The law of unintended consequences

Boeing’s announcement this week that they’re suspending production of their 737 MAX Jetliner is to a large degree the unintended consequence of the company’s successful efforts to shortcut the approval process for new aircraft. That new process masked some of the questionable design decisions before the plane was approved, leading to two fatal crashes.

It’s easy to imagine how Boeing executives thought it would be beneficial if they could shortcut  the lengthy FAA approval process used for so many years, and find a way to bring more of the approval work in-house, using their own employees to augment those from the FAA. Little did they realize how awful that would turn out.

They were motivated to find ways to speed up development because of the increased competition from Airbus. A large portion of the development time is for the FAA to test and certify a new aircraft. Bringing the approval process in-house would give them more control over those responsible and put them under Boing’s management.

While they may have convinced the government to give them more control over the approval process, the results were devestating.   Yes, they saved time and got an earlier approval, but that led to much bigger problems that they never envisioned. A clear case of unintended consequences.

Once part of the approval process was in the hands of Boeing, it created conflicts of interest throughout their organization. It’s the natural consequences when you have the test engineers under the direction of those responsible for profitability. The testing was no longer independent.

It’s not just Boeing where we see the results of unintended consequences like this. It seems to be pervasive throughout Silicon Valley where companies such as Facebook created a product without ever looking at how it could be misused. They never subjected their products to critical testing. They never tested products created for the advertisers and members to see how those same features could be weaponized and used by governments and rogue players to create harm.

That mentality of design it, ship it, and test it with your customers, has worked about as well for Facebook as it did for Boeing. Both companies underestimated the need for thorough testing or minimized the results.  So far Boeing has suffered more serious consequences and Facebook has managed to avoid them. But, hopefully, that will be changing soon with the FTC about to come down hard on Facebook.

by Phil Baker