The Business Press Maven almost had to delay production of this column for several months. The "j" key is missing from my keyboard, and there was a worldwide shortage of "j" keys. Don't believe me? Good instincts. The truth is I was too tired, too bereft of ideas, and my brain is burned to a crisp from a book deadline.Lucky for me, Boeing ( BA) ambled along with an announcement of far-reaching production delays, right on the heels of a claim akin to a worldwide shortage of "j" keys. Follow the parallel. My deep-seated problems don't seem as serious if I speak about them in terms of a shortage of "j" keys. And Boeing's global supply-chain problems on the highly anticipated 787 Dreamliner didn't seem as serious when the company first goaded the business media into portraying them as exclusively a shortage of fasteners, i.e., nuts and bolts. Now Boeing officials are saying that their problems go further than nuts and bolts, but they won't (honest!) be as screwy as Airbus' long delays. They might be right this time. But we need to look at the full picture. That would be the one not being given by the business media, who fell first for the fasteners-made-us-do-it defense and are now failing to make connections needed to put the excuse-making to the test.
So let me do that. Boeing announced last week that it was delaying delivery of the groovy-sounding 787 Dreamliner, conjuring up images of Airbus' well-documented delays with the A380. The Dreamliner, which I've been looking forward to flying on, is supposed to be a really comfortable plane. Plus, it's being made with new sorts of materials and in a new way, with components outsourced to suppliers throughout the world -- an innovative, if complicated, endeavor. Speaking of complicated, a few months back, Boeing let the public know there would be a tiny delay, but for a very uncomplicated reason. It was facing a worldwide shortage of, uh, fasteners. Those are apparently among the tiniest, least expensive parts on a plane -- nuts and bolts, essentially. With all those new moving parts, bolts or whatever was the only thing tripping it up? Hmm. And how could a test flight possibly be delayed because of a nut shortage? After all, you just need enough nuts or bolts for one prototype plane for that. The talk around that time rang instantly hollow to The Business Press Maven, but what do I know about airplanes besides how to balance a computer and coffee on a tray table? This wasn't an excuse on par with the one
we spoke about on Friday , when Sallie Mae's ( SLM) chairman blamed a roughly $500 million swing from profit to loss on how distracted he'd been by the company's merger controversy.
Common sense ruled there. This Boeing claim took some technical knowledge to get to the bottom of. Still, a lack of common sense ruled in coverage. The
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (you know The Business Press Maven cardinal rule to be ever-suspicious of the hometown media outlet's coverage, and yes, Chicago, Boeing is still a Seattle company) fell for the fasteners-made-us-do-it excuse hook, line and sinker in a story: "Fastener shortage may hurt production schedule for 787." The second sentence: "The potential problem is a critical shortage of fasteners, which are used to hold airplane structures together. Tens of thousands are needed for each plane." Soon, we are treated to a quote from the plane's head of production: "The fasteners are a bigger challenge than we anticipated," said Scott Strode. Then the journalist weighs in for confirmation and emphasis: "The fastener shortage is complex and is more than a matter of supply versus demand." Then last week, sure enough, it was more than the fasteners. The production line innovations were encountering some bigger challenges. Suppliers were all over the place in terms of delivery, turning assembly into a fractured state of affairs. Plus, there was the flight-control software trouble. Did all this presumably long-unfolding trouble all just crop up in the past weeks since it was the fasteners that made them do it? Or, uh, not do it?
Anyhow, Boeing is all over the business media, this time laying down quotes to the effect that it is not Airbus and that its customers won't mind. And Boeing could be right. It's trying to do some cool new stuff with this Dreamliner. Maybe it'll all be OK in the end. But when it comes to production delays and a pattern of rolling, replaceable excuses starts to develop, as an investor I'd tread carefully -- even when the business media, those little gullibles, don't. And now ... two quick trolls for reader responses. When I ran my Apple iPhone jellybean-jar contest, I got more than 500 letters from readers. Uncomfortable with the way iPhone sales estimates were all over creation, I asked readers to guess how many iPhones the company would announce having sold in the last two days of June. I named the contest after Greg Stroh, a Toronto-based reader who suggested it. Well, I'm still getting email about the iPhone and sales estimates, and Greg suggested a follow-up -- a contest to name the date on which Apple will announce that its 2 millionth iPhone had sold. This is the date it's announced -- not the date it's sold -- and while I want you to have fun with the contest, please remember as an investor that if they have to keep cutting prices to ribbons to get there, it won't be the same quality a benchmark. But go ahead, send me your wild guesses, and when the time comes, I'll bequeath one of you with the "Greg Stroh Number Two Million" award. The odds-on favorite to win is Chris Hezel, the bright-as-a-bulb tax accountant from Philadelphia who
won the first . Also, I mentioned last week that I will be speaking Saturday at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers fall conference in Chapel Hill, N.C., at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Since I also cover sports, I'll be speaking on the comparative strengths and weaknesses of sports and business coverage. I'd like to include some insights from readers, so if you have some spare thoughts on how you value (or have disdain for) the sports vs. business media, drop me an email. And if you are in Chapel Hill, drop by.