Leadership Lessons from the “No” Meeting

Boeing 787

A good friend of mine is part of the senior management team for the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” project. As a student of project management, I love to catch up with him every now and then to discuss this unbelievably complex endeavor.

While I’ve been up-close-and-personal to tremendously large and complex projects (like Windows NT) involving thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of variables, nothing can compare to the development of a new commercial airplane.

Just imagine hundreds of thousand of parts, some larger than a football field, some smaller than the tip of a pen, and all being built (especially for this project) by suppliers located around the world. Stir in tens of thousands of people, billions of dollars, and oh yeah, don’t forget that peoples’ lives are at stake, and you have a recipe for a project management nightmare. And my friend’s job is a key position in the coordination and assembly of all these various parts. With the plane scheduled for its maiden flight in a few months, he’s having a lot of fun these days.

With the plane scheduled for it’s maiden flight in a few months, he’s having a lot of fun these days.

One of the things that Boeing and many other companies have long struggled with is delivering the best product they can build while simultaneously pleasing their customers. With previous airplanes, Boeing has let customers design their own interiors, galleys, bathrooms, overhead storage, seats, avionics (cockpit controls), and so on. The company essentially offered a shell that flew and let customers make the inside to suit their needs and taste. This explains why your carry-on fits in some overhead bins and not in others. Each airline chooses their own style.

This approach was remarkably customer-friendly, but it exponentially increased the complexity of building aircraft. With every airline choosing different configurations, each plane — even each bathroom, was custom made. At most they would see a customer order 10 or so planes with the same configuration. Imagine the pain that Boeing and its suppliers would be in never getting to scale up production for even the soap dispensers. And try to imagine the complexity of assembling and testing these incredibly complex machines, each one different from the next.

This was all supposed to end with the 777 model a few years ago. My friend was told repeatedly by management that customers would be given only a few choices to make for each item, and that configurations would be standardized. But then the sales team began selling the planes. And customers began expecting the same custom-built planes they always had in the past. The sales people had a hard time telling a customer who was placing a multi-BILLION dollar order, “no, you can’t have fries with that”.

Boeing 787 Assembly

Pretty soon, the number of bathroom configurations mushroomed from 4 to 40, and they were back where they started. The 777 is widely different when flown by United than when flown by British Airways. It’s a complex and difficult product to build and test. And it’s nowhere near as profitable as the company had hoped it would be.

For the 787 project, to quote Bullwinkle J. Moose, “This time for sure!” This project is made significantly more complex by the choice of vendors quite literally from around the globe. Parts are being made in Italy, Japan, and all over the US. To allow customers to choose from an infinite variety of configurations would be a potential coordination disaster. So with this plane the company is being far stricter about forcing customers to stay “on catalog”.

In fact, my friend leads a weekly meeting they call the “no” meeting. Sales people from all around the globe call in trying to convince manufacturing to build just this one custom part for this very special customer. And the answer is always “no”. They push the sales person to escort the customer back to the catalog.

My friend leads a weekly “no” meeting.

And you know what? The customers are fine with that. The 787 is the fastest selling plane in commercial aviation history, with almost 600 orders before the thing has even left the ground [pun intended]. Turns out customers recognize the value of standardization in cost savings, quality, training, and time to delivery. They didn’t really need custom soap dispensers, they were just pushing as far as they could, because they could.

So far the “no” meeting has held, except for one special case. The galley carts (you know, those knee bashing things they drag up and down the aisle) are customized. You see, the airlines already have thousands of them, with each airline’s different from the next. Boeing just couldn’t tell them “no” in this case. So they’ve built adapters to make the standard galley accept your special cart. But they’re holding the line everywhere else.

What’s the leadership lesson here? The same lesson I preach about all the time: have a vision, stick to it, and sell the heck out of it. Your team will love you, and customers will beat a path to your door.

When the Boeing leadership let the customers run roughshod over the manufacturing team, they paid the price.

When the Boeing leadership let the customers run roughshod over the manufacturing team, they paid the price. Now that they have decided to stick by their team, sales are up, morale is up, all signs are that the product will be better, and it certainly will cost less.

How can you learn from the experience of one of the largest manufacturers in the world handling a project a thousand times more complex than yours? The same thing: believe in your vision, your product, and your team. The customer isn’t always right, sometimes you need to stand up for your vision. Sure you need to recognize your own “galley cart” case, but most customers, like children, appreciate it when you show a little discipline.