By Kim Smiley
On January 16, 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency directive grounding all Boeing 787 Dreamliners operated by United States carriers during the investigation into two recent battery fires. This emergency grounding is an unusually extreme step, especially given that the Dreamliner is a new plane with only six operated by US carriers at this time.
This issue can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, an intuitive, visual format for performing a root cause analysis. A Cause Map is built by determining how the issue affects the goals of an organization and then asking “why” questions to find the causes that contributed to the problem. In this example, the schedule goal is impacted because the Dreamliners have been grounded. Why? The Dreamliners were grounded because there is a known fire risk because there were two battery fires onboard these airplanes nine days apart. The fact that the Dreamliner is the first major airliner to extensively use lithium-ion batteries and that fires in these batteries are particularly dangerous also contribute to the problem. Lithium-ion batteries were used because they are lighter than other batteries and lighter planes use less fuel. Fires in lithium-ion batteries are dangerous because they are difficult to extinguish because oxygen is released as they burn, which feeds the fire.
Several other goals are also worth considering like the customer service goal which is impacted by the negative publicity generated by this issue and the safety goal because there is a potential for injuries. The economic impact of this issue could also be very significant since each Dreamliner costs $200 million and there are 800 planes on order in addition to about 50 that were already in service that may need to be repaired.
The battery fires are still being investigated but the cause isn’t known yet. It may be an issue with manufacturing or the design itself. What is known is that the Dreamliner is a brand new design that incorporates many new elements such as mostly electrical flight systems, an airframe that uses composite materials and the use of the lithium-ion batteries themselves. The design process was also different from previous Boeing designs with much of the work outsourced to a network of global suppliers and very tight deadlines.
As more information becomes available, the Cause Map can easily be expanded to incorporate it. To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.