December 2004/January 2005 
Volume 03, Issue 8 
Special Features

Energy in a bottle

John Tracy intends to unleash change through a design-anywhere, build-anywhere battle plan to improve efficiency and lower cost at IDS


John Tracy with a model of the International Space StationAs a 13-year-old boy earning pocket change in Gardena, Calif., John Tracy found there was more to working in a butcher's shop than wielding a meat cleaver. He learned from his boss an enduring truth about good business: The customer is always right. Always.

"If the customer insisted that the steaks were not up to standard-even if we thought they were-then it was our job to do whatever it took to make them right," Tracy said. "My boss said that his business would succeed or fail based on our attention to customer needs. He was right. I never forgot it."

Tracy carried that pearl of wisdom through high school, college, graduate school and successively important assignments at McDonnell Douglas and Boeing. Today, as chief engineer for Boeing's $27 billion Integrated Defense Systems business, the turbocharged Tracy is responsible for providing engineering support to a spectacular array of space, intelligence and defense systems. More than 30,000 IDS engineers look to him for leadership.

"The scope of what we do is just enormous," he said. "And it provides us with some fantastic opportunities."

His responsibilities may be enormous, but Tracy never loses touch with his roots or his customers. He packs an ever-warbling flip phone 24/7, a practice he adopted early in his career when his space program supervisor ordered him to carry a pager.

Tracy's enthusiasm is bottomless. Just a quick conversation with him has one convinced that nothing is as fascinating or important as the latest idea from his engineering team, short of a trip to Mars.

"I can't help getting excited about what I'm working on," he said. That, say colleagues, could extend from setting up a complex design processes infrastructure to making a cup of coffee. He's as dedicated to staying fit and playing the bass guitar as he is to chairing both the Boeing and IDS engineering process councils.

"He's so enthusiastic, so engaging, that people want to work with him," said Thad Sandford, Tracy's now-retired predecessor and longtime mentor.

That's fortunate. Because one of Tracy's most urgent tasks at hand-a corporate-inspired initiative to create common Boeing processes and tools-calls for much team energy. The end result will allow engineers across the enterprise to work together using the same language and same approaches, a major breakthrough for efficiency and affordability.


"We want to unleash a new capability at Boeing," said Tracy, who is drawing on his previous Boeing Phantom Works "design-anywhere, build-anywhere" experience as vice president of Structural Technologies, Prototyping and Quality. "It was Phantom Works that helped prepare me to appreciate the power of working across boundaries."

That's no minor task for a business unit derived from four aerospace companies-Boeing, Hughes Communications, McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell-each of which brought with it a variety of software design and engineering tools. And a certain amount of culture shock.

In effect, Tracy wants to institutionalize the kind of Boeing collaborative spirit that helped land such giant programs as Future Combat Systems and the Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft program.


Current position: Vice president of Engineering at Boeing Integrated Defense Systems

History: High school teacher in Los Angeles. Joined McDonnell Douglas in 1981 as a stress analyst at Huntington Beach, Calif. Rose through management ranks to become general manager of Engineering for Boeing Military Aircraft and Missile Systems in Southern California.

Prior position: Phantom Works vice president of Structural Technologies, Prototyping and Quality.

Education: Doctorate in engineering, University of California, 1987. Bachelor's degree and master's degree in physics from California State University, 1976 and 1981 respectively.

Organizations: Fellow, American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Associate Fellow, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Past chairman, American Society of Mechanical Engineers Aerospace Division.

Located: Seal Beach, Calif.











"By working across boundaries at IDS, Phantom Works and Commercial Airplanes, and by involving multidimensional Integrated Product Teams that include manufacturing, product support and suppliers, there's no limit to what Boeing can do," he said. In the end, he added, it's always about understanding the customer, coming up with ideas, experimenting with them, and validating the solution.

Tracy said he refers to his customers as his bosses because they really are in charge. First among them are the business units within IDS, which are calling for engineering skills every day. Second, there is the IDS-wide engineering team, which he sees as the creative heart of all IDS products. Tracy sees his role as providing the engineering team with what they need to do their jobs. Third, there is the rest of the Boeing enterprise, for which Engineering creates products that others use, such as build-to-buy packages (drawings and specifications that define what product to build or procure) for Operations and Supplier Management.


George Muellner, Tracy's former Phantom Works boss, said Tracy's leadership and commitment made him a natural choice for his position.

"He's an engineering dynamo," said Muellner, now vice president and general manager of Air Force Systems at IDS. "He was the right person at the right time to galvanize a team charged with one of the company's most difficult assignments."

Part of that has to do with Tracy's patience, sense of humor and communication skills. As a high-school teacher, he became adept at describing science in a way that would hold the attention of even the most distracted student. He uses the same communication skills to keep his teams motivated and his customers fully informed.

"People think that what we do is about only equations and computer models," he said. "It's actually also about good listening skills and respecting people."

Like every engineer, Tracy has an eye for the minute details of the here and now. As a leader, he must constantly check the horizon, be more visionary. What will be the next breakthrough? Will it be nanotechnology, the science of manufacturing at the molecular level that could have tremendous application in, say, the satellite business? Will it be a leap in laser forming, the latest prototyping tool? Or will it be something that nobody has yet heard of?

"We look out over the entire technology universe in partnership with Phantom Works and look for that small technology that will transport us into new territory," Tracy said.

But for all his fascination for the future, Tracy's feet remain firmly on the ground. He does not believe in recreational technology research. "Whatever technologies we select have to work on the shop floor and in the fielded products," he said. The introduction of a new technology depends on the delicate weighing of risk, cost and practicality: "I believe in technology pull rather than push."

The words of his childhood butcher-shop boss still resonate during his daily dealings with crucial customers both inside and outside Boeing. He remains as focused as ever on what the customer really wants over what engineers think they should have.

"With customers, it doesn't matter whether we are a butcher or a rocket designer, we can make suggestions, offer ideas and try to persuade," Tracy said. "But in the end, our customer is king."


Front Page
Contact Us | Site Map| Site Terms | Privacy | Copyright
Copyright© Boeing. All rights reserved.