Boeing has apologized. Now comes test of honing culture of safety.

Why We Wrote This

‘Safety first’ is often avowed as a corporate priority. But in a marketplace that also values metrics like price, profits, and speed, Boeing has become a high-profile test case for that ideal.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Boeing chief executive officer Dennis Muilenburg, right foreground, faces lawmakers as crash-victim family members hold photos of lost loved ones behind him during a Senate hearing on "Aviation Safety and the Future of Boeing's 737 MAX" in Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019.

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For Boeing, there is plenty to apologize for in the aftermath of the two fatal crashes of its newest jetliner, the 737 MAX. Various safety reviews have pointed out the airplane software’s overreliance on a single sensor, overoptimistic assumptions about pilots’ emergency response, and the fateful decision to push regulators to allow the plane to keep flying after the first crash in October 2018.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg acknowledged these problems in two days of congressional testimony this week. In a dramatic moment he turned and addressed victims’ families directly: “We are deeply sorry.”

The company has set up a fund for those families. It has also set up a new channel for safety concerns that, according to news reports, went unheeded before the crashes. But leadership experts say the task of cultural change isn’t quick or easy.

“You have to pause and do some form of moral audit and ask very deep questions,” says Dov Seidman, who heads a New York-based firm that advises companies on such issues. “Have we put in place incentives ... that had more primacy than our principles and doing the right thing?”

A month before Lion Air Flight 610 took off from Jakarta and promptly plunged into the Java Sea, killing everyone aboard, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg traveled to a Baptist church in southern Illinois to talk about faith and leadership.

He talked about his boyhood on an Iowa farm and what he learned from a particularly challenging two-year stint where he had to dismantle a business unit that Boeing had expected to be a growth opportunity. “I firmly believe I wouldn’t have the job I’m in today without that experience,” he told the lunchtime audience. “Part of being a leader, I think, is being willing to take risk, smart risk, and sometimes fail but then learn and become a better leader.”  

This week, Mr. Muilenburg had the chance to tell two congressional panels what he had learned from a much bigger challenge ​– the crashes of Boeing 737 MAX planes in Indonesia and in Ethiopia less than five months later. It was dramatic political theater, with families of some of the 346 victims sitting a few feet behind him. It was also his opportunity to demonstrate moral leadership ​– something he’s committed himself to, and that most American workers say is lacking in their own companies.

“The thirst for moral leadership, especially from individuals who occupy positions of formal leadership, senior positions ... continues to be high,” says Dov Seidman, the founder and chairman of LRN, a New York-based company that provides software and also advises companies on leadership and ethical cultures.

But only 17% of American workers say their managers normally tell the truth, according to an LRN survey last year. Only 14% of workers say leaders acknowledge their own failings, and only 13% say leaders make amends when they get things wrong, the survey found.

For Boeing, there is plenty to apologize for in the aftermath of the twin crashes of its new plane. Various safety reviews have pointed out the airplane software’s overreliance on a single sensor, overoptimistic assumptions about pilots’ emergency response, and the fateful decision to push regulators to allow the plane to keep flying after the first crash, which occurred in October 2018. 

Boeing’s Mr. Muilenburg acknowledged these problems over two days of congressional testimony, first at a Senate panel and on Wednesday, before a House committee. He said he met with some of the victims’ family members to hear their stories, and in a dramatic moment at the House hearing, he turned to them and addressed them directly: “We are deeply sorry.”

But the key to a true apology is not just acknowledging the offense and offering a genuine apology, writes Aaron Lazare, in his 2004 book “On Apology.” The follow-on is to “offer appropriate reparations, including a commitment to make changes in the future.”

Boeing has set up a fund to help families of the victims, and it has repeatedly stated it has made the changes to fix the current problem and will continue to learn. It has also created a new channel for employees to raise safety concerns. 

Is it enough?

From an engineering point of view, some experts say the answer is yes. “The problem is relatively well understood. The fixes are also well understood.… I actually don’t think it’s that productive to do much fingerpointing,” says John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. 

From a leadership point of view, it’s less clear that the company has executed a fundamental  change. 

For any company in crisis, “you have to pause and do some form of moral audit and ask very deep questions,” says Mr. Seidman. “Have we put in place incentives ​– such as being the biggest or being No. 1 or beating a competitor or making more profit than anybody else ​– that had more primacy than our principles and doing the right thing?” 

A handful of Boeing whistleblowers have raised issues with the 737 MAX and its safety. And the House committee says an internal company survey showed roughly one-third of workers described “potential undue pressure” from managers regarding safety-related approvals by federal regulators across an array of commercial planes. Workload and schedule were cited as important causes. The plane is still grounded, although U.S. clearance to fly could come in the next few months.

Mr. Muilenberg has defended the company culture as putting safety first. But in his testimony to Congress, he repeatedly earned rebukes from members of Congress for not answering questions directly.

Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois accused the company of pushing “half-truths.” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas suggested the corporate culture was too complacent or too scared to alert its CEO to potentially damning documents.

“There’s been a lack of candor through all this,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said in his opening statement.

“I can’t say whether he’s sincere or insincere,” says Mike Perrone, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, an AFL-CIO union representing some 11,000 Federal Aviation Adminsitration (FAA) inspectors as well as technicians who maintain and certify air-traffic-control and national defense equipment 

The union is pushing for a pause in the expansion of the FAA program under which Boeing workers increasingly certify their own components and systems. “Let’s take a breath; let’s figure out what’s broken,” Mr. Perrone says.   

Mr. Muilenburg’s interest in leadership extends beyond Boeing. He also is chairman of a nonprofit in the St Louis area called Biblical Business Training. “With the growing crisis of character of leadership in the workplace, I believe that God expects me to glorify Him to the benefit of others,” he writes on the group’s website. “As a Christian, I take God to work with me every day and strive to lead in a way that is faithful.”

“There are different paths to values,” says Mr. Seidman of LRN. Some get there through religion; some through universal humanist values; some through a natural empathy. “The values that moral leaders have in common is that they put values at the foundation.”

He adds: “Often, we know that somebody is doing the right thing because they’re doing something inconvenient, unpopular, unprofitable in the short term, or dangerous. And I yearn for a world where doing the right thing doesn’t take so much courage.”

[Editor's note: One quote has been corrected, making clear that beating a competitor could be an incentive.

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