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Culture clash in the sky

February 23, 2005

Chicago Tribune reports in “Battle for the skies” that Boeing (which just moved its corporate HQ to the windy city) is reinventing itself as a systems integrator instead of an aircraft builder. They’re decentralizing, spreading risk and manufacturing capability all over the world.  The article is about how Boeing culture is being forcibly reinvented to counter Airbus competition. 

Especially compelling is an account of a meeting where Japanese consensus-based meeting style collided with American-style brainstorming.  Some excerpts:…

…“Boeing has given all its major partners a vote on matters that affect them. Engineers from Japan, Italy and elsewhere are stationed in Seattle and participate in top-level decision-making. Others routinely hook up via teleconference from around the world. A robust, computerized design system enables engineers around the globe to meet and propose changes on the spot.

“In my Dad’s time, you’d all be standing around the same drafting table,” Guirl said. “Now, there’s one drawing, a single model, but it is being made by a group of companies around the world.”…

Boeing’s biggest challenge has been working across cultural barriers. This came to light last summer when Boeing flew a team of design engineers to Nagoya, Japan, to focus on a seemingly mundane task: working together to eliminate parts from inside the 787’s wing. The idea was to mix groups of wing specialists from Seattle and Japan, so they could come up with a solution neither would develop on its own.

But as a moderator tried to jump-start creativity, he struggled against the tide. Engineers from Boeing sat on one side of the U-shaped table. Japanese engineers sat on the other. The space between them looked as forbidding as an empty dance floor.

Ideas bubbled from the Americans. Middle-aged men in polo shirts, they scribbled thoughts on Post-It notes, then bustled to press them onto the front wall. The notions sprouted like leaves on a canary-hued tree.

The Japanese barely spoke. A pair of jumpsuit-clad Mitsubishi engineers sat with eyes closed, either concentrating deeply or sleeping lightly.

The more the Americans prattled on, the less the Japanese had to say. If this was brainstorming, the Japanese didn’t get it.

“This is new culture for us,” said Masnori Yamaguchi, a Mitsubishi engineer, wrestling a bit with his second language. “At this time, I’m always shocking. It’s very culture shock.”

Boeing’s Mark Jenks, a former space-station designer in charge of developing the 787’s wing, explained that the American style is to dive into problems and attack them almost helter-skelter. That creates wasted effort, but it also leads to innovative solutions.

The Japanese, on the other hand, are more deliberate. They prefer to plan carefully and create a targeted series of tests to arrive at a high-quality solution…”

That must have been a tense meeting.  It will be interesting to see what the art of project management will learn from the 7E7 Dreamliner experiment. I have a hunch that whole business courses will be taught about it. (Registration required to view article) 

The courses may be taught about a company that used to exist.  This statement from a Boeing engineer explaining why no new competitors will enter the marketplace sounds especially foolhardy to me:

“It requires the wealth of nations anymore, over several decades, to establish yourself to the point where you can be competitive. Besides, the world only needs two providers,” said Walt Gillette, the chief engineer on the 787 program.

Categories: business, News
  1. WeeDram
    February 24, 2005 at 20:55 | #1

    And now Onex, a venture capital firm in Toronto, has purchased Boeing facilities in Kansas and Oklahoma.  Part of its plan is to become a provider to Airbus Industrie.

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