Monday, January 14, 2013

Dreaming the “Dreamliner”

Boeing’s 787 has long been in trouble. It was initially plagued by delays, and – since deliveries started in September 2011 – the much ballihooed plane has suffered from multiple technical glitches. The last week or so has been particularly nightmarish, so the US aviation authorities – and perhaps others – have now felt pressed to order detailed safety inspections. Which could lead to further production hiccups, delays, revisions of projected earnings, and volatility in Boeing’s shareholder value. Why has this happened? I am tempted to offer a neat anthropological theory.

To cut cost, Boeing decided to outsource much of the production of its new flagship to hundreds of subcontractors, both in the US and many far-way locations. And it trusted many of these companies not just to manufacture parts according to preset blueprints, but also to design them from scratch. As a result, there were predictable problems – many components did not meet the preset specifications, and it was difficult even for the collective Boeing engineering genius to put them all together as planned.

Why didn’t the engineering whizzes at Boeing see it coming? Here is my hunch: perhaps it was the proverbial American optimism that led them astray; combined with the pragmatic self-confidence typical of the engineering mindset – which could, in fact, be part of the same syndrome.

There is much research indicating that a degree of skepticism could, after all, be a more realistic – and more adaptive – life posture. Psychologists who have railed against the pressure within American society to be unfailingly cheerful have called this healthy downbeat attitude “defensive pessimism”; and some have even recommended a degree of “depressive realism” in the face of all the slings and arrows of modern living. Boeing’s naïve faith in the goodwill and competence of strangers is sometimes conceptualized by economists as “trust” and posited as a sine qua non of large-scale economic institutionalization and development. Unless, I guess, it goes too far.

If the “Dreamliner” had lived up to all the expectations at a truly low cost, the same production model would probably have been applied to Pentagon-ordered hardware. In fact, this may have already happened to some extent. An inspection ordered some time ago by the US Congress found that nominally “American-made” military hardware was stuffed with fake Chinese electronic components. Which, who knows, might secretly be communicating important information to Chinese technological intelligence – or be designed to one day lead missiles fired by Americans planes or submarines astray.

In this context, the Boeing story could perhaps be read as a cautionary tale containing a moral for the whole American economy and beyond. Of course, Toyota has adopted the same business strategy (with somewhat similar results), and global corporations headquartered outside of the US have pursued outsourcing and offshoring with much zeal. But it is still somehow difficult to imagine that the Airbus parent company could have gone down the road chartered by their American nemesis first. And they will surely breathe a sigh of relief that, learning from Boeing’s experience, they can pull back from the precipice. Boeing themselves will probably need to re-insource much of the production they sent to the lowest bidder – and keep their fingers (and toes) crossed that one of their contraptions does not meanwhile fall from the skies.

Curiously, there are some differences in the degree of enthusiasm and dedication with which global corporations have embraced outsourcing and offshoring. For example, most American and Dutch technological companies (like GE and Phillips) have jumped into the deep without much second thought (and several years ago Ford was forced to shelf a ludicrous business plan modeled on Nike’s – too bad the Boeing leadership did not pay attention). German companies like Siemens, on the other hand, have treaded much more cautiously (an inclination shared by many German – and French – economists, in opposition to the “Austrian school” and mainstream American economics).

As the Toyota case and other counterexamples from the auto, computer, and financial (think Deutsche Bank) industries demonstrate, my cultural theory may not hold much water. And I confess I have no way of corroborating it statistically. But – as philosophers of real and social science have long recognized – there is something to an elegant, parsimonious theory that makes it inherently attractive. Particularly to the mind – and brain – which span it.