THE BLOG
09/10/2014 12:05 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

At Boeing, a Disconnect Between Engineers and Executives

Our film for Al Jazeera, 'Broken Dreams: The Boeing 787,' doesn't just reveal workers' safety concerns, it exposes the gulf between Boeing's employees and its executives

As we were making the final edits to our film Broken Dreams: The Boeing 787, Jim McNerney made a remarkable comment.

The Boeing chief executive recently turned 65, the company's mandatory retirement age, so a journalist asked him on a conference call if he was going to step down any time soon.

"The heart will still be beating, the employees will still be cowering, I'll be working hard," he said.

"There's no end in sight. We're continuing to build a succession plan and alternatives to succeed me eventually, but there's no discussion of it yet."

His comments hit a nerve. The union for Boeing engineers, SPEEA, sent out a sign to its members that read, "If I'm away from my desk, then I must be cowering somewhere. Please leave a note."

Machinists union international President Tom Buffenbarger added, "If he is able to get his foot out of his mouth, the very next thing we hear from Mr. McNerney should be a sincere apology to all employees at Boeing."

It came shortly afterwards, McNerney emailing around 170,000 Boeing workers to explain it was a joke gone wrong.

During our research into Boeing and the "Dreamliner," we heard constantly from current and former Boeing workers at all levels about the gradual breakdown of relations between the company's leaders and its workers.

In our film, industry analyst Richard Aboulafia speaks of a "complete disconnect" between Boeing engineers and executives.

In its response to our film, Boeing has told journalists it "must question the motives" of our sources, accusing them of wanting to "harm the company." It is exactly the opposite. In every case the people that spoke to us, on and off the record, cared deeply about Boeing and felt that it had lost its way. By talking about it, they hoped to help the company get back on track.

It wasn't always like this. As we learned while researching our documentary, workers used to identify themselves as proud members of a Boeing family based in Washington State.

There was a culture of collaboration. Employees and retirees speak of the company's former executives with affection. Men like Alan Mulally, Frank Schrontz and Walt Gillette were admired for their hands-on approach and their common-man catchphrases. One that still resonates: "You can't manage a secret."

In 2005 when choosing their next CEO, Boeing's board passed over Mulally. They opted instead for McNerney, who was then running 3M. Mulally left for Ford and this year he retired, lauded for shielding the automotive giant from the worst of the financial crisis. At Boeing, McNerney laid off workers, cut costs and squeezed suppliers.

In terms of share price, it paid off. Boeing is buoyant, bursting through $100 a share in 2007 and again in 2013, but at what cost?

Thinking back to Alan Mulally, it would be hard to imagine 10 of 15 Ford workers asked at random, saying they would not drive a Ford car. But at Boeing South Carolina, that's exactly what happened. Of 15 Boeing aerospace workers asked at random, 10 said they would not fly on the "Dreamliner," as revealed in our documentary.

In fact, as we flew to Seattle for a filming trip, an airhostess remarked to our Senior Producer/Director, Marc Shaffer, that she wouldn't fly on a "Dreamliner."

She said she knew a Boeing engineer who had told her to wait five years, by which time the company would have ironed out the plane's problems.

Beyond that, former Boeing engineers have complained to us that the company "changed basic engineering principles to meet schedule" as the delays piled up on its 787 "Dreamliner."

The company says it never compromises safety or quality and they are, and always have been, its priorities.

But it seems that as the company's share price has risen, something else has fallen. Companies rarely measure the good will and good faith of their workers. If Boeing did, I suspect it would find that both have fallen and probably at the same rate as the share price has risen.

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