Peter Morton: Addressing Tough Issues at Boeing

Peter Morton is vice president, human resources for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, directing a staff of 1,500 people who manage and support the human resources functions of a 100,000 person organization.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he joined The Boeing Company in 1958. Among his engineering responsibilities over the years, Morton was project engineer for 757 Flight Deck design. He has also worked in the sales, marketing, and flight-crew training sectors of The Boeing Company. In 1995, he was appointed vice president of the Boeing Leadership Center, where he was responsible for executive and management development and education. He is a private pilot with multi engine and instrument ratings.

Peter and his wife, Marie, are active supporters of various local performing arts groups and the CRISTA Urban Academics project helping drop-out and at-risk teenagers to finish their high school education.

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Ethix: You have been both an engineer and a manager at Boeing. In your varied experiences, how do the technological and the human factors interact with each other?

Peter Morton: The first time that interaction was really obvious to me was when I was the senior project engineer for the design of the 757 flight deck. When we explored how human factors enter into the technology, we decided that we would strive for three things in the design of that cockpit: simplicity, redundancy, and, as a last resort, automation. We treated automation with a great deal of skepticism, particularly when it got to the point of writing the human being out of direct intervention with the machine.

So the person-machine interface that evolved from the 757 project (and I think it still prevails on all Boeing designs) is rather different from what you find, for example, on the Airbus design where automation is a higher priority because of a suspicion that humans cannot do as good a job as intelligent machines. I’m proud of what we did because it keeps the human being in the loop.

Did you do this because you believe that people are genuinely better than unattended computers at flying airplanes — or was it because you don’t want your human pilots to get bored in a fully automated cockpit?

Both. You can’t stay engaged if you’re bored. But we don’t think you can ever write a technological equation that replaces the need for human judgment. We wanted the human being to stay engaged enough in the flight process so that when the occasion arises requiring judgment it could be applied without waking up and starting from zero.

A second arena where this has been important in my Boeing career is education and training. In 1987 we began using technology for training pilots and mechanics. There is a whole spectrum of training and instructional design models and what is appropriate depends on the educational goal. It is pretty well accepted now that technology can do an efficient, good job of teaching and polishing skills. That efficiency is especially important when the students are pilots drawing large salaries but out of the revenue-producing enterprise while in training. So we started doing what’s called computer-based training and we probably took it to a new level.

Was this technology mediating between the teacher and the student pilot — or between the student pilot and the plane?

The instructor would use computer simulations and various kinds of animations to communicate things that you couldn’t communicate with chalk and talk. This is very powerful, particularly when you’re dealing with folks who have English as a second language. The activity culminates in actually putting the individual into a simulator of the airplane. We did this sort of training with maintenance people as well as with the flight crew.

Something else we learned about using technology in training human beings: when simulation first came into existence we got so fascinated with the device we forgot the pilot! Our early simulator sessions would show pilot failure and malfunction almost as though we were testing their limits of tolerance rather than following some kind of constructive instructional design. Pilots going into the simulator every six months for refresher training called it “the box”, or worse!

Simulator training today has an entirely different kind of design. Pilots are told exactly what’s going to take place; surprise is not the objective. After the simulator lesson is a debriefing session. You talk about what you learned. We’re intent on staying within the limits of plausibility so that what happens relates to reality. The pilot finds this training a plausible circumstance and will get totally engaged in it and learn from it.

So you went from designing cockpits to designing pilot training programs and now to the human resources department.

In 1995 I went into an organization called the Boeing Center for Leadership and Learning. About this time the Web was becoming pretty common around Boeing; the installed base was high. Our purpose at the Boeing Center was management education and leadership training and in that environment there had been very little technology. Now technology doesn’t necessarily mean a computer. To me technology means a systematic way of going about doing a job. It may or may not involve a computer; it may involve a process, it may involve some kind of pedagogy.

In my world we say technology is both tools and techniques, tools and methods.

A lot has been written about how technology intersects with pedagogy. Our question is how we should bring technology into our leadership development pedagogy. What kind of business or behavioral simulations could we create that would cause people to really engage and come away with some helpful new thinking about themselves and their jobs?

Most recently I’ve been assigned as Vice President of Human Resources at Boeing. Human resources guru David Ulrich at the University of Michigan, has mapped out the four areas of this arena. The first is the human resources person as the administrative expert who answers questions about your benefits, sick leave, and all that stuff. Second is the human resources person as a strategic partner to the business that he or she serves. Third is the human resources person as true advocate for the employee; sometimes this is a counterpoint to the administrative expert role. Finally, fourth is the human resources person as an active change agent. Technology has a role to play in each of these four dimensions and I’m really interested in how it will develop.

The administrative expert part, which occupies by far the largest single portion of the total time of interaction between human resources and those they serve, is really painful. First of all, it’s rare that anyone in the human resources department has the expertise to understand the complexity of the administrative systems that exist. If you want to get the answer, you need to ask your question three times, of three different people; eventually you may converge on what seems to be the right interpretation of the rules, but you never want to walk away from a personally critical decision having asked just one person.

So technology here might play the role of categorizing, simplifying, automating, much like a reservation system does for an airline.

Exactly. IBM is one of the companies that’s done a really great job of that. We’re just completing the business case to introduce a concept at Boeing called the Employee Information Service Center. It will be designed to handle most routine inquiries and transactions: the status of my vacation hours, my sick leave hours, and so forth. With a simple computer interaction, employees will be able to go to the source wherever that data is held.

Then there are questions requiring a human interpretation, for example, “if I take my vacation hours before my anniversary date, or my anniversary date occurs while I’m on vacation, how does that play out?” “Can I now take some of next year’s vacation?” In such cases a human being would receive the call or e-mail and answer the question while accessing a knowledge base containing the necessary second-order complexity of the rules. If you ask a question that is not answered by the rules, the person sitting at that knowledge base will refer you to the expert in the center responsible for the administration of that section. When you ask a question that penetrates the whole system, you are now asking about policy and it will be referred to those responsible for policy.

So it won’t be an automated, “no you can’t do that” kind of response.

Correct. This is also where the human resource employee advocate role is so valuable to a corporation. Records are kept of what questions have been asked and why. Where are the folks getting perturbed with the system’s answers? Human resources can then go to management and exercise advocacy: “if we change the rules on this particular system we would be addressing the concerns of a significant portion of our employee base. So let’s think about the policies.” With our new center and information systems we’ll be able to get data like never before as to the hot spots in employee morale and satisfaction. The professional skills expected of the human resources staff are going to be different in the future than they are now. We’re now going to preconfigure our organization so that it’s ready to move into the new environment. Except for those assigned to answer questions directed to the service center, we’re going to want our human resources people to pay attention to the roles and goals of employee advocacy and strategic partnership. Strategic partnership means understanding which way the business organization is going and working to develop the right human resources strategies to support this development.
Technology doesn’t necessarily mean a computer. Technology means a systematic way of going about doing a job.

As you view the larger Boeing Company, how has technology changed the nature of work for people?

Well two things occur to me immediately. First, among ourselves we’ve substituted electronic communications for written memoranda and voicemail. I’ve heard it said that such communication is impersonal and doesn’t carry the subtlety of personal, face-to-face communication, but I disagree. I think it carries a different kind of subtlety and we can learn how to utilize this. There are enormous advantages in our ability to spread information and also to inquire of a larger group. Of course, we can also just scatter information to the winds if we are not careful.

In a more general sense, over the years, what I’ve observed about people and technology is that at any given intersection there are folks who really understand the underlying technology and are pushing it — and then there are other folks who have a need for it and don’t know it. Not many individuals or even small groups have the requisite skill set to deal with those two polarities. We need a different kind of teaming to harvest what technology can do for an enterprise. This team will have no fence: the technology mavens and the folks who have a job to do come together; they iterate around what’s possible, and what’s desirable, in a sort of a continuous circle.

When you set up companies in which one large organization simply provides technology and the other organizations simply do their assigned tasks, you don’t have this continuous stirring of the interface; and this delays or even prevents better things from happening. The Portable Maintenance Aid project, which Al and I both worked on, was an elegant intersection of technology and, in this case, airplane maintenance. When fully implemented, it fundamentally changed the way airline mechanics maintain airplanes.
We need a different kind of teaming to harvest what technology can do for an enterprise.
In today’s hub-and-spoke system, there is terrific pressure to get an airplane out of the gate. Mechanics are put in a very high pressure situation; if they don’t get that airplane out on schedule there are serious “down-line” consequences. In the past mechanics did their best to fix whatever seemed to be wrong by relying on their experience and intuition. But they might not have fixed what was really wrong so the problem moves down line until finally that night somebody really troubleshoots the airplane, hauls out the manuals, figures out what’s wrong, and replaces what needs to be replaced.

Our side of the business understood the maintenance situation; Al’s people understood what you could do with computing and hyperlinking of information. Together we came up with this Portable Maintenance Aid — essentially a laptop the mechanic carries to the repair site instead of going back and forth to the old volumes of documents 500 yards away at the maintenance shack.

I’d like to return to the human resources domain for a moment. Do you do any sort of “ethics check” on job applicants to try to find out their values and their track record on matters like honesty, trustworthiness, and so on? And do you do any orientation or training of your new hires in terms of Boeing’s values and ethical guidelines?

We do some things. What you describe is a future state we would like to attain. When we get an urgent need of new resources, we have not done a good job in that area. We do have orientation programs that identify the Boeing’s company ethical values.

Do you run a check to see if they are wanted by Interpol or the FBI, or if they have a criminal record? Do you do a blood test to see if they’re currently using drugs?

Not blood but urine. We do require a urine test when we hire; that’s an important factor as a coarse screen. But we also want to hire people who have certain aptitudes and attitudes which are not easily screened — not even by checking their references. Checking on people’s references generally doesn’t produce the kinds of results you’d like.

So if you telephone a former employer they’re not likely to say, “look we always suspected this person of ripping us off.”

In today’s litigious society they’re not likely to. But your question opens the subject of another technology and process initiative at Boeing; we call it Strategic Staffing — a very different model from what we have today.

In the Strategic Staffing model you view a career as a system for management of talent. Our first activity with that system, let’s say for an engineer, will be in the sophomore year in college when we’re entertaining the possibility of a summer internship. By the time the student goes home for Christmas holiday they know where they are going to spend the next summer. The system starts there and moves into assessments of the employee after graduation. It would move into assessments before promotion into management, and assessments before possible appointment as executives. The whole thing is viewed as a system. Every assessment points to whether or not you want to hire or promote them, and to the learning gaps between the metrics achieved on that assessment and the desired attributes you’d like to see prevail in the new assignment. There is also a technology element of Strategic Staffing; it provides the managers of the company an instant and total access to the talent resident in all the organizations nation wide.

Can you say something more about ethics training at Boeing?

We certainly articulate our values and ethics in the process of orientation. There is an annual ethics review and we have ongoing ethics training in the company. Some of it is “let me tell you what our standards are”. We also deliver case studies to employees and ask them to respond. Some of them are convoluted enough that the response is not easy, but they are required to give an answer which is then evaluated. There’s no disciplinary action taken on those, but they are educational.

Another big issue today is downsizing. Technology automates some tasks and that can lead to fewer jobs; market changes can force companies to reduce their workforce. From a human resources perspective, and in terms of ethics, how do you think about downsizing?

This may surprise you, but I’m at ease with it. When people face an individual change in their life story, many times a year or two later they’ll tell you that this was the right thing to happen to them at that time. The current situation at Boeing Commercial is a good case in point. We had lost control of the production line so we hired more than 30,000 people to solve the problem. Now we’ve got the production lines under control. Over a period of years 30,000 will leave, maybe more. A fair proportion will leave from attrition; others who will leave will be those who read the newspapers and knew what they were getting into, that there was a pretty substantial chance that their job would be temporary. So I don’t carry that home with me as a burden.

Do you have any responsibility to these downsized employees to try to help them find another job? To what extent ought the employer to care for the employee?

Absolutely. We do a lot to help them find a job. We have centers where they can go to learn how to write a resume. They can use company resources to make copies, use e-mail or the telephone. If they’re energetic about it, they’ve got the best resources which they could have for finding a new job. In some cases we provide expert professional counseling.

But we need to look at the broader cultural model that the company is trying to be — and where it came from. We come from a paternalistic culture in which the manager is supposed to play the role of the father and the members of the organization are supposed to seek his approval for all kinds of things. That’s the past.

We want to be a team-based culture, where more and more people know what the game plan is and what their particular piece of the game plan is. The amount of detailed supervision that’s required is much less. All the educational programs that we have now for executives and managers play this out over and over and over.

There are people at Boeing who liked the old way, the family way. Some who played the role of the father, and even some who played the role of the children, liked it; it was comfortable. But that’s not what we see as necessary for future success.

OK, but what about a hypothetical veteran employee, who has slowed down just a little bit as the fifties and sixties arrived. What about this faithful old employee: for the sake of shareholder value, will you lay him or her off and get some younger, more productive hotshot instead?

Certainly, in the spectrum of performance, there is some extreme low level of performance at which that person should no longer work for the company. It is more likely that, as they become older, they also gather experience, intuition, wisdom, and those are offsetting factors to some other deteriorating abilities. I think the biggest question is what did they do as they got older. Did they continue to learn one way or another? I mean it might be reading industry journals, it might be taking courses, it might be learning a new design tool. You have to treat everybody with a certain amount of respect and age and experience is one of the complements that earns you that respect. But it isn’t the only one.
We come from a paternalistic culture… That’s the past. We want to be a team-based culture.

Technology in some respects is culturally blind and universal. How do you put that together with today’s call for diversity, hiring a diverse workforce where you have people of different ethnic backgrounds and women as well as men, and so on. Do you have a real commitment to diversity at Boeing and does this provide value in the workplace?

From the definition point of view I would distinguish little d “diversity” and big D “Diversity.” Little d diversity has to do with compliance with the law, what the racial and gender makeup of the company will be and how this relates to the populations from which we draw these skills. We’re going to comply and we get audited by the government.

The big D Diversity is a different kettle of fish. We’re now talking about intellectual diversity, how people think. That arises out of a number of factors, and gender and race might be a part of it; but so is your Meyers-Briggs style, your learning style, your education, what part of the country or what nation you grew up in, and so on. There’s a total commitment on the part of Boeing to value this kind of Diversity and to believe that seeking and applying these points of views to both business and technical challenges will pay dividends.

So diversity brings economic and technical value because people coming from different backgrounds are going to see different things and the total team effort is stronger.

Now isn’t it really nice that for a change the ethical thing turns out to be the business thing.

I think that is true more often than we suspect — that these are in alignment, that doing the right thing ultimately trades out, that treating people with value and respect pays off. If you make a pretense of ethics to get a payoff, your hypocrisy will undo you eventually. But if you are ethical out of genuine respect for people and what is right, it does pay off, more often than we usually think.

We’ve gone through phases of concentration on different aspects of our business. Ten years ago you’d have generally said that concentration on the customer prevailed in Boeing. Today we are focusing on the business metrics of shareholder value.

When we were focused on the customer it was because there were many entities competing for that customer. Today’s obsession with shareholder value has to do with the fact that we’re not performing well in that arena and we’ve got to learn. We’ve been to customer school, now we’re in shareholder value school.

I think there’s a future school. It may be social school, or it may be employee school or whatever. I think that underneath some of these other things the real purpose of the business is to engage people in useful and fun things to do. Work should be engaging, provocative, interesting, where the individual comes away with a sense of working on something greater than him or herself. “I’m not laying bricks, I’m building a cathedral” — that kind of thing.

Or perhaps we will start looking at the social situation. What is it that makes for a really good community? What makes for a really good community in which peace reigns? Is it partly that people are engaged in doing things they feel good about? I’m sorry I won’t be employed at the time to be part of this next phase. As a leader in the organization I want to satisfy the customer and I want to get good business metrics, but I’ve got to tell you the thing that makes me feel really good is when the people who work in the organization feel fulfilled.

Since this may be my final assignment, there is a powerful urge to have it be meaningful. Once again, it seems the fates have put me at the intersection of people and technology. Well, as I search for my legacy, I focus on the challenge of redesigning the professional roles that the HR people of Boeing will play in the new environment. The best way to do that is both good for the business, and compassionate for the people involved: defining the attributes needed for success, providing assessment instrumentation for people to apply and help them self-select into the future skills demand, and helping those who want to do something else. It seems that here is an opportunity for leadership in a direction that, if we do it right, will “reek” with ethics.