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April 16 & 17, 2025

LVCC, Las Vegas

It's Hard Being Boeing These Days

Boeing can’t seem to catch a break. Every week – or day, in some cases – new headlines appear and call attention back to quality concerns on their planes or damaging revelations from Federal inspectors. From Alaska Airlines flight 1282 and the great disappearing door plug, to the sad and sudden death of whistleblower John Barnett, Boeing is a storied brand is need of some help.

It will come as no surprise to supply chain professionals that Boeing’s problems find their roots in the company’s relationships with third parties. The supplier that has received the most unwanted attention is Spirit AeroSystems, a former division of Boeing that was spun off (or “unloaded” to use their parlance) in 2005. Now there are talks of Boeing re-absorbing them to increase their control over the manufacturing process.

Ironically, the true source of Boeing’s recent troubles has been known for over two decades. 

In 2001, John Hart-Smith, a Boeing aerospace engineer, presented a controversial paper at an internal technical symposium. In it, he called into question the practice of “atomized manufacturing” where production, assembly, and – in many cases – safety inspections, are both distributed and outsourced. Most problematic of all is the practice of allowing suppliers to inspect their own work.

Although Hart-Smith’s paper was widely circulated inside the company at the time, the practice did not stop. Following the separation from Spirit AeroSystems it may even have gotten worse.

Savings trumped safety, and operational priorities followed suit. Ironically, distributed decision making and a focus on efficiency drove extreme savings at scale, almost to the exclusion of safety-minded business objectives. By the time the plug popped out of that Boeing 737 Max 9 at 16,000 feet, the problem was much larger and more embedded that most people knew.

While hindsight is 20/20, Boeing must find a way to look forward if they want to have a future. The traveling public, Federal government, and airline operators are all growing increasingly skeptical about their trustworthiness. It will not take too many more accidents or reports that dish soap was used as a stand-in lubricant in the assembly process to take them down.

Fortunately, when a problem starts in the supply chain, the solution can be found there too. A return to systems and processes that put safety first, combined with an instance upon extreme transparency, should make it possible for Boeing to get themselves back on track. 

Listen to the full podcast episode here: Savings v. Safety in Aircraft Manufacturing

About Art of Supply

Every business story has a supply chain angle, whether that means the movement of goods around the world, extended corporate ecosystems, or the relationships between companies. 

Each week, the Art of Supply podcast draws inspiration from news headlines to provide honest and insightful coverage of today’s complex global supply chains. 

Other recent episodes include:

The Drone Final Mile Becomes Reality – The current state of innovation and experimentation in drone final mile delivery among major retailers is strong, but will the current regulatory environment allow them to continue their upward trajectory?

Three Strikes for the New Baseball Uniform – Much of the early media cycle around the 2024 Major League Baseball season has been the uniforms. How did supply chain relationships play into the ‘revealing’ debacle affecting players and fans alike?