Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Outsourcing vs Firm Integration - The Case of Boeing

The failure of Boeing's outsourcing business plan by farming out most of its work to other overseas firms might be a good example of the danger of outsourcing when it is used without proper calculation. The original idea itself seems good. By outsourcing the work to other firms instead of doing it by itself, Boeing hoped to save costs. First, Boeing can choose firms which have better economies of scale (meaning that such firm have better comparative advantage compared to Boeing and therefore can produce the required products on a cheaper basis). Second, Boeing can focus its works on things that it could do more efficiently (again the idea of economies of scale). Third, by separating the works to many firms, Boeing expected that each of those firms will have less bargaining power against Boeing, lowering the chance of hold up problem for Boeing in the future (see my discussion on Hold Up problem here).

Unfortunately, this seemingly perfect plan did not work in practice. As you can see in my link above, Boeing is already three years late from the original schedule and has spent billions dollars over the budget. It is a business disaster. But why such system does not work? Before I provide my analysis, I would like to share a deal that I once did for one of my major clients.

The client wanted to build a new huge factory in order to expand its business to a new level. In the past, the client usually appointed only one single contractor to do all the work (design, procurement, and construction). However, for this particular project, the client came with a new idea. Instead of using single contractor, it first divided the works into procurement (including design) and construction. Then it further divided the procurement parts into 4 separate parts with 4 different suppliers. It was a good idea. Although the contracts became very complex, the client can save a lot of money by lowering the contract price and reduce the bargaining power of the suppliers (effectively preventing them from forcing their own terms and conditions which would usually happen when there is only one contractor/supplier).

It is interesting why my client structure could effectively work while Boeing's plan turned out to be a failure. Several factors that must be considered are among others: (i) the number of parties involved in the deal which is related to the costs for coordination, (ii) the costs for enforcing the contracts which is correlated with the degree of interdependence between the parties, and (iii) the level of technology involved in the process.

One of the most interesting examples provided by Milton Friedman on the power of free market is the story of pencil. No one knows exactly how pencils could be made, there are so many parties involved in the process and yet, firms make pencil with ease without having to be coordinated nor integrated in the process. It is the perfect example of the invisible hand, how market could work without the need of central coordination among market participants. But issues always come when we try to generalize everything. The case of Boeing can be a good example when failure occurred because lack of coordination.

In my client's case, it took a lot of effort and months of negotiation in order to coordinate 4 suppliers. Yes, there are only 4 suppliers involved in the deal, but the contract drafting process took a long time to ensure that proper risk allocation was made for each contract since even when all of the suppliers were different, each supplier's action can have a significant impact to other supplier's work. A delay in part 1 could impose delay on part 2 and so forth. In other word, coordination really matters. What happened with Boeing is that it seems that Boeing used too many different suppliers located in various parts of the world (I would assume that Italy suppliers would be totally different from Chinese suppliers). This choice of action increased the costs of coordination significantly.

This bring us to the second issue, the costs for enforcing the contract. Since people respond to incentives, if breaching the contract is more efficient than actually satisfying the contract's provisions, we could safely assume that people will choose to breach the contract. In Boeing case, it seems that it's suppliers farm out their work to another sub contractors, increasing again the costs of coordination. Surely it is standard to have contracts where subcontractors are not permitted to sub contract their job to third parties without prior approval from the work giver or that while work can be sub contracted, the liability stays with the supplier. But that kind of contract would work effectively only when the costs of enforcement is not high. If the enforcement cost is high, there would be less incentives for the work giver to enforce the contract. Even worse, since the contract value has been divided into so many suppliers, the value of each contract might be too small for each supplier, to the extent that they do not fear of any liabilities, even when they are deemed fully liable (since usually a supplier will limit its liabilities only to the value of the contract and not the whole project).

In other words, this is a reverse issue of hold up. In hold up problem, a party can increase its bargaining power excessively due to certain specific conditions or advantages that such party has against its counterpart. But in this case, the party has no incentive to work for the best interest of its counterpart because it's stake of interest is low. Even if its counterpart is in impeding doom, that would not affect its position significantly and thus it is meaningless whether the business relationship should be maintained or not.

Finally, the issue of technology is also dominant in Boeing case. What they are trying to build is a new airplane. In case you don't know, airplane can be considered as the most advance technological product in earth. It is very hard to build a plane that could work properly. That's why Boeing case cannot be compared with the success story of the car industry in terms of outsourcing their job overseas. There is a huge discrepancy between the technology needed to build a plane and the one needed to build a car. This would surely affect the amount of coordination needed between the parties. We can say that it would be better in Boeing case if they simply have more integrated coordination and conduct the work by themselves.

At this point, we reach the most fundamental question posed by the Theory of the Firm. Why people choose firm to conduct its business activities, instead of using the market? The primary answer would be the need for coordination. To the extent the costs of integrating the market process (production, manpower and capital) in a single business platform is cheaper than the costs of doing all of that via the market, rational men should choose to use the firm structure. It is a natural thing to do. Too bad that people often polarize the issue of market vs the firm into a debate of uncoordinated economy against coordinated economy as if only one is superior. A productive debate should discuss what type of economic system would work best in accordance with the situation and condition. The pencil case shows the strength of the market while the Boeing case shows that uncoordinated market process could produce inefficient result. In the end, always pick the most efficient system if we really care about the welfare of the society.


orangisengdotcom Tuesday, January 24, 2012 11:15:00 AM  

Actually the same story of budget runoff and repeated missed schedule with EADS's airbus a380 project, eventhough airbus did majority of the design and assembly within the consortium.

I remember a story of design screw-up in a380 when french and german design offices use different version of design software that cause some assemblies cannot fit with the other,thus requiring design workover, and causing further delay.

Regardless of what kind of business model to choose, be it vertical integration or outsourcing, you need to have coordination, and the more complex the product is, the stronger and the more fluid the coordination flow should be.

Pramudya A. Oktavinanda Tuesday, January 24, 2012 11:37:00 AM  

Agree, although in this case, outsourcing increases the costs of such coordination. The question would be, will the expenses saved by outsourcing outweigh the higher costs of coordination?

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