It's a Project Manager's World Newsletter with Dr. James Brown
      November, 2011 Full Moon Edition      

Book Review - 747: Creating the World's First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation

This book is authored by Joe Sutter and Jay Spenser and chronicles Sutter’s life and the development of the 747 from Sutter’s perspective as chief engineer.  I recently watched a special on Boeing where Sutter was briefly interviewed and discussed the recent entry of the Boeing 787 into commercial service.  If you like aviation or airplanes this is a worthwhile read. One of the highlights of my NASA career was being part of a private tour of the Boeing facility in Everett Washington and seeing the planes under construction. Below are two observations and five excerpts from the book that I found valuable from a leadership perspective.


A.    Sutter was a believer in simple and not afraid to try different things.  It is amazing to know he cut out paper airplane engines and moved them around a simple line drawing of a 737 as part of the process that established engine location for the 747. 

B.    Even at Sutter’s high status and power level negative politics are a fact of life and must be dealt with.  He provided examples of unwanted help he had to take, unrealistic deadlines and people trying to take over his roles and responsibilities.

Five Excerpts of Sutter's comments

1.     By far the biggest lesson I learned from the 737 was never to take an initial design configuration as a given.  It’s human nature to do just that and go charging ahead to work within an existing framework… Engineers love to dive right in and analyze the hell out of reams of data.  Very often though, they can’t see the forest for the trees because they haven’t done the simple work up front to be sure they are starting down the right path… The more brain power you apply up front, the greater the likelihood that you’ll find the design path that solves your challenges and meets your customers’ requirements...  If I made an individual contribution, it was my insistence that we take stock before charging out of the starting blocks.

2.    I let my people run with the ball and made sure to give credit where it was due.  I also strove to communicate well.  On the 747 program, I was the one making the decisions—I’m not a consensus guy—but I generally did so only after hearing everybody out with an open mind.

3.    Real leadership means having the courage to do what you know is right.  (This always sounds easier than it is and Sutter provides some examples of high pressure situations where he did this)

4.    If we had differences, I made sure we resolved them on the spot.

5.    …I realized that all of us on that incredibly complex and demanding program were so close to our own problems that we probably couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I decided to fix that... I worked hard to keep my 747 engineering team as broadly informed as myself.  Sitting in on their meetings or visiting their locales for impromptu gatherings, I covered the sales picture, our engineering challenges and successes, pertinent events inside and outside the company… I saw the role of the manager isn’t simply to pass out instructions; it is also to inform… people need to know where they stand.  It’s a psychological necessity, and morale suffers in the absence of such knowledge.

This book proves once again the fundamental parameters for success are not complex.  The key lies in the discipline (yours and the organization's) to adhere to those parameters. From this book...

  • Evaluate all options before going forward
  • Empower people and give them credit
  • Make decisions only after listening
  • Stand up for what is right
  • Resolve issues quickly
  • Constantly communicate the big picture to everyone 

Examine the bullets above.  How are you and your organization performing against these fundamentals?

Dr. James T. Brown, PMP PE, Author, The Handbook of Program Management - McGraw-Hill

Copyright 2011 SEBA Solutions Inc.

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