Boeing Learns a Lesson In Theory of the Firm – Outsourcing Isn’t Always Profitable

Boeing is learning a hard lesson in what micro-economists call the “theory of the firm”.  Theory of the firm is the branch of econ that explores the question of “why do corporations exist?” and “why do they vary in size?”.  First, from the LA Times (much more at the linked article itself):

The airliner is billions of dollars over budget and about three years late. Much of the blame belongs to the company’s farming out work to suppliers around the nation and in foreign countries…

Case in point: Boeing Co. and its 787 Dreamliner.
The next-generation airliner is billions of dollars over budget and about three years late; the first paying passengers won’t be boarding until this fall, if then. Some of the delay stems from the plane’s advances in design, engineering and material, which made it harder to build. A two-month machinists strike in 2008 didn’t help.

But much of the blame belongs to the company’s quantum leap in farming out the design and manufacture of crucial components to suppliers around the nation and in foreign countries such as Italy, Sweden, China, and South Korea. Boeing’s dream was to save money. The reality is that it would have been cheaper to keep a lot of this work in-house…

Paul Krugman summarizes the relationship to some modern theory of the firm writings:

Oliver Williamson shared the 2009 Nobel mainly because of his work on a question that may seem obvious, but is much less so once you think about it: why are there so many big companies? Why not just rely on markets to coordinate activity among individuals or small firms? Why, in effect, do we have a lot of fairly large command-and-control economies embedded in our market system?

Williamson answered this in terms of the difficulties of writing complete contracts; when the tasks that need to be done are complex, so that you can’t fully specify what people should do in advance, there can be a lot of slippage and strategic behavior if you rely on market incentives; in such cases it can be better to do these things in-house, so that you can simply tell people to do something a particular way or to change their behavior.

In Boeing’s case, they outsourced far too much, only to find that they were getting parts that didn’t do what they were supposed to — and also to find that the subcontractors were seizing a lot of the rents. They discovered, in effect, that there are times when it’s better to rely on central planning than to leave things up to the market.

Obviously this isn’t always true. There’s a tradeoff. But that’s the point — and it’s this tradeoff that determines how big firms should be. Boeing has now provided a clear motivating example. Their loss, the economics profession’s gain.

Paul Walker at Anti-Dismal offers a more complete explanation of Williamson’s ideas.  And, of course, Williamson’s books, unlike many by Nobel-winning economists, are actually rather readable by non-economists.