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Mary McAtee


How Truly Great Companies Maintain Excellence

They have no fear of starting over

Published: Monday, November 16, 2015 - 18:24

Businesses come and go. Even Fortune 500 companies get in trouble. There is at least one organization, however, that is setting a high bar for others. Do you know which one?

Let me pose these questions:
• What U.S. company is celebrating their centennial anniversary this year?
• What company is the largest exporter of its product and services globally, in terms of dollars, from the United States?
• What company was founded and managed by a single person during much of its initial years of development and growth?
• What company takes approximately five weeks to produce its flagship product, much of it assembled by tightly coordinated teams?
• What company’s primary manufacturing facility can accommodate five Empire State Buildings within its cavernous interior?

I’m guessing that you are mentally considering and eliminating choice after choice. Apple hasn’t been around that long. General Motors would soon be out of business if their throughput was one vehicle every five weeks. General Electric doesn’t require the same gargantuan footprint for a single assembly building.

The thriving and well-run company celebrating its 100th birthday this year is Boeing. It is a case study in sustained growth with very few miscues over its long history. Boeing started by building canvas and wood-frame biplanes in its signature red wooden hanger outside of Seattle. Boeing has grown steadily throughout boom times and depressions, in times of peace and war, leading the way as innovators for both commercial and defense aeronautics. In a recent interview, Ed van Hinte, the developer and visionary behind the 747, the world’s first jumbo jet, reminisced about the naysayers who were loudly and publicly proclaiming that the 747 would neither fly safely nor become commercially successful. He said that he was totally confident that the prototype would fly but his wife was waiting on the runway when it landed, crying tears of relief.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg commented that the mark of truly great companies is the ability to learn from problems and not being afraid to retrench and try again. One of the rare misadventures was the introduction of the 787 Dreamliner. Some of the initial production models had a potential fault in the on-board battery system that resulted in a small fire on one flight and overheating conditions on others. The fleet of new models was voluntarily grounded while the problem was analyzed and solved. In the future, Muilenburg intends to introduce changes in a more measured and incremental fashion, as he and his team now realize that rolling out new models composed largely of new features represents too much change in too short a period of time. It doesn’t allow for analysis at the level he feels is necessary for components, subsystems, systems, and models.

Much of Boeing’s projected growth is in the area of off-shore sales to foreign airlines. The company estimates that 70 percent of its five-year backlog of orders are to Asian airlines eager to revitalize their aging fleets, which are being outstripped by travel demands to China and other Far East locations. The Dreamliner, flying safely and proudly once again, will play a major part in satisfying this global demand.

Boeing takes a strong team approach to manufacturing each airframe and completed model. Assembling a jumbo jet still requires a great deal of well thought out sequencing and logistics. Routers and travelers are essential for understanding where a given airframe stands in terms of completion for every point in the process (e.g., what rework or repairs are  pending, what requires re-testing, etc.). This is particularly crucial given the regulatory requirements for retention, traceability, and recall readiness.

All of the elements of the quality management system must be accurate, available, and easily accessed and navigated. The ability to forensically research and discern patterns in failures, including maintenance feedback, is critical for addressing issues proactively and realigning processes and components to continually improve reliability.

Constant layered process audits and lessons learned through feedback into failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) isn’t just prudent, it’s crucial to the business. It’s not hyperbole to describe Boeing’s culture as akin to a large, living organism. Its people communicate and act as if their limbs are connected and moving in concert with shared consciousness and intent. This mindset has cultivated an environment that fosters creativity and innovation coupled with a prudent, measured approach to change.

Leaders of great companies know how important it is to evolve and innovate, but never at the expense of their core values. Boeing is the poster child for thoughtful decision making that embraces the future while always remaining mindful of the role its history has played in its growth and stellar reputation.


About The Author

Mary McAtee’s picture

Mary McAtee

Mary McAtee has been a member of the Siemens organization for more than 20 years. She is a 40-year quality professional specializing in reliability engineering for semiconductor and nuclear devices. McAtee is an exam-qualified lead assessor for ISO 9001, ISO 14001, ISO 13485, IATF 16949, and TickIT. She has lead several organizations to successful registrations to various standards and has written and presented on the topic of compliance and quality extensively over the years. She is working with organizations in the United States and Europe to develop a broader uniform interpretation of primary norms and compliance standards.