structure and systems – the corporate culture – that caused the problem. And while doing all that, he has to get the 737-Max airplanes back in the air and get the company back on its feet financially. His do-list is overflowing.

As Boeing’s new CEO he faces some tough going. Right now, after two tragic plane crashes, an ill-advised period of denial, and the recent release of disturbing internal messages, the company’s two largest constituencies are those who are disappointed and those who are angry.

Changing the corporate culture won’t be easy and systemic errors can sometimes be very difficult to track down and eradicate. It will require a lot of thought and a lot of energy and a lot of plane rides, because Boeing is a very large, complex company with geographically dispersed facilities. With all his efforts, though, he must try to remember that he cannot change the corporate culture by himself; it has to be done by the workforce itself.

Corporate culture and the changing thereof have been a bonanza for baloney purveyors, including all manner of consulting firms. Holding purpose-free meetings plays a central role in many change plans, and here is even a firm that advertises its stuff as “swag” for corporate culture get-togethers.

There is a wealth of material available for CEO Calhoun to consider, but he is undoubtedly aware that much of it is a sales pitch of one sort or another. While these sales pitches often sound attractive, especially to those most in need of a solution, throwing money at a problem rarely solves it, and that is especially true of “turnaround” situations. Just as you “Can’t Buy Me Love,” you can’t buy a productive corporate culture.

What we have, though, are the actions that have worked for other CEOs and managers. Based on those experiences, here are some suggestions:

· Don’t rely totally on secondary reports. They may be accurate to some extent but there is no substitute for your own first-hand information and impressions.

· Spend some time at ground level. Show up unpredictably in workplaces where the designs meet the reality of production. If there is an early shift or a night shift, arrive at 10:00 PM or 3:00 AM or so to obtain the atmospherics of the fabrication or assembly lines. Find out how, at ground level, the designers react to feedback from the production side.

· Leave your necktie in Chicago, or in your briefcase. They are a safety hazard in many real workplaces. If you absolutely must wear a tie, make it a bow tie, just like the motor mechanics wore in the 1940s advertisements.

· Establish a dedicated communications line where workers at fundamental levels can share their concerns about safety or quality. Provide your personal number for their use if they spot problems that seem to need your intervention.

· Set up visits to suppliers as well as your own operations. Visits there, though, should be scheduled rather than unannounced.

A CEO who takes this approach should be careful to leave the PR people behind. You can’t establish a useful, productive conversational environment if it looks and smells like a photo op.

One of the most important ideas you can convey to the workers is that “we’re all in this together.” Boeing cannot succeed, or even survive, without a productive work force with a strong safety and quality ethic. At the same time, neither the workforce nor the CEO can succeed if the company fails in its responsibilities. This message isn’t rhetoric, it is personal. It’s one thing to read it in a company memo, and quite another when the CEO looks you in the eye and says, “if you fail, I fail.”

That same message should be the central idea the CEO should convey as he develops a personal relationship with the labor union leaders of both major elements of the workforce – engineering and production.

Another message stems from the need to restore some confidence in themselves as an organization because that is the key to restoring the confidence of customers and the public. And the message is this: “Boeing has the resources it needs to turn the situation around and succeed,” and that concept should be a part of every meeting, every conversation.

Confidence is also the key element in the company’s relationships with investors, with Wall Street, with the airline customers. Boeing has lost a good deal of credibility in these relationships and must earn it back by restoring their confidence that the company can right itself. And the message has to be simple and clear: Boeing is down, but it is not out.

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