Fritzerland

The Cost of Quality: Navigating Turbulence, the Alaska Airlines B737 MAX 9 Incident

“There’s this thing called poor quality. What that means is, you look within your company at all of the financial implications of having less than perfect quality. Usually, when you add all that up, you end up with a gigantic number that surprises everybody. Adding more inspectors just increases your cost of poor quality; that doesn’t solve the problem. What you really want is fewer inspectors because you want a quality system that doesn’t depend on inspectors catching problems.” Max Flight, the Host of the Airplane Geeks Podcast, Explores the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 Incident.

The Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 incident involved a sudden depressurization due to a panel blowout. This incident occurred shortly after Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, a Boeing 737-9, departed from Portland, Oregon, for Ontario, California, on January 5, 2024. A door-sized section near the aircraft’s rear blew off, forcing an emergency landing. Initial inspections of Alaska Airlines’ Boeing 737 Max 9 fleet revealed many loose bolts. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, it now seems that the bolts needed to secure a section of the jet were missing when it left Boeing’s factory. Boeing and industry officials are increasingly of the opinion that Boeing’s employees might have failed to replace the bolts when they reinstalled a door plug on the 737 Max 9 during production. Following this incident, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded some Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft for safety checks and inspections, highlighting the seriousness of the situation. As someone deeply involved in project management and also as an instrument-rated private pilot, aviation isn’t just an interest of mine; it’s a passion. Over the past decade, commercial aviation has achieved impressive milestones in safety. This achievement isn’t by chance; it’s the result of strict adherence to detailed procedures. These aren’t just about flying the aircraft but cover the entire aviation ecosystem.

Commercial aviation is considered to be very safe due to a combination of factors:

  1. Strict Regulations and Oversight: The aviation industry is heavily regulated by international and national organizations, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States. These bodies set stringent safety standards for aircraft manufacturing, airline operations, pilot training, and maintenance procedures.
  2. Advanced Technology and Engineering: Modern aircraft are equipped with sophisticated technology and built to rigorous engineering standards. They have advanced navigation systems, highly reliable engines, and multiple redundancies in critical systems to ensure safety even in the event of a component failure.
  3. Comprehensive Training: Pilots, cabin crew, and ground staff undergo extensive and continuous training. Pilots are trained to handle a wide range of scenarios, including emergency situations, and they regularly practice in flight simulators.
  4. Rigorous Maintenance Protocols: Airlines adhere to strict maintenance schedules for their aircraft. Regular inspections and maintenance are mandatory, and any identified issues are addressed promptly to ensure that aircraft are in optimal condition for flight.
  5. Learning from Past Incidents: The aviation industry has a strong culture of learning from past incidents and accidents. Investigation agencies like the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the U.S. thoroughly investigate aviation incidents and accidents to identify causes and recommend safety improvements.
  6. Air Traffic Control Systems: Modern air traffic control systems play a vital role in managing the safe flow of aircraft in the skies. These systems help prevent collisions and guide pilots during takeoff, flight, and landing, even in challenging weather conditions.
  7. Safety Protocols and Procedures: Airlines have numerous safety protocols and procedures in place, ranging from pre-flight checks to emergency response plans. These procedures are regularly reviewed and updated based on new information and technology.
  8. Industry Collaboration: There is a significant level of collaboration within the aviation industry to enhance safety. Airlines, manufacturers, governments, and international organizations work together to share information, best practices, and innovations in safety.

These factors, among others, contribute to making commercial aviation one of the safest modes of transportation. The probability of accidents is extremely low compared to other forms of transport, which is why it has such a strong safety record. The incident with the Alaska Airlines B737 reminds us that even the most sophisticated systems aren’t immune to flaws. This event caught my attention as it indicates a possible breach in the otherwise stringent quality procedures that have made aviation’s safety record exemplary. In project management, quality isn’t just an extra; it’s a cornerstone. It’s about making sure every aspect of a project meets certain standards and functions flawlessly. Quality management distinguishes a successful project from a failed one. It involves anticipating potential risks, implementing preventive strategies, and being prepared to tackle issues effectively when they occur.

Boeing

The emergency landing of the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 in Portland has intensified Boeing’s problems. In the past five years, Boeing has seen a decline in public confidence, worsened by its lagging behind Airbus in market share, a result of fewer orders and plane deliveries. Boeing’s current situation is influenced by factors like inadequate quality control and an emphasis on profitability. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun termed this issue with the door bolts in the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 as this a “quality escape,” acknowledging manufacturing shortcomings. In response, the FAA began probing Boeing’s production methods, questioning their adherence to safety standards. Quality concerns also arose in August 2023 with Spirit AeroSystems, a major supplier, involving incorrectly drilled holes. The 737 MAX issues were partly attributed to Boeing’s rush to compete with Airbus’s A320neo and a growing gap between executive understanding and ground-level operations. Boeing outlined a five-point quality assurance plan, including increased inspections and training. Boeing announced additional sessions focusing on understanding the fundamentals of Boeing’s quality management system (QMS). Several aviation exerts criticized these measures as insufficient without a deeper cultural change within Boeing, emphasizing the need for more technical expertise in leadership. 2024 was supposed to be Boeing’s recovery year, but early issues have complicated this. While the 737-9 may return to service, ongoing production investigations could reveal more issues.

Quality in Project Management

The situation with Boeing and the emergency landing of the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 offers several important lessons from a project management perspective. These lessons can be broadly categorized into areas such as quality control, organizational culture, strategic decision-making, and crisis management. Here are some key takeaways:

  1. Quality Over Speed: Boeing’s rush to compete with Airbus’s A320neo illustrates the risks of prioritizing speed over quality. In project management, it’s crucial to balance time-to-market pressures with the need to deliver a product that meets all quality and safety standards.
  2. Aligning Executive and Ground-Level Perspectives: The gap between Boeing’s executive understanding and operations on the ground highlights the importance of alignment in an organization. Successful project management requires clear communication and understanding between all levels of an organization, ensuring that decisions are informed by on-the-ground realities.
  3. Effective Risk Management: Boeing’s challenges point to the need for robust risk management practices. This includes not only identifying potential risks but also actively planning for and mitigating them. In Boeing’s case, this might have involved more thorough testing and validation processes.
  4. Cultural Shifts for Long-term Improvement: The criticism of Boeing’s measures as insufficient without a deeper cultural change underscores the importance of organizational culture in project management. A culture that emphasizes quality, safety, and ethical decision-making can significantly impact the success and sustainability of projects.
  5. Continuous Learning and Adaptation: Boeing’s situation reveals the necessity for continuous learning and adaptation in project management. This involves regularly reviewing processes, learning from past mistakes, and being open to changes that can improve project outcomes.
  6. Stakeholder Management and Communication: In crisis situations, effective communication with all stakeholders – including customers, regulatory bodies, and the public – is crucial. Managing expectations and providing transparent, timely information helps in maintaining trust and managing the crisis more effectively.
  7. Technical Expertise in Leadership: The call for more technical expertise in Boeing’s leadership indicates the importance of having decision-makers with a deep understanding of the core aspects of the projects they oversee. This ensures that decisions are made with a comprehensive understanding of technical challenges and requirements.
  8. Comprehensive Quality Assurance: The introduction of a five-point quality assurance plan by Boeing, including increased inspections and training, highlights the need for comprehensive quality control measures in project management. This involves not just checking the final product but ensuring quality at every stage of the project.
  9. Preparedness for Regulatory Scrutiny: The FAA’s probing into Boeing’s production methods after the incident is a reminder that projects, especially in highly regulated industries, must always be prepared for external audits and regulatory reviews.
  10. Supplier Management: The issue with Spirit AeroSystems, a major supplier, points to the importance of managing and auditing the supply chain effectively. The quality of components from suppliers directly impacts the overall quality of the final product.

From these points, it’s evident that project management is not just about meeting deadlines and budgets; it’s also about ensuring quality, aligning organizational culture with project goals, managing risks, and being prepared to adapt to challenges and learn from them.

Further reading: