For some reason, I’ve been getting a lot of news about Boeing lately. Are you, too? Is it just that the company really is in the news right now, or is it some weird algorithmic quirk where the web notices that I grew up near Seattle, therefore I must be obsessed with Boeing? I was, once, because growing up in a place or time where one employer thoroughly dominated your family’s welfare was a worrisome experience, but really, I moved away and got better.
Anyway, I ran across two bits of Boeing news that were interesting and had nothing to do with my upbringing.
- The day the machines take over may have been delayed a little bit. Boeing tried having robots assemble these finicky curved metal panels that make up the fuselage of an airplane, and discovered that human machinists did a better job and didn’t entail all the development costs of making the robots work. This makes sense: humans are incredibly flexible general purpose machines, numerous and cheaply made, and I suspect that there will be niches in the future Robot Economy where skilled labor that can execute diverse tasks will flourish. We’re not obsolete yet! Also, there are real labor skills that ought to be more highly valued.
There are also cases where human greed is the grit that wrecks a company. This is a sad story, where Boeing might have once been a capricious giant that tormented the Pacific Northwest, but at least it had an impressive engineering culture; now, the Suits have taken over, and useless MBAs run the show and are in the process of running it into the ground. I’ve been away so long, I hadn’t realized that Boeing management had taken flight and moved their executive headquarters to Chicago, where the people who run things are completely out of touch with the daily reality of a company that builds things.
As the aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia recently told me, “You had this weird combination of a distant building with a few hundred people in it and a non-engineer with no technical skills whatsoever at the helm.” Even that might have worked—had the commercial-jet business stayed in the hands of an experienced engineer steeped in STEM disciplines. Instead McNerney installed an M.B.A. with a varied background in sales, marketing, and supply-chain management. Said Aboulafia, “We were like, ‘What?’“
It’s horrifying how the obsession with shuffling money around has taken over the actual business of being productive. It reminds me of the catastrophe that killed Sears, which was, in a nutshell, capitalism run amuck. It’s happening again. They should pay more attention to machinists than MBAs, but those MBAs will run off with personal fortunes carved out of the carcass of the company they should be managing, so they’ll be the ones thriving.
Uh-oh. Now that I’ve actually used the word “Boeing” a couple of times in a blog post, those nefarious web algorithms are going to slam me with even more news about the company, aren’t they?