Have problem-solving geeks wrested Boeing back from the corporate slash-and-burners? A surprising labor peace with engineers suggests there’s hope.
See Boeing, that wasn’t so hard, was it? You treated your workers like partners, not outsourceable widgets.
I’m talking about the surprising news that Boeing and its engineers reached a long-term pay and benefits deal, nine months early and apparently without any of the toxic hostility that has marked labor relations there in recent years.
Though engineers still have to vote on the deal, the progress to date has been kumbaya compared to the take it or leave it bullying that had been Boeing’s style the past decade, with workers, suppliers and state governments (the latter whenever it wanted some new factories or tax favoritism).
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“It’s the new CEO, I’m convinced of it,” says Stan Sorscher, a physicist, 35-year Boeing employee and labor representative with the union of 21,000 local engineers, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA).
“You can’t have a potential sea change in culture like this without a new message coming down from the top.”
To hear Sorscher tell it, Boeing has been rocked by an internal culture war for at least the past 15 years.
It has pitted raw power versus problem-solving. For the power side, think Donald Trump: It’s do it my way or you lose. That’s pretty much the approach Boeing took with its Machinists, engineers and the entire state of Washington the past few years as it threatened to pull up stakes unless it got what it wanted.
The style was embodied by Boeing’s CEO, Jim McNerney. He’s a disciple of “Neutron Jack” Welch, the famed General Electric CEO so named because his cost-cutting bombs killed the workers while leaving the buildings intact.
The other approach, says Sorscher, is coded deep in Boeing’s DNA. It’s to get a bunch of geeks in a room and brainstorm until the intractable problems are licked.
Now the bean-counting slasher CEO is gone. In his place is a geek. New CEO Dennis Muilenburg got his start as an intern at Boeing and worked as an engineer there for years before rising into top management.
“This time there just wasn’t any of the old chest-beating power BS of McNerney, or (former CEO) Harry Stonecipher,” Sorscher said. “They didn’t come in with any of that ‘Here’s the deal, you can take it or leave it.’ ”
“I think our new engineer CEO appreciates the problem-solving approach.”
I find this fascinating. Recently my son and I read “The Martian,” the novel about an astronaut stranded on Mars. It’s a curious book because almost all the action involves a botanist/mechanical engineer laboriously struggling to “science the (bleep)” out of one insurmountable technical problem after another.
But the trial and error way he goes about it, sometimes collaborating with NASA scientists back on Earth, is strangely riveting. It also builds community. The whole story is a love letter to the problem-solving approach.
Sorscher says at Boeing this culture is a storied treasure that may be difficult for outsiders to comprehend.
“It’s the solve-anything culture that once made Boeing so great,” he said.
After strong-arming the Boeing Machinists to give up their pensions, coercing the biggest tax breaks in U.S. history out of our feckless Legislature and then laying off thousands of engineers anyway, then-CEO McNerney was asked if he was going to stay on or retire.
“Yes, the heart will still be beating,” he told fiscal analysts. “The employees will still be cowering. I’ll be working hard; there’s no end in sight.”
Yikes. There was an end in sight, though. The geeks are back. It’s an incredibly hopeful development for Boeing, its workers and the entire Puget Sound region.
“It’s too soon to tell if this culture is really making a comeback, or if it’s a temporary blip,” Sorscher says. “But we’re not ‘cowering’ anymore. That’s made all the difference.”