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1997 Speeches

Phil Condit

The Boeing Company

"Working Together in the 21st Century"

National Academy of Engineering

Frontiers of Engineering

Irvine, California

September 18, 1997

It is a great to stand before you, "the best of the best," of our young engineering community from industry, government and academia. As an engineer and a member of NAE, I'm honored to be here.

Let me, first, congratulate you on your selection from 270 applicants to participate in NAE's Third Annual Frontiers of Engineering Symposium.

Secondly, I want to thank President Bill Wulf and the NAE for hosting this symposium, which allows you to find out about new research and pioneer thinking across many different fields. And you certainly are working on some exciting projects: biomechanics of cells and tissue engineering, optical filters, distributed satellite systems, ceramic sensors for automobiles, blended-wing-body aircraft concepts, neural networks, instrumentation for the evaluation of the lungs, and much more. This frontier symposium offers you great opportunity to learn and work together.

And since I do represent Boeing, I'm reminded that a symposium such as this simply can't take place without commercial airplanes. On average, 100,000 people are airborne on Boeing airplanes 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We move a lot of people. Airplanes allow us to get together to talk issues and dream. . . to forge new frontiers and make changes . . .to make the world a better place.

Tonight I'd like to spend some time talking about --

First, recognizing change.

We live in rapidly changing times. In just the last few months, NATO signed a new partnership agreement with its former Cold War adversary Russia and Hong Kong reverted back to China. The Internet and CNN link us daily to other cultures and continents -- even to outer space. Today we send mail electronically to each other and eye witness natural disasters and onboard space shuttle conversations -- all from our homes. We live in a time of phenomenal change. We need to recognize this change.

I think it's critical to know it hasn't always been this way.

If you lived in Medieval times, you would have little chance to change careers. You automatically did what your grandfather and father did, and your children followed -- skills and crafts passed from generation to generation. In contrast, I believe people today can expect to make several dramatic career changes during their lifetime. Great change.

Likewise, people such as Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton probably traveled very slowly by horse-and-buggy to their convention to sign the U.S. Constitution just 219 years ago yesterday. In contrast, you quickly traveled many more miles to this symposium here in California -- possibly by airplane.

Airplanes weren't even created 100 years ago, and the first artificial earth satellite, Sputnik, was only launched into orbit 40 years ago in 1957. Today, we watch a tiny vehicle chug around Mars on our television set or computer. Great change.

Technology and the world are changing at an outstanding rate. We have to keep up. Perpetuating "the status quo" in the future won't work.

So what are the implications of all this change for each of us? I think the implications are: either we must adapt to change or simply disappear. The Darwinian imperative says, "If we're unwilling to change, someone else will, and go forward."

Let me give you a couple of examples.

At the turn of the century, the seventh largest national leather goods companies made buggy whips, saddles, and carriage seats. Because they failed to adapt when the motor car was arrived, they don't exist today.

On the other hand, the Warren Featherbone Company, founded in 1883 in Michigan, does. They first recognized the need to replace more expensive whalebone used in women's' corsets. They succeeded with turkey quills as a cheaper, more pliable stay material. Then, fashion changed. They had to adapt or be out of business. They moved to rubber diaper covers. Then, came disposable diapers. They learned to survive and thrive by reinventing and refocusing again. Today, they are a successful baby clothing manufacturer in Georgia.

At Boeing, I had to learn too. When I first came to Boeing in 1965, the biggest computer in the world couldn't compare to what I carry today in my briefcase. In the 1960s, airplanes were designed in pen and ink on big sheets of mylar. Now our people create designs for airplane wings and parts on their computers. They work and rotate colorful, solid models to see all dimensions of their design. Great change.

We need to recognize and adapt to change.

Second, working together.

I happen to believe we control our own destiny, and that we can accomplish great things by working together.

Now I'm going to ask you to jump back in history one more time.

The Boeing Company was founded in 1916 by aviation pioneer Bill Boeing. He hired Tsu Wong, an engineering graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to assist on the company's first airplane. During those early days of the company, employees sat together at the Red Barn, the company's first building in Seattle. Engineers upstairs; builders and accountants downstairs. All worked together side-by-side, solving daily problems.

So as the years rolled by, Boeing grew bigger. Bureaucracy crept in. Groups became isolated. The process became serial. And people did only their piece of the job and handed it over without sharing knowledge and resources. We were not lean and efficient.

When the idea of a whole new airplane family -- the Boeing 777 -- came along, we knew we had to do something different. The 777 has three million parts, stands six stories high, and uses 31,000 gallons of fuel. It has 2,885 pieces of tubing; 1,300 wire bundles; 14 tires, and two huge engines. To produce our new 777, it would take a new approach: a lot of people and a lot of people working together.

We looked to those first days of our company and to our rich heritage to create the 777. And we began by creating a mission. Our mission statement became: Working Together to produce the preferred new airplane.

First, two key words, "Working Together."

As the 777 program started to develop, we said, "Let's invite our customers in; let's create teams to design and build our new airplane family; let's all work together."

Now none of us likes someone watching us. Others might find out our weaknesses. Might want to do our design work. Might try to take over. We had a lot of fear. But none of those fears came true.

A teacher friend of mine gave me a button a few years ago that read, "None of us is as smart as all of us." And I believe that statement is true. I also happen to believe it works well with the two words, "working together." We can do magical things working together.

In fact, our working together customers helped us with the 777. Helped a lot. Helped with the little things. Literally, thousands of things. Reading lights that can be easily changed in flight. Understanding that a latch, designed to be operated with a human finger, isn't a good idea with a glove on in minus 15 degrees at Chicago's O'Hare airport in January. I can go on and on.

We learned that it's worth your while to listen closely to the customer. The 777 is an airplane of thousands of "working together" ideas. Bottom line: working together worked.

Second, the next key word: Preferred.

Only the customer decides to decide what's "preferred." Preferred is a very strong reminder. We had a set of objectives to create the 777. And I got very excited at the first flight of the airplane a few years ago, and was asked "Why." I was excited because the process proved, "None of us is as smart as all of us." The bottom line: the process worked. . .not perfectly, but it worked.

Working together works. You can accomplish marvelous things.

Third, the ability to think differently about ourselves.

When I'm asked, "What's the most important thing you've learned in the last 10 years?" And I have to answer, "I can never say airplanes are different."

Learning to say that I'm not different; that my industry is not different; that my business is not different is hard. Airplanes are one of the best products in the world. They're a lot bigger. They're more complex. They fly. They are amazing machines.

By saying, "my business is different," is the best excuse for not learning. What you want to do is to learn from everyone. Your business isn't so special that you can't learn from anyone you meet.

I learned that while standing on the production line of Toyota, where I saw a very dramatic, efficient production system in Japan. I thought, "Interesting. But airplanes are different." The temptation is to say that, "They are very different." You produce at a different rate; your product is more complex; you have to be certified by the FAA. During that visit a few years ago, I learned that I was no longer allowed to say, "But we're different." Once we got over saying, "Airplanes are different," it improved the way we thought.

The ability to think differently about ourselves allows change.

And that brings me full circle.

First, the world is changing. Our choice is to recognize it is happening.

Second, working together is a powerful concept. None of us is as smart as all of us.

Third, we must start to think about ourselves differently.

I believe to survive in the 21st century, we must:

Every profession -- whether it's engineering or medicine or law -- is going to have to learn to adapt to a rapidly changing world.