By Paul Feinberg
Writing in The New Yorker last January, James Surowiecki described Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner airplane as a “technological marvel.” He also noted regulators had grounded all previously marvelous 50 Dreamliners due to two separate battery fires.
Tracking the cause of such a public failure for such a high-powered project led Surowiecki to a “fascinating study” published in 2009 in Supply Chain Forum describing “the major flaws in outsourcing and design.”
It turned out the Dreamliner only got off the ground because of a new, allegedly cost-saving strategy that included outsourcing manufacturing and design for more than half of the project.
“There were too many suppliers and no clear oversight,” the author of that 2009 study said. “This led to major problems in product development that were unprecedented.”
That author, UCLA Anderson Distinguished Professor and Edward W. Carter Chair in Business Administration Chris Tang, decided to take a long look at the Dreamliner project in 2007 when he learned from Boeing’s key supplier that something was not right with the way the company was managing the Dreamliner project. “I started collecting information and then decided to document what I found,” Tang says. What he found led him to predict the Dreamliner would have major problems in development time, development cost and product safety. When the battery fires occurred and the fleet was grounded, the national and international press discovered the paper and Tang was interviewed for stories from the Seattle Times to IEEE Spectrum and from the United Kingdom (The Guardian) to Japan (NHK TV).
For the media, the story was rooted in the content of Tang’s paper, which discusses in detail how Boeing’s “cost-saving” decisions led not only to major delays and cost overruns, but flaws in the final product as well. For Tang, the story had as much to do with how the paper came to be written.
Tang’s process represented a departure from the typical, published academic paper. His co-author, Joshua Zimmerman (’09), now a senior operations risk management manager with Amgen in Thousand Oaks, was then an MBA student at Anderson. His decision to work with Zimmerman (as he has with other MBA students on a variety of research and published articles over the last ten years) had a number of goals, not the least of which was developing and disseminating knowledge to a wider audience.
“Most research at the university is theoretical,” says Tang. “And, that’s the type of research I still do when I work with colleagues and Ph.D. students. It’s for publication in academic journals and for other academics to read.
“But in the last 15 years, I’ve written more managerial pieces for a general audience. We try to develop knowledge in academic papers, but I believe we need to find ways to disseminate that knowledge to a wider audience,” says Tang. “Publishing in management publications, as opposed to academic journals, is a way to disseminate a case like Boeing to that wider audience. Also, these types of papers are great for discussing in class. Management papers do have a conceptual element, but the motivation in writing them is to have an impact on practice.”
The work also had an impact on Zimmerman. He recalls being impressed by Tang’s energy and the way Tang and kept him and his classmates engaged. Zimmerman approached Tang to discuss a possible extra-curricular independent research project, and the Boeing-paper collaboration was born.
The experience proved valuable to Zimmerman. “I had the chance to pursue something I find interesting while conducting my own, independent research under the supervision of Professor. Professor Tang gave me a lot of leeway in doing the work,” Zimmerman says. “It was something I could own and take to any level. It was a great experience, going outside my comfort zone into something unfamiliar. I was a career switcher, and this was an opportunity do to a coherent analysis on my own and to prove to myself that what I wanted for my career was possible, while also gaining experience and credibility.” Today, Zimmerman says he feels tremendously validated that the media picked up the work.
Tang, who also edits UCLA Anderson’s “tri-lingual” (English, Chinese and Spanish) Global Supply Chain Blog (along with Professor Felipe Caro) says he will continue both his theoretical and managerial research.
“I enjoy working with people,” Tang says. “I like to invite MBA students to work with me to learn from a memorable and unique experience. It allows them to pursue work one-on-one that they find rewarding while sharpening their analytical thinking and writing skills. It also gives me the chance to establish friendships with students, something I treasure and find meaningful as well."