As the public trials and tribulations of Boeing continue, we have started to hear discussion of the loss of a culture at Boeing.

In an article in The Atlantic, titled “What’s Gone Wrong at Boeing,” James Surowiecki blames the problems at Boeing on “the erosion of a valuable corporate culture,” one he suggests “will be will be harder to fix than a loose bolt.”

In his article for Forbes, “Where Boeing Went Wrong And What Manufacturers Can Learn From It,” Ethan Karp championed his view that air travel is perfectly safe, but writes, “Boeing has a very, very long way to go before it regains the trust of its customers. The $78 billion-revenue firm stands as a cautionary tale—one that manufacturers of all sizes should take to heart.”

The casual observer might believe the tale starts with a door plug blowing off an Alaska Airlines plane back in January. That was followed by other incidents, such as the tire falling off a United flight as it took off, another plane that slid off of the runway soon after, and another subsequent event on Southwest detailing the loss of an engine cover. All were captured on video and began to raise the question, What’s going on at Boeing?

But the problems at Boeing were evident before these recent incidents, as both The Atlantic and Forbes articles suggest. As Karp writes, “Boeing’s mishaps started in 2018 and 2019 when two crashes caused by a faulty flight-control system killed 346 people.” Some will remember these crashes, others saw them detailed in a Netflix documentary titled “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing" from 2022.

In fact, it goes back even further than that, to 1997. As Surowiecki writes, “For most of its history, Boeing had what you might call an engineering-centric culture, with power in the company resting in the hands of engineering and design. But in 1997, Boeing bought another aircraft manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas, in what turned out to be a kind of reverse acquisition—executives from McDonnell Douglas ended up dominating and remaking Boeing. They turned it from a company that was relentlessly focused on product to one more focused on profit.”

Surowiecki further writes, “This new orientation was encapsulated by something that Harry Stonecipher, who had been CEO of McDonnell Douglas and was CEO of Boeing from 2003 to 2005, said, ‘When people say I changed the culture of Boeing, that was the intent, so that it’s run like a business rather than a great engineering firm.’”

He points out that Boeing, prior to 1997 and the McDonnell Douglas merger, was one of the most respected American companies and helped NASA put a man on the moon. “The firm’s reputation for safety and excellence was such that people used to say, ‘If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going,’” he writes.

So, the culture Surowiecki was referring to when he alluded to “the erosion of a valuable corporate culture” is what we in the quality industry call a “culture of quality.” Others in the mainstream media have referred to it as a “culture of safety.”

In an article, “How to fix Boeing, according to a former Airbus technology chief,” for Fortune, former Chief Technology Officer at Airbus and at United Technologies Paul Eremenko writes, “The modern air transportation system is nothing short of miraculous. Airplanes are some of the most complex feats of engineering created by humans, and yet thousands of them fly daily with so few incidents that flying is one of the safest modes of travel, second only to taking an elevator (and safer than walking, not to mention driving). It is not a miracle but a meticulously accumulated set of engineering principles, quality processes, and operating procedures–all underpinned by a set of cultural mores to ensure that they are faithfully and intelligently implemented. This cultural element is the magic ingredient. And it is what’s broken at Boeing.”

He further writes, “Take, for example, the tragic crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft a few months apart in 2018 and 2019. A key aviation engineering principle is that safety-critical systems cannot have a single point of failure. Boeing engineers convinced themselves [and the FAA] on paper that the MCAS system, which was found to be the culprit, was not safety-critical. Of course, it turned out to be. This is an engineering error–but more importantly and systemically, it is a failure of culture: The right people should have felt empowered to question the right assumptions at the right time.”

Certainly, the wrong time is April 17, 2024. That is the day that veteran-Boeing-employee-turned-whistleblower, Sam Salehpour, testified before the Senate in an examination of Boeing’s “safety culture,” where he alleged, “the company threatened him for voicing safety concerns, said his manager would keep him out of meetings and call his personal phone to ‘berate’ him,” and “told lawmakers that he has also received threats against his physical safety,” culminating in him saying that “his boss once said in a meeting that he ‘would have killed someone who said what you said.’"

In their various conclusions, Surowiecki detailed Boeing’s current financial woes and the company’s vow to reinvent itself, but suggested it has a long way to go, writing, “Just as public trust in a brand is easier and quicker to lose than to build, restoring a corporate culture that values engineering excellence foremost will take more time and effort.” He ended his article by writing, “Putting profit over product has been bad for Boeing’s products. The irony now painfully apparent is that it’s been bad for Boeing’s profits too.”

According to Karp, “it’s vital that manufacturers begin to invest today in equipping their operations with the sort of sensors and IoT [Internet of Things] components that will allow a clear and complete digital view of their products and processes.” He added, “Boeing has promised it will rework its culture and recommit to the engineering-first approach of its past. It should also commit to being a leader in connected manufacturing technology. For that matter, any manufacturer can and should make that commitment.”

He ended his article by writing, “The odds are that it will pay off long term. After all, as The Atlantic article concluded, product and profit turn out to be intrinsically tied together.”

Eremenko wrote, “While my career took me to the planemaker on the other side of the Atlantic, I feel a deep fondness for the American icon that is the Boeing Company–and sadness at its current malaise. I am confident that it can regain its magic by putting airplane geeks at the helm, giving its employees a direct stake in the company’s success, and making a bold, ambitious bet on the future.”

As for Salehpour’s testimony to the Senate, according to reporting by Business Insider, "After the threats and after all this, it really scares me, but I am at peace," Salehpour said. "If something happens to me, I am at peace because I feel like by coming forward, I will be saving a lot of lives."

According to the same reporting, “Boeing has backed its widebody planes despite Salehpour's complaint, telling Business Insider in an email statement prior to the hearing that the allegations are not representative of the work it has done to ‘ensure the quality and long-term safety of the aircraft.’"