Boeing’s FAA audit offers lessons in employee and executive communications

A closer look at statements from Boeing and other industry leaders.

Boeing’s name has been in the news a lot lately, and it largely hasn’t been for anything good. The negative press cascade started when a flew off an Alaska Airlines flight (in a plane made by Boeing) in mid-air, causing major safety reviews, a production halt for the manufacturer, and an analysis of how Boeing handled the situation from a comms perspective. But a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) audit that concluded Monday showed that the production process at Boeing was rife with issues, including unclear instructions for employees on how to mitigate problems that arise.

According to a report from The New York Times, the FAA’s audit of Boeing’s manufacturing revealed a chaotic situation at former subsidiary Spirit Aeosytems, which makes the plane fuselages for 737MAX planes like the one in the Alaska Airlines incident. The report includes a statement from Boeing that promises changes but is vague on specifics, along with more details from a Spirit spokesman Joe Buccino and some preliminary FAA findings:

At one point during the examination, the air-safety agency observed mechanics at Spirit using a hotel key card to check a door seal, according to a document that describes some of the findings. That action was “not identified/documented/called-out in the production order,” the document said.

In another instance, the F.A.A. saw Spirit mechanics apply liquid Dawn soap to a door seal “as lubricant in the fit-up process,” according to the document. The door seal was then cleaned with a wet cheesecloth, the document said, noting that instructions were “vague and unclear on what specifications/actions are to be followed or recorded by the mechanic.”

Jessica Kowal, a spokeswoman for Boeing, said the plane maker was continuing “to implement immediate changes and develop a comprehensive action plan to strengthen safety and quality, and build the confidence of our customers and their passengers.”

“Meanwhile, we continue multiple efforts undertaken to improve our safety and quality programs,” Mr. Buccino said. “These improvements focus on human factors and other steps to minimize nonconformities.”

To put it bluntly, details of a safety crisis aren’t what any airplane passenger, FAA official, or air industry employee wants to hear. The FAA isn’t pulling any punches in describing a less-than-ideal situation here. But the vagueness of Kowal’s and Buccino’s statements also speaks volumes. Buccino’s explanation provides slightly more context, but “human factors” is ambitious, stereotypically PR speak that only invites more questions.

How did executives respond?

The executive response

Boeing’s issues aren’t just safety-related — they’re now having an outsized impact on the whole industry. The manufacturer’s problems are causing some airlines to stop hiring and to cut flights for customers, according to a report by CNBC.

Amid these problems, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun affirmed his commitment to improvement, responding to the recent FAA audit by saying, “We have a clear picture of what needs to be done.”

Boeing shared a statement with CNBC that addressed the larger issues.

“We are squarely focused on implementing changes to strengthen quality across our production system and taking the necessary time to deliver high-quality airplanes that meet all regulatory requirements,”  the emailed statement read. “We continue to stay in close contact with our valued customers about these issues and our actions to address them.”

When things go wrong, people both inside and outside the company want to hear from leadership how the issues will be fixed. In the absence of strong accountability from Boeing executives during this crisis, other CEOs weighed in. According to CNBC:

Southwest Airlines, which only flies Boeing 737s, trimmed its 2024 capacity forecast and said it was reevaluating its 2024 financial guidance, citing fewer Boeing deliveries than it previously expected this year: 46 Boeing 737 Max planes, down from 79.

“Boeing needs to become a better company and the deliveries will follow that,” Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan said at a JPMorgan industry conference Tuesday.

This brief but powerful statement stands out for communicating impact, enforcing accountability and suggesting more tangible next steps than Calhoun’s. Executives tasked with responding urgently during a crisis can achieve a similar impact with their statements using the “who, what, when, where, why” framework.

While Boeing’s leaders have commented on the issue, this saga also traces how they’ve deflected the problem and its solution toward employees in the manufacturing process.

The employee comms tactics

In the wake of the FAA findings, there’s been even more scrutiny around  Boeing and manufacturers like Spirit. But to its credit,  Boeing’s brass seems to be getting the message that it needs to communicate better and provide pathways to employees to report instances of either slipshod work or issues in the manufacturing process.

The CNBC report continues:

On Tuesday, Stan Deal, Boeing’s commercial airplanes’ unit CEO, told staff that the company would work with employees who have been found to have noncompliant issues during the audit to make sure they “fully understand the work instructions and procedures” and implement weekly compliance checks, and plan for more audits this month.

In a note to staff, Deal said employees must “precisely follow every step of our manufacturing procedures and processes” and “always be on the lookout for a potential safety hazard,” telling employees “you are fully empowered to report it through your manager or the Speak Up portal, so we address it right away rather than travel the risk to the next person or position.”

The employee comms approach outlined in this memo marks progress for Boeing, standing out from past statements that have gone to the public from Boeing’s leaders. First and most obvious, it provides a pathway for improvements, with compliance checks and further audits., Boeing points employees toward reporting resources in the company’s employee portal and emphasizes employee-manager relationships. Rather than simple platitudes about doing a better job, these are real solutions and mentions of impact–risk incuded. Whether the memo was leaked or planted, this note is more in line with what external stakeholders need to hear.

The sections of this memo that were shared don’t paint a picture of support, empathy or accountability from the top, however–the humanizing language is absent. It’s a reminder that employees shape culture and make an organization what it is — or what it isn’t. Leaders always do well to communicate with that in mind, acknowledging, aligning and ensuring all stakeholders to maintain trust and salvage reputation while they navigate the crisis.

When problems arise, the most impactful leaders help employees reach their potential and root out problems rather than assigning blame. Executive communications that embrace a people-first mindset, even when putting accountability on the workforce,  make better outcomes more likely.

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports and hosting trivia.

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