Why Boeing Needs More Than a Software Fix

The 737-Max's Design and Marketing Flaws Can't Be Overlooked

Apr 22, 2019
Decision, Operations and Information Technologies

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Boeing blames software for two recent disasters involving its 737 MAX narrow-body plane, but an information technology expert at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business points toward design and marketing flaws instead.

“The software worked,” says Maryland Smith professor Henry Lucas, who will lead a May 16 webinar on the Boeing case as part of a Strategic and Transformational IT course in the school’s MicroMasters in MBA Core Curriculum on the edX platform. “There wasn’t a bug in the software. It didn’t suddenly stop working.”

Lucas says it might have been better if the software had suddenly stopped working. “But in fact it was programmed to do what the designers wanted it to do,” Lucas says. “Unfortunately, the designers didn’t think of all the possible use cases.”

Design Flaws

Good system design starts long before programmers write the first line of code, Lucas says.

“The last thing you do is programming,” he says. “The first thing you do is try to find out what the functions are that the system is to perform. What do you want it to do? What can go wrong? What can go right? What are the possible sources of error? What have we left out of our design? Have we forgotten some class of user? Have we forgotten some part of the algorithm?”

A safety system added to detect and prevent in-flight stalls on the 737 MAX included many design flaws, Lucas says.

Mission critical sensors on the surface of the plane, for example, did not always have backup in case of sensor error. Manual overrides were difficult to implement, especially at high speeds in emergency situations. And the system did not have a way to detect manual override attempts and shut down automatically.

“Those are pretty serious design flaws,” Lucas says. “And the reason I call them design flaws is because I make this distinction between a design and its implementation in software.”

Marketing Flaws

Lucas says Boeing compounded the design flaws with a marketing strategy that made two safety features optional on the 737 MAX.

“It was a marketing strategy to charge extra for these safety features,” Lucas says. “Somebody made that decision instead of saying, ‘We ought to make these things standard to make this plane as safe as possible.’ Instead they said, ‘We can sell this as an extra cost option.’”

Upselling often works as a sales technique, but Lucas says worrying about a few extra dollars makes little sense on a $100 million transaction.

“Do you really need to make a few thousand dollars or whatever they were charging for two safety items?” he says. “The more marginal airlines that are extremely cost sensitive — like those in Ethiopia and Indonesia — are most likely to need those sensors but least likely to buy them.”

You’re Invited

The May 16 webinar is part of a seven-week fully online course taught by Lucas and Maryland Smith professors Ritu Agarwal, Joseph Bailey and Anand Gopal. Free registration is available at edx.org. Verified learners who complete the MicroMasters in MBA Core Curriculum may also receive credit toward an online MBA from Maryland Smith. Learn more…




About the Expert(s)

Henry Lucas

Professor Henry Lucas' research interests include information technology-enabled transformations of organizations, markets, industries and our daily lives. He has conducted research on the impact of information technology on organizations, IT in organization design, electronic commerce, and the value of information technology. Lucas co-produced and co-wrote The Transformation Age: Surviving a Technology Revolution with Robert X. Cringely, a documentary co-developed by Maryland Public Television and the Smith School shown on public television stations around the U.S. He has authored a dozen books as well as monographs and more than 70 articles in professional periodicals on the impact of technology, information technology in organization design, the return on investments in technology, implementation of information technology, expert systems, decision-making for technology, and information technology and corporate strategy.

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Robert H. Smith School of Business
Map of Robert H. Smith School of Business
University of Maryland
Robert H. Smith School of Business
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