Pat Shanahan, the new boss of Boeing's delayed 787 Dreamliner project, knows a thing or two about aircraft-production meltdowns. In 1997, as Boeing...
Pat Shanahan, the new boss of Boeing’s delayed 787 Dreamliner project, knows a thing or two about aircraft-production meltdowns.
In 1997, as Boeing struggled with a disastrous, bungled production speed-up that would eventually cost it more than $2 billion, Shanahan was put in charge of 767 jet manufacturing in Everett.
On the factory floor, incomplete jets missing crucial parts blocked the movement of the next jets in line. Frustrated mechanics were putting the pieces together out of sequence.
“Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall,” Shanahan recalls. “We got out of position and lost control of the schedule.”
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To regain control, Shanahan and other production bosses hung butcher paper in long strips in the wide utility tunnels beneath the gigantic 767 plant, then mapped out every issue holding up the assembly lines.
Every morning at 6 a.m. they’d study the problems, go to work on fixing them, then descend to the tunnel again 12 hours later to update their progress.
“We did it seven days a week, 15, 16 hours a day,” said Shanahan. “You have to be very strong and resilient to survive something like that.”
Now, on the 787, Shanahan again faces out-of-sequence assembly problems and a struggling supply chain — but on a brand-new plane, made with new materials and assembled with revolutionary new manufacturing processes.
“This is more complicated,” said Shanahan.
On the plus side, he added, “A lot of the people that were there [on the 767] are helping me right now.”
As soon as Shanahan took over the 787 program in October, he dived into the supply mess and the chaos of final assembly.
“Personality-wise, I’m an adrenalin junkie,” he said. “The uncertainty, the lack of definition, is attractive.”
Shanahan, 46, with sandy-blond hair and piercing blue eyes, has deep Seattle roots. His father became police chief at the University of Washington after leaving the military. His two brothers still live a few blocks from Mom and Dad in Laurelhurst.
Shanahan recalled an idyllic boyhood when Seattle was smaller and childhood was “normal and unprogrammed.”
Running a summer lawn-mowing business, he cut grass all over Laurelhurst. He played soccer at Lower Woodland Park, rode bikes from the University District to Green Lake and hung out with his cousins and friends at the Burgermaster near U Village.
His mother, who attends daily Mass at St. Bridget Church in Laurelhurst, sent him to Catholic schools.
The onetime altar boy said with a laugh, “The ladies at St. Bridget’s pray every day for the 787.”
Those who’ve worked with Shanahan describe a manager intensely focused on motivating everyone around him to cut to the chase and get things done.
One machine operator recalled working under Shanahan in the mid-1990s while doing night shifts in Auburn.
Shanahan would walk through the shop floor around 5 a.m., soon after arriving, and ask the workers if they needed anything, said the machine operator, who can’t be identified because Boeing frowns on employees talking to the media unchaperoned.
If there was any issue holding back the work, Shanahan would often have a mechanic put the problem directly to a middle manager while he stood and listened. That way, instead of being fobbed off, “you usually got an answer,” said the machine operator.
“He wanted you to be effective,” he said.
While Shanahan was running the tooling unit in Auburn, Jon Geiger worked with him as a superintendent. The two often visited the factory floor or the engineering offices together.
Geiger, now Boeing’s director of production systems for commercial-airplane programs, said Shanahan is “irreverent” toward corporate bureaucracy and dismissive of managers who sit in their offices and “don’t connect with the people doing the work that pays their salaries.”
Once, Geiger said, a large, sophisticated drilling machine in need of parts was idled more than 100 days. Shanahan lost patience and arranged to have a white board put on top, counting the days the machine was out of action. That got the bureaucracy’s attention.
“He’s a hero to this day in tooling for solving our equipment needs,” said Geiger.
Shanahan clearly feels a strong connection to Boeing’s local shop-floor workers and engineers, praising their “dynamite, hardworking get-it-done culture.”
He’s confident they’ll break the current 787 logjam, which piled up at Everett, downstream from the program’s supplier network.
“They are the solution, not the problem,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan defended the company’s new, globalized manufacturing system for the Dreamliner. But he expressed an unabashed local bias when asked how he would feel if Boeing chose a site such as Charleston, S.C. — where it owns a half-share of a new 787 fuselage-assembly plant — to build its next new jet, the successor to the 737.
“My guess, given where we are today, that would not be the decision,” Shanahan responded. “If you match Charleston against what we are doing here, it would be an obvious Seattle decision.
“The people here are just over the top,” he said.
He said the culture of aerospace manufacturing, ingrained over decades, involves rising above challenges, whether unpredictable production crises or an industry downturn like the one after the 9/11 attacks.
“It’s like farming,” he said. “You work really hard, day and night. Then the locusts come. It’s a hard business.”
Shanahan is up at 4 a.m. each day. After coffee and a shower in his downtown Seattle apartment, he drives to Everett by 5 a.m. Meetings start at 6 and continue through to 8 or 9 p.m. He may have dinner after that with a customer.
He goes for a run when he gets home, lifts some weights, catches some CNN and aims to get to bed by 10:30 or 11. “I sleep like a baby,” he said.
His workaholic routine is intensified because his wife, Kim, and his three young kids are still on the East Coast. He’s seen them just twice a month since he came here in October from Virginia, where he had led Boeing’s missile-defense unit.
He praises his wife of 22 years for unstinting family support: “A job like this, you can’t do by yourself,” he said.
Yet given the chance to bemoan the separation from his family, he’ll have none of it.
He just spent five years on the military side of Boeing — running the Army helicopter plant in Philadelphia before missile defense — and is attuned to the sacrifices of others in harder places.
“Can you imagine doing three tours in Iraq? This is so easy compared to being in Baghdad,” he said. “I don’t feel sorry for myself.”
He hopes soon to get his Seattle-born wife and family here, buy a house and get the kids in schools, but for now, he said, “I’m full-time 787.”
Shanahan recalled that when he worked on the 777 program in the 1990s, there were plenty of skeptics. That airplane was Boeing’s first designed entirely on computer, and no one could be certain that pieces built elsewhere would fit together exactly as planned when they arrived in Everett.
He was on hand for the first chance to see how the pieces did fit — when the leading-edge assembly came in from Philadelphia to be matched with the Everett-built wing spar.
Engineers uncrated the box and hoisted up the leading edge piece. It mated perfectly with the spar. The 777 became Boeing’s star jetliner.
“People who said it would be a disaster were wrong. They didn’t have that thing that you learn in Catholic school called faith,” Shanahan said.
“It’s like our  production system. Because there are wrinkles doesn’t mean there are fundamental flaws,” he said. “We’re seeing now [that] it’s coming online — hey, this thing works.”
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com