FAA Inspectors Won’t Fix Boeing

Boeing 737 MAX airplanes parked on the tarmac at a factory Renton, Wash., March 21, 2019. PHOTO: LINDSEY WASSON/REUTERS
Boeing 737 MAX airplanes parked on the tarmac at a factory Renton, Wash., March 21, 2019. PHOTO: LINDSEY WASSON/REUTERS

Summary

The company should focus on getting its manufacturing right.

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Mike Whitaker, told Congress last week that in response to the problems with Boeing’s 737 MAX, his agency would take “a much more hands on approach going forward" and add inspectors.

Clearly Boeing is having quality issues, but why would anyone think the solution will come from the FAA? The people at Boeing build planes every day. No one at the FAA does. They are too far removed from operations to understand the company’s problems. And the FAA’s knee-jerk reaction to add inspectors is telling. Inspection can’t guarantee a product’s quality, which has to be built in to the manufacturing process.

When a quality issue unexpectedly arises and the cause is unknown, inspection is imperative because there is no alternative in the short term. Poorly produced parts must be sorted from acceptable ones. But this isn’t sustainable. Inspection is a stopgap measure, and not a very good one.

Western companies for decades relied on inspection to remove defective parts. In its 1980s-era ads, Hanes memorably promoted “Inspector 12" as evidence that the company threw out bad garments before they reached consumers. Yet quality was poor by today’s standards, and costs were high. People aren’t good at inspecting because it is an incredibly boring job. Workers can’t maintain the attention needed to catch every defect during their shifts. If the root causes of quality problems aren’t addressed, costs remain high because resources are wasted producing defective parts.

Beginning in the 1970s the Japanese quality miracle caused massive disruptions in industries such as automobiles and audio equipment. In the 1950s, W. Edwards Deming, an American academic known as the father of quality management, taught Japanese manufacturers that inspection happens too late. He advised them to focus instead on developing processes that ensured defects didn’t happen and instituting standard operating procedures in factories. The Toyota Production System streamlined manufacturing and organized it so each step of production flowed into the next. If problems arose, the flow stopped. The goal was to ensure that defects were discovered early in production, when they are easier to rectify.

The FAA inspectors will be little more than an annoying distraction to Boeing. Manufacturers like Boeing already have a huge incentive to make safe, high-quality products. If they don’t, no one will buy them. Bureaucrats, not only at the FAA but at any government agency, have different incentives. If they delay production, they can claim it’s because they aren’t satisfied with product quality. They look like heroes. If they sign off on something that turns out to be unsafe, they will be called in front of Congress. So they cause delays to improvements also.

We can’t rely on the FAA because of its perverse incentives. And while final quality assessments are needed, they can’t be relied on solely. The solution is for Boeing to focus on its manufacturing processes and get them right.

Mr. Coles is an associate professor at Lehigh University’s College of Business.

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