Over the break a friend suggested I read a book by Joe Sutter about the project to build the first Boeing 747.

I was so fascinated, with the book and his story that I augmented it by reading other accounts as well – a tad compulsive but that’s part of my charm.

I’ve decided it was an ‘opera house’ project. The end was terrific but the project was anything but under control. Joe was the Design Lead, reporting to a Program Head into whom a number of other people and disciplines also reported. The environment in which the 747 was designed and built is really interesting:

  • It wasn’t a market competitive project (Boeing had other ones underway that were due to be the future). But by the end it was the most important and got top priority for resources.
  • It started as last in the pecking order for resources (though in 1967 it was spending US$5m per day with 800 engineers on it), and by the end was first in line.
  • It started in 1965 and had its first test flight in 1969 and first commercial flight in 1979 (though the initial designs were done by Boeing from 1960 – 65 under contract from the US Government).  Joe Sutter joined the team in 1965.
  • Testing was done progressively at the unit, system and integration levels so that by the time the final bits were added they knew it would work. I used to call this dynamic development but it has been overrun and corrupted by agile.
  • Joe reports writing the regs they would meet as part of the project – those were the days.
  • Boeing ended up betting the farm on this project.
  • In terms of project management there was an integrated schedule produced and managed at the program level (this was also called the master schedule).  This plan had dates etc on it to show when things had to be done to come together.  There were no project management SW tools and the integrated schedule was up on a wall.  By the time I started in PM the situation was the same, and saliently the success rate of projects was much higher than it is today (50% then 15% now).
  • In terms of the detail of who did what and when in engineering, everyone worked out what they needed to do and the only point of integration was Design Bulletins (there were no team meetings). Joe had the final word on all design stuff.  He wasn’t responsible for any of the other stuff (facilities – they built the factory literally around the design team; operations; cargo; passenger planning; testing; regulatory; quality (apart from engineering and in that domain he held every single engineer accountable for their own work); etc
  • My favourite line in the book was when he reports an argument between himself and Stamper the Program Head.  Joe just said – “the design will be finished when it’s done”.  Though he does credit Stamper with the ‘Incredibles’ title for the design team – which was offered by Stamper as a way to motivate the design team.
  • I imagine Stamper and others were very stressed while they waited and fought for continuing funding, not knowing when a milestone would be achieved.
  • Interesting to note that only two people were on the project from beginning to end.
  • Joe reports that people worked very long hours and this was out of zeal and commitment rather than for personal gain.  Stamper had a different view of the commitment of staff – hence the incredibles for motivation.
  • The client(s) who wanted the bigger plane pushed Boeing to do it and stayed interested and up to date but didn’t have any say over the engineering, testing or schedule, despite being required to order 25 commercial planes prior to commencement of construction.

Like Sydney’s Opera House the 747 is still going decades later.

I’ve reflected on this a lot over the past couple of weeks and concluded that these types of projects were always rare and today they are like blue roses. I don’t know a single organisation that supports projects that will be done. If you know of one I’d love to learn about them.