Several years ago I watched a series of PBS specials about the development of the Boeing 777 airliner. Some searches on the internet found the title to be 21st Century Jet: The Building of the 777. It isn’t available on Amazon, but can apparently still be purchased from the Boeing Store. The film makers had an amazing amount of access as they filmed meetings, talked to engineers, suppliers, etc. It was a perfect case study in project management.
Boeing’s goal was to develop a long-range plane to fill a niche just below the capacity of a 747. With a 5-hour series the documentary was able to go into detail about certain issues (for instance the difficulty in getting a 2-engine aircraft certified for trans-ocean flights or how they test turbine blades). It was fascinating to watch the pieces come together. One way to save money was to do virtual testing of the engine instead of using a flying test platform. The engineers thought they wouldn’t even need to do the real-life tests because their models were so good. But the decision was made to do the test on a full-scale prototype anyway and on the first flight the engine flamed out (they used a 747 so they still had 3 other engines). The engineers went back and found a flaw in their computer model.
A lot of the time they followed around Boeing’s project manager. It was amazing to see how he worked with a true team concept. When they had major problems he didn’t get upset or let other people get upset, but would have a meeting with the key players and get a consensus on how to deal with a setback. You always hear about those things, but it is rare to see them in practice, and here was a guy making it work on a billion dollar project despite enormous pressure. A new plane was such a huge investment for Boeing that the entire company depended on them getting the plane right (compare to the Airbus A380 superjumbo that is still going incredibly wrong).
Anyway, I think about that show from time to time, and for a while I kept my eye out wondering if that project manager would ever take over at Boeing. I don’t see why he wouldn’t. On ABC news last night, I saw him again. He is now the president and CEO of Ford and is trying to turn the company around. Alan Mulally started as an engineer at Boeing in 1969. He was ultimately passed over as CEO of Boeing in favor of an outsider from 3M and went to Ford in September 2006.