One small silver lining of moving Boeing headquarters to Chicago


In 2001, Boeing moved their corporate headquarters from Seattle to Chicago. This resulted in much wailing and consternation in Seattle, where Boeing had been since its founding in 1915.

But every cloud has a silver lining. Seattle is the home of Boeing's passenger jet division, and the presence of corporate executives had added an extra layer of management annoyance to the already-stressful job of building airplanes.

As the story goes, one of the Corporate Vice Presidents from some other division of Boeing had an office that overlooked Boeing Field, giving him a vantage point from which to watch each airplane take off as it was delivered to the customer. Since he was a Corporate Vice President, he had access to the delivery schedule, so when the schedule said that an airplane was supposed to be delivered to XYZ Airlines today and he didn't see a plane take off, he knew something was wrong. And each time a plane didn't take off when it was supposed to, he called the guy responsible for passenger jet manufacturing to remind him that there was supposed to be a delivery today, and that the plane was late, and demand an explanation.

Like that guy didn't already know that the plane was late. In fact, he's probably know this for the past several weeks if not months. He's been in countless meetings to figure out why the plane was late. He's been busting heads to get the plane back on schedule. He's been studying GANTT charts and PERT charts while sitting on the toilet. He'd even study Snellen charts if he thought it would help. He's the last person on the planet you need to remind that the plane is late.

Imagine what it must be like to be that guy, and to have a Corporate Vice President call you and say, "Your plane is late." And then to have to spend time explaining why the plane is late, time that you should be spending finishing an airplane that is late.

At least, now that all the Corporate Vice Presidents for other divisions have moved to Chicago, the passenger jet manufacturing guy doesn't have to take those annoying phone calls.

I tell this story as a long response to Chad's comment that he didn't see what was wrong with that manager's email to everybody who has more than one bug. The people with more than one bug sure as heck know that they have more than one bug. As a deadline looms, everybody lives in the bug database. You know exactly how many issues are assigned to you, and you set up notifications so you are alerted the moment anybody assigns a new bug to you. Your manager (and probably your manager's manager) talk to you every day about your bug count and are always asking you what they can do to help. (The sentence "If you need help, then ask your manager" therefore gets things backwards: Your manager has been asking you if you need help.)

The message from the senior manager was like the message from the Boeing Corporate Vice President: Reminding somebody already under a lot of stress that they are under a lot of stress.

Clarification: I think everybody is missing the part of the story where I say that the Corporate Vice President is from a different division of the company. He is nowhere in the chain of command in the passenger jet division. He's just a nosy outsider. Why should the passenger jet production manager send regular project updates to the CVP of the Space Launch and Exploration division? Everybody inside the passenger jet division who needs to know about the revised plane delivery schedule already knows about the problem.

Comments (18)
  1. Falcon says:

    I know the feeling – being distracted from working on XYZ problem by… phone calls about XYZ problem! Yes, the staff may not understand what's happening and what you're doing about it, but that's little consolation when you're the one person handling everything.

  2. HV says:

    Why the VP had an outdated delivery schedule?

    [See clarification. -Raymond]
  3. Mulch says:

    “Hurry it up, convict. Your time is running out.”

    “You interrupt me to tell me that? I can see now how you made commander, Julius”

  4. Chad says:

    Great story, Raymond. Thank you for providing the background. Now I understand that there was already a high awareness of the bug count and the bug-fixing process. Worrywart managers sometimes keep themselves busy in superfluous ways.

    In the Boeing case, more thoughts occurred to me. Why did it take to flight day for the Vice President to learn that Boeing would be disappointing its customers that day? Why didn't the passenger jet manager communicate to the VP well before the deadline? Or why didn't the VP more actively pursue about the true status of the plane?

    I'm posing hypothetical questions here. I don't expect The Answers™. Intuitively though, it looks like more communication earlier in the process would have avoided distracting communication later.

    [See clarification. -Raymond]
  5. HV says:

    This is also still story about bad communication inside corporation besides bosses messing with things they should not.

    [See clarification. -Raymond]
  6. Nawak says:

    I don't know why but I thought the silver lining would be the new vacant houses available on the market!

    [Seeing as the only people moving to Chicago are the VPs from other divisions (everybody else lives near their division already) the only new vacant houses are the fancy mansions that the VPs live in… -Raymond]
  7. Chad says:

    Funny how a story about communication could lead to such confusion on my part! With your clarification, I now see that the "from some other division of Boeing" clause was right in my face the whole time.

    I agree–this is a good example of the benefits of a chain of command. Senior management certainly should know better than to burden random subordinates elsewhere in the corporation.

  8. Brian Tkatch says:

    The sentence "If you need help, then ask your manager" therefore gets things backwards

    And has an annoying comma-then sequence. If the comma is there, "then" is not required. If "then" is there then the comma is unneeded. I asked Purdue (slashdot.org/…/164954), they responded "Actually, you need both the comma and then."

    Well, Elements of Style doesn't use both, though they never state it as a rule. Oh well.

    Just a pet peeve. Hmm… Raymond's pet peeves. What could they be?

  9. JamesNT says:

    This reminds me of a supervisor I once had.  Back in days past, when I was in my early twenties, before I had my CS degree, and before I made Raymond Chen my programming god, I worked for a textile company.  My job was to coordinate the schedules of all the dying machines in the department to get fabric dyed as quickly as possible with as little downtime as possible.  A fellow employee had the responsibility of delivering the correct lot of fabric to the correct machine when the current lot was finished with its cycle.  My supervisor would often instruct me to, "page John and make sure he knows to deliver that next lot to the machine as fast as he can.  We have to avoid downtime."

    Nevermind the fact that John already knew to get the fabric to the machine.

    Nevermind the fact that John had to stop what we was doing and find the nearest phone on the manufacturing floor to respond to my page (he always had to respond in the off chance I actually had something important to tell him).

    Nevermind th fact that this activity often added 1 – 3 minutes to the time it took John to get the fabric to the machine.

    And to this day, people wonder why I left that job.

    JamesNT

  10. Dave T says:

    @Brian Tkatch:

    Hartman's Law of Prescriptive Retaliation: Any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror.

    And banish that Elements of Style from your world forever.

    chronicle.com/…/25497

  11. DriverDude says:

    After this happens a few times, isn't it obvious the passenger jet manufacturing guy should simply pad his schedule to account for the time catering to the Corporate VP? Or CC the VP on schedule changes, and then tell the VP to RTM when he calls.

    [Any of those solutions still confirms my point: The CVP adds no value; he merely wastes the times of others and makes a stressful situation even more stressful. -Raymond]

    @JamesNT

    "And to this day, people wonder why I left that job."

    Why? Was that job really rewarding enough that you would've stayed if your supervisor wasn't a dipstick?

    I would quit too if I couldn't say, "John knows what needs to be done. How about I page him and ream his ass if he doesn't get the fabric to the next machine on time."

  12. Andrei Vajna II says:

    After reading a few paragraphs, I had to check what I was reading, because I thought it was The Daily WTF.

    Good story!

  13. Zian Choy says:

    @Dave T

    Yet you run the risk yourself.

    *points at the reference to the book*

  14. Bryan says:

    A product division at my company was late for a release. Everyone was pretty upset about missing the release date, so they decided to have a meeting to determine how to mitigate the issue in the future … before the release. So the release, which was late, was made even more late by spending half a day in meetings. This prompted more meetings about why the meetings were had before the release. In the end, the product was late by an entire week for three bugs that took 6 hours collectively to develop and test.

  15. Alexandre Grigoriev says:
    @Dave T:
    I think it is called Muphry's law.
  16. Rick C says:

    @JamesNT

    OMG, I had almost the exact same problem once, doing the exact same job (well, I was scheduling injection molding machines) and when the opportunity came to leave, I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

  17. benjamin says:

    Pre-emptive note: I say the following without intending to incite any political hand wringing.

    This reminds me of how people report on Vice President Biden going down to Louisiana to 'personally oversee' the cleanup process that's taking place in the Gulf. When people bring it up, they say it with an air of "Well *now* things will get done."

    I don't know about you, but if you want to guarantee that I don't get anything done, have my boss hover over me. And my boss isn't the Vice President of the United States.

  18. OldNJNeighbor says:

    We have a manager here we nick named Captain Obvious.

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