Quality is Key to Boeing’s Success

The following article is excerpted from a lecture by Prem Chopra at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga in September 2006. The text of the entire lecture can be found in Masters of the Game: Reaching Beyond the Nexus to Success and Happiness.

The Quality Strategy of the Boeing Company

Do you know the quality strategy of the Boeing Company? At Boeing, they design and test for quality up front, years before delivering the first airplane in a new fleet. Let me tell you a personal story about quality at Boeing. It was 1966 and I was working on the design of the new 747 jumbo jet airliner at Boeing’s plant in Everett, Washington, which is a suburb of Seattle. Then the largest enclosed structure in the world. There were just four of us fatigue and fracture specialists, led by an extremely competent manager, Max Spenser, who had a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from Ohio State University. The five of us served as failure analysis and safety consultants as well as advisors to several hundred stress analysts who worked on the 747 project. These analysts designed the airframe and specified the materials. Despite our efforts, design deficiencies and even failures continued to show up during component tests and during the full-scale testing of a test airplane in a hanger.

It occurred to me that if we were to provide some basic training on fatigue and fracture mechanics principles and give some basic guidelines to all stress analysts, we would reduce the numbers of defects that slipped through. I had in mind simple guidelines such as adjusting the radius of a curve on a drawing, or selecting a more fatigue-resistant material for a component. It did not then occur to me that it would be a bold step and a major corporate investment to set up a training program across the entire Boeing Company, serving thousands of engineers in four locations in the Boeing’s Seattle, Everest, Tacoma and Kent operations.

Max privately endorsed my idea and encouraged me to write directly to the Chief Engineer, Paul Sandoz. I got my point across by using a simple example: I wrote, if our stress engineers knew how metals fail from fatigue and fracture, they could avoid or mitigate many failures by simply adjusting the radius on a compass or by specifying a more fatigue-resistant material. The same mistake, if not corrected at the design stage could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars at the component test phase, and millions if it remains undetected until the fleet test stage. If the failure would occur in service with an airline, the same defect could cost the company the entire project, or more. It was a quality message and Paul Sandoz got it. In addition to receiving a special Quality Award, in less than a week, I was on the job of designing and delivering the Fatigue and Fail-Safe Training Program for the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company. Several stress analysts and one fatigue specialist from each of these projects, 747, 727, 737 and KC-135 were assigned to help me develop the training manuals and deliver the program. Max was gracious enough to give me a copy of this historic three-set volume of the training manuals, which you may view in my office.

In writing the letter, my purpose had been to use education to improve the quality and safety of this new family of airplanes, the like of which had never flown the skies before. I had no thoughts of personal rewards or recognition. The assignment as Training Director came as a total surprise. It was my first experience of being responsible for managing such a major program. However, with commitment and hard work, and much guidance from Max, the program was remarkably successful. The main reason was that the top managers recognized the need and importance of quality and safety and there was a strong commitment from the top. They recognized that this program satisfied that need.

Over the next three years the program grew and made its contributions. I was fortunate enough to complete my doctoral work as well during this period.

This is my personal story about quality improvement, which is intimately woven with the historical Boeing 747 airplane and the world’s largest airplane manufacturer. In summary, a commitment to quality, initiative in following through with the commitment and the education of engineers resulted in improving the quality of the design and the safety of the airplane. A commitment to quality and safety was inherent in Boeing’s design and manufacturing strategy.

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