SEATTLE — The question seemed to catch Dennis Muilenburg off guard.
At the news conference that followed Boeing’s annual shareholders’ meeting April 29, the company’s CEO was asked if he had considered resigning over the 737 MAX crisis.
Muilenburg paused for a long moment before declaring that his “clear intent is to continue to lead on the front of safety and quality and integrity.”
“It was a yes or no question,” said Scott Hamilton, a Seattle-area aerospace analyst, who watched the news conference remotely. Muilenburg’s tepid response seemed “incredibly telling. Something else seems to be going on in the background.”
That’s probably an understatement.
Muilenburg is unquestionably a man on the spot. Just months ago Aviation Week named him Person of the Year, styling him “the Transformer” for his impact on Boeing and the industry.
Today, Muilenburg’s company is reeling not only from two fatal crashes of its most important aircraft, but also from suspicions that safety may have suffered in the push to get the MAX to market.
“These are economic decisions made at the top of the company,” said Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, referring to Boeing’s focus on cost and schedule considerations in the process of certifying airplane safety.
In Muilenburg’s defense, the 737 MAX program was launched in 2011, four years before he became CEO.
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But Muilenburg oversaw the aircraft’s final development and was in charge during the company’s widely criticized handling of the crashes.
More fundamentally, under Muilenburg, Boeing has intensified efforts to boost “shareholder value” by turning out more airplanes even as it has wrung more costs from its supply chain and its workforce.
Some critics wonder whether the drive to please Wall Street has not only strained Boeing’s production systems, but also fundamentally altered its culture, resulting in what veteran aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia has characterized as a “deprioritization and perhaps under-resourcing of engineering.”
Whether such a culture shift contributed to the MAX crisis may be a question for the various crash investigations now underway. But it raises a serious dilemma for Muilenburg and his overseers on the company’s board.
“If the decision was made to cut a corner by someone on the manufacturing side, then (Muilenburg) has to hold that person accountable in order to exert some leadership,” said Lawrence Parnell, an expert in strategic public relations at George Washington University who has closely followed the MAX crisis.
But if the MAX problem turns out to be more deeply rooted in Boeing’s culture, Parnell said, Muilenburg may find himself in a bind.
“It’s very difficult for somebody who is a product of the culture, and now is charge of the culture, to change that culture,” Parnell said. “And unless he or she is very decisive, you end up in the same place.”