Airbus chess battle reaches tense middle-game position

April 3, 2007

The Airbus chess battle reaches a tense middle-game position with both official and unofficial strikes across its European sites. If the corporate Power8 plan has failed to become a shared vision, neither has it become a common enemy against which resistance has been focused and mobilized.

The battle has elements of a multi-dimensional chess game. In France and Germany, Union-backed protests are putting pressure to bear on the works council of the company. In the UK, an unofficial strike was accepted as understandable, but not given formal Union backing. Even in France, two minor Unions did not support strike action, on the grounds that such action might make matters worse at the moment.

According to a BBC report

Workers from CGT and Force Ouvriere unions took part in the strike on the eve of Airbus’ works council meeting .. They marched behind a banner that said Airbus’s best-selling A320 plane should continue to be built in Toulouse … chanting “No to Power8,” an estimated 2,500 workers gathered at the aircraft maker’s headquarters in Toulouse .. One of Power8’s planned measures is for the plane to be built exclusively in Hamburg.
“We are treating [the works council] with caution and we intend to keep up the pressure,” a Force Ouvriere works council representative said.

This did not chime with my recollection of the company’s announcement of its Power8 restructuring plan, so I looked it up again.

The Airbus Power8 announcement

The Airbus Power8 announcement of 28th of February indeed seemed to be saying something different:

A third A320 Family FAL [Final Assembly Line] will be set up in Hamburg immediately to cope with the steep production ramp-up currently under way. This FAL will be established in already existing facilities and will have full type flexibility when demand for A320s exceeds rate 14 per month. The A320 will continue to be assembled in Toulouse up to 14 [per month]. Hamburg will also perform final assembly of the future New Single Aisle family.

Furthermore, in order to allow parts to be fitted in the most logical place to optimize the overall cycle time, some upstream preparatory A320 and A380 cabin installation work will be transferred from Hamburg to Toulouse.

Which suggests that the protesters at Toulouse know something different from the plans outlined by Louis Gallois, or they have been misled about what Power8 is all about.

Killer facts revisited

In an earlier post, I suggested that there were various killer facts associated with the problems at Airbus:

1 The mighty and innovative airbus 380 project has been mired in technological challenges (particularly over gigantic wiring problems) at the Toulouse plant.

2 The governance of EADS has been an extended story of struggle between French and German interests (in which the Franco-German co-leadership plays a part). British political influence disappeared after UK defense and aviation company BAE Systems announced its plans to sell 20% stake in Airbus to EADS last year.

My assessment of ‘blame’ over the wiring problems was based on UK reporting, and Der Speigel made it clear that the technology at Hamburg lagged behind that in Toulouse. However, the first killer fact remains, namely that Airbus faces technological challenges particularly over gigantic wiring problems. Furthermore, the struggle between French and German political interests continues.

Power8 seemed to be a strategy seeking to remedy the operational frailties of the company, while accommodating its multiple constituencies. Toulouse seems to be coming out of the proposed plans rather well. The strikes this week indicate just how difficult it is for corporate leaders to communicate such change initiatives so as to deflect anxieties and suspicions of a work-force under threat.

The evidence also suggests that there are disagreements among the various unions on the appropriate way to protest against the plans. If the corporate plan is not achieving that much-desired ‘shared vision’, then neither is there a common enemy around on which resistance has been able to focus.

While there is no clear winner emerging from the chess gave, it can hardly be called a stalemate either. It was what the famous Russian school of chess theorists taught was a position full of dynamic tension, requiring the most precise calculation to avoid sudden collapse of a carefully constructed position.