Locked-In Syndrome: What we can learn from Boeing’s 737 Max decisions
The 737 was Boeing’s best-selling product. Airlines knew the product well and bought it year after year. Pilots were comfortable flying it. So when Airbus announced the A320 Neo in 2010, Boeing didn’t see it as a major threat. According to a New York Times article, executives believed they had a decade before they needed to build a new aircraft from scratch. The common product disease, Locked-In Syndrome, had begun to set it.
Locked-In Syndrome means overly committing to a technology, or approach because it has been successful in the past. It kills the desire to explore better solutions when there’s already a solution on hand that’s working brilliantly.
In recent years the Airbus A320 Neo was selling extremely well — US based airlines such as JetBlue had Airbus fleets. Boeing was having to play catch-up and was at risk of losing their major client, American Airlines, to Airbus. Boeing had to react. Starting afresh to build a new plane would have taken 8–10 years. So it seemed like an obvious choice to update the existing 737 with a new engine.
To Boeing engineers this seemed like déjà vu — they were repeatedly asked to iterate on the 737 where they were already running up against the plane’s design limitations. Boeing had already updated the 737 from the 60’s in 1984 with the launch of the “Classic series”, and in 1997 with the launch of the “Next Generation”. They updated the 737 once more in 2017, birthing the 737 Max.
The low frame of the 737 (which was once a desirable feature for loading and unloading cargo), had become a design limitation — it limited the size of the engine that could fit under the wing. To fit a larger engine, engineers moved the engine further forward. But this too had a side-effect. It caused the plane’s nose to tip upwards and sometimes caused the plane to stall. To get around this, they developed an automated anti-stall system (MCAS) to point the noise downwards when the plane risked stalling. Boeing had a full-blown case of Locked-In Syndrome, as engineers figured out one workaround after another to fit the 737 with a larger engine.
In both the 737 Max crashes, pilots were fighting the MCAS system which had been triggered by an erroneous sensor that thought that the plane was stalling.
How can you avoid Locked-In Syndrome in your organization?
It’s not just big, successful products and organizations that catch this disease — your product could be catching this disease right now. There are many frequently made mistakes that manifest in this disease. Locked-in Syndrome is common in organizations even when they’re seemingly doing all the right things (applying Lean and Agile to iteratively build their company and product).
Here are 3 lessons from Boeing’s 737 Max disaster that you can apply in your organization to avoid Locked-In Syndrome:
- Customer feedback is only useful in the context of your Vision and Strategy: Boeing executives abandoned their plans to build a new aircraft from scratch when their customer (American) told them they had to move aggressively if they wanted the business. Using the same 737 platform was attractive to airlines in that it was the cheaper option and didn’t require additional training for pilots. In the absence of a clear vision, and strategy, customer feedback can lead us astray. Boeing’s vision (as stated on their website) is to be the best in aerospace, and their 2025 goals revolve around market leadership and growth. But without a clear vision for the problem they’re trying to solve in the world, there isn’t a clear North Star to guide decisions and counterbalance the day-to-day revenue and investor pressures.
- Invest in the vision: When Boeing executives made the decision to upgrade the 737, accepting workarounds for the design limitations, they were incurring Vision Debt. Vision debt means building your product in a way that sacrifices your core vision for short-term financial gains. This is not to say that we should never take on vision debt — on occasion you may have to take on vision debt so you can survive another day to make progress towards your vision. But sometimes you have to make hard decisions and invest in the vision. For Boeing this would have meant investing in building a new aircraft for domestic flights. For you, investing in the vision could mean spending time on a much needed code refactoring, or investing in a new product even when you have a cash cow.
- Iteration alone will only help you find local maxima: For Boeing, iterating on the 737 was a way of hitting revenue targets. It helped Boeing find the local maximum. In our everyday work, most likely we are applying Lean and Agile to measure and iterate based on feedback. These are great execution techniques to minimize risk and develop products using quick feedback loops. These techniques give you speed in execution and help you quickly find local maxima. But these short term gains don’t necessarily mean progress towards your vision. Applying product thinking means planning where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. Combining Lean and Agile execution with product thinking gives you velocity: speed with direction so we can find global maxima through vision-driven change.
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