Someday, Boeing’s handling of the trouble with its 737 Max airliner will be a case study in crisis management. It’s too early to tell exactly what happened in two crashes of the same plane model within five months— the investigations could go on for months or years—but Boeing’s initial resistance to grounding the 737 Max has sparked criticism.
In a phone call with President Trump, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg urged Trump to keep the planes in the sky, even as countries around the world were grounding them. The President decided the next day to follow suit, but should the plane’s manufacturer have shown more leadership in the crisis?
“We could have avoided much of the turmoil had the company’s leaders done a better job of framing the situation,” wrote Sandra J. Sucher, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, in the Harvard Business Review. “Leaders have one crucial task at the start of a disaster in the making, and that is to use the art of framing to describe the nature of the problem the organization is facing. Frames shape the way we think about problems (and also opportunities). They tell us what category of problem we are dealing with, and because they identify a type of problem, they also contain the seeds of action and response.”
Other management experts tended to agree. Rupert Younger, director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, told the Financial Times that Boeing should have acted faster. “Irrespective of whether it’s their fault, in cases like this it’s almost always the case that organizations that immediately show humanity and empathy and put safety first perform better than those that don’t,” said Younger.
In her piece in the Harvard Business Review, Sucher compared Boeing’s initial reaction to Johnson & Johnson’s response during the Tylenol poisoning crisis in 1982, which is widely regarded as the gold standard for how to handle a corporate crisis. Johnson & Johnson’s CEO at the time, James E. Burke, “famously declared that it was a public health problem,” she wrote. The company’s framing led to its swift and decisive response, which included a recall of all bottles of Tylenol capsules, the design of tamper-resistant packaging, and eventually the end of capsules that could be pulled apart and resealed. Rather than respond with defensiveness or denial, Johnson & Johnson set an example for the industry, and corporations in general.
Properly framing a crisis, Sucher writes, requires hard thinking about what kind of problem the company faces. In the case of Boeing, Sucher argues, a better response might have been: “This is a technical problem that we do not fully understand. In light of that uncertainty, we recommend grounding the 737 Max 8s and 9s until we can be sure we know what is causing these crashes, and can satisfy ourselves and all of the global regulators that the plane is safe to fly again.”
While Sucher focused on crisis management, other case studies of the 737 may explore Boeing’s long-term decisions about the plane. Specifically, was it wise for Boeing to keep modifying a 50-year-old aircraft design rather than starting from scratch, given the dramatic changes in technology over the decades?
In a close look at the plane’s history in the Los Angeles Times, veteran reporter Ralph Vartabedian traces the plane’s low-slung design to the days when passengers had to climb stairs to board the planes and baggage handlers needed direct access to the cargo bays.
“That low-to-the-ground design was a plus in 1968, but it has proved to be a constraint that engineers modernizing the 737 have had to work around ever since,” Vartabedian writes. “The compromises required to push forward a more fuel-efficient version of the plane—with larger engines and altered aerodynamics—led to the complex flight control software system that is now under investigation.”
Boeing’s motivation for continued modification of the 737 was at least partly about cost-saving, since it’s cheaper and simpler to build a derivative plane than a whole new one. Over the years, the 737 has been a best-selling airliner, but now Boeing faces a turning point. With back orders for more than 4,700 of the updated 737 line, Boeing’s next moves have much at stake.