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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

August 27, 2010 at 10:20 AM

Unchain the consultants: Boeing’s cry for help requires real intervention

Now I’m worried about Boeing. No, not because of the latest delay to the Much Delayed 787 Dreamliner. I’m worried because the company has hired an outside consultant to “reshape the culture” of its Commercial Airplanes unit, which just happens to be a foundation stone of the metro Seattle economy.

Before writing here, I spent many years as a manager in newspaper chains as they committed suicide. Outside consultants were ubiquitous, helping wield the razors. They were a way for the leaders of these companies to escape accountability, to pretend to “listen” while already having their minds made up. Rarely did the suits have candid conversations with the experienced employees on the front lines, almost never did they take their recommendations. The bodyguard behind this monstrous destruction of my profession was often an outside consultant.

I was hardly the brightest bulb in the knife drawer, but my hair was on fire in the mid- and late-1990s trying to get my bosses at one chain to pay attention to the Web and the vulnerability of traditional classified advertising, offering some solutions. A few other middle managers did, too. We were told to shut up and quit resisting “change.” An outside consultant wanted to spend money on “branding” and make us read Who Moved My Cheese. Instead of buying (cheaply) a major search engine that might have been the platform for much more, the consultants wanted us to change our voice mails to say, “Thank you for connecting…” Now that chain is gone.

Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group did a grand job before, reshaping Boeing’s culture of engineering excellence to fit the mold of McDonnell Douglas, the supposed merger target but whose radically different culture became that of Boeing. Now the consultant promises to “to help employees feel engaged and end a climate in which they sometimes were reluctant to speak up or ask for help,” as the news story reported. And let “executives learn to foster personal accountability, openness to change, collaboration, integrity and realistic optimism.”

Lord, have I heard that before in my life as a manager. Translation: Head for the bomb shelter. The Bigs are overwhelmed and looking for cover as they flounder and/or push hidden and failed agendas.

Boeing could save the undisclosed amount it is paying Senn-Delaney by 1) Cleaning house in Chicago, on the board and in the executive suite, with real accountability for repeated bad management; 2) Drop the Jack Welch management model, from its bullying to its religious faith in outsourcing; both have manifestly failed; 3) Have real Boeing managers listen to real Boeing employees, who know how to build the best airplanes in the world.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Ben is standing strong

Way down deep in Jackson Hole

Man without a rope

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