Boeing’s Bonnie Stoufer Helps Learning Take Flight

Boeing jetliners carry millions of passengers around the globe on a daily basis. Bonnie Stoufer, vice president for learning, training and development at Boeing, helps learning take flight for a workforce of 155,000.

Name: Bonnie Stoufer, Ph.D.

Title: President, Learning, Training and Development

Company: The Boeing Company


  • During its first six months of operation, learning, training and development realigned and consolidated curricula. More than 36,000 active courses were identified in the company’s corporate LMSs, and more than 2,000 other courses were deactivated.
  • During the first six months of the new learning and training organization, Boeing realized $5 million in productivity gains by renegotiating contracts, discontinuing redundant courses, using more third parties, migrating courses to the Web and negotiating discounts and rebates on tuition costs at universities with high Boeing enrollments.
  • Last year, learning, training and development launched work on an aggressive plan to consolidate the company’s multiple learning management systems into an integrated platform and began developing a single training portal for the company.

Learning Philosophy: “Companies cannot survive today’s competitive business environment unless they have a skilled and motivated workforce at all levels in the organization. Learning must be a continuous process throughout an employee’s career. Companies that make this investment in developing their people win in the marketplace. They also win in the war for talent. People are attracted and retained by companies that provide opportunities to continually expand their skill sets and competencies, whether through formal training and development or on the job.”

In the next 24 hours, several million passengers will board 42,300 flights on Boeing jetliners that will carry them to almost every country on Earth. Those travelers will find their way home using a global positioning system designed by Boeing. Imagine keeping that—plus Boeing’s defense businesses— going via learning and development initiatives for some 155,000 employees worldwide. That is Bonnie Stoufer’s reality.

“Boeing engineers, designs and manufactures planes, so that’s no small product line,” said Bonnie Stoufer, Ph.D., vice president of learning, training and development for Boeing. “Safety, quality assurance, regulatory and government oversight—all of those become very important, along with environment and a heavy emphasis on leadership development.”

Stoufer began her career as a professor at Kent State University while pursuing a doctorate in curriculum design. She enjoyed consulting work for General Motors, and gradually, the fast pace of the business world sucked her in. “I got caught up in that corporate world,” Stoufer said. “There was always one more hill that we were taking, one more initiative. Applying theory is important to me, and I like the pace of business, the rate of change, so that dynamic environment seemed to suit me pretty well.”

Stoufer then worked as an account manger for EDS, moved into business development, and later served as global training director and implemented a startup in South Australia. After 12 years, Stoufer moved on to Coca-Cola and then Delta, where she delved into talent management, performance management and succession planning, as well training and development. “I went into Coca-Cola as their global training and development manager and did the majority of my work with learning directors from different parts of the world: Africa, South America, Europe and Asia-Pacific,” Stoufer said.

This month marks Stoufer’s one-year anniversary at Boeing, and she said she’s barely taken a deep breath since she came on board. Just prior to her start date, all of the company’s learning, training and development functions were centralized for the first time. “In four months, I had a new organizational structure and leadership team in place. I developed a long-range business plan, obtained my funding for new initiatives and agreement on billing rates,” Stoufer said. “You can’t stop delivering while you’re putting the organization together. I give kudos to the leadership team and to all the people who are part of my team because we’ve had to tell them, ‘We’re a new organization. Here’s how we’re going to look.’ They had to wait to see who the leaders were who were coming on board and who they were going to report to. It’s pretty remarkable that we’ve accomplished what we have and still deliver the quality of service that we expect.”

Currently, Boeing’s Web-based solutions make up 16 percent of its learning platform. “We’ll have some opportunities to offer more blended solutions and pure technology-based solutions, but it almost has to be done on a case-by-case basis. We’ve got to look at which media is the best for what we need to do in the time we have allotted and with the monies that we have available,” Stoufer said.

“If you really want to get to the application level, then you have to put people in a room. They have to practice. You have to give them feedback. You need to make them practice again. That’s how adults learn,” Stoufer said. “The Web has a presence. It can help in the pre-work and with the sustainability and the accountability after a training intervention, but that depends not only on dollars and cents, but on how can you really get people to the level of proficiency that you need? I would expect we see our Web solutions go up to maybe 30 or 40 percent over the next few years, but there’s a lot that has to happen. You have to put a lot of infrastructure in place.” In the meantime, to aid with certification on the plant floor, there are Lean Green Training Machines, portable workstations that come right up to the line. Workers come off the line, sit down and do their certification in real time within visual range of where they work on planes.

Boeing offers thousands of safety, regulatory, engineering and operations training courses and modules, in very high volume. Employees must maintain stringent standards in order to work in the factories, and they are tested regularly as part of quality assurance. “There are real financial implications if you do not have your workforce in compliance, and you are building without that regulatory requirement met,” Stoufer said. “That’s a very important area for us. We have engineering training, and that is in the hundreds of thousands of hours a year, as well.”

To support the more technical engineering courses, Stoufer provides subject-matter experts and coaches who help users on the job once they’ve done training. The coaching program has yielded excellent results and works as a kind of closed-loop system since coaches come directly from the plant floor to give input to teachers in the classrooms. “Coaches identify what it is we can do better in the classroom that seems to be blocking the learner from figuring out what to do,” Stoufer said. “We feed that information back in to the people who are running the programs, and we update that content.”

Boeing’s Lifelong Learning Program provides unrestricted tuition reimbursement for all employees, salaried or hourly, to pursue higher education. In 2004, Boeing paid out more than $81 million to some 22,000 employees enrolled in colleges and universities, pursuing a variety of degrees from associate to doctorate level. “That’s a reflection of the leadership and belief that it is so important to have an educated, skilled workforce that’s always continuously learning,” Stoufer said. “As a company, you benefit from that in untold ways.” Many employees also are enrolled with the University of Phoenix online and enjoy off-hour programs offered in almost every locale. “We also have BENs—the Boeing Education Network. We have learning centers and learning libraries where people can check out materials and training, and we have a huge investment in leadership development.”

The Boeing Leadership Center is the central location for all of the company’s core leadership programs. “If we are to build one culture, to encourage and help our leaders start to network with each other, a leadership development facility is crucial,” Stoufer said.

“We have our core programs and programs for first-level managers, middle managers and two for our executive levels, BEP1 and BEP2, with BEP3 in development,” Stoufer said. “When we put a group together, we purposefully cross-pollinate, because one of the goals and strategies is to help people form relationships and begin to network with each other. We also include some of our customers and suppliers in the programs, and for our executive programs, we have at least three executive committee members who come in to help work with these teams. We have a lot of the leaders teaching leaders.”

There also are enterprise process councils at Boeing. For instance, engineering has a process council with representation from all of Boeing’s business units who come together to look at that job family. They look at what skills and competencies they need, and what kind of training addresses those needs. Then, the Leadership Center develops and delivers programs focused on some of the more functional areas, such as engineering, operations, supplier management, project management and finance.

Sixty- and 90-day follow-up training assessments, regulatory compliance and certifications ensure that Boeing employees maintain a certain standard of knowledge and skill, and Stoufer employs metrics to ensure that her department stays on-task and on-budget. “Clearly from the training perspective, we want to make sure our design and delivery work,” Stoufer said. “As part of our leadership development, we have a longitudinal study going on at Boeing. It’s a 10-year study on how leaders develop at Boeing, how they derail and how development is done within our context. We’re in year five. We have about 100 leaders who are part of this Waypoint research. We share and publish the findings within the 100 people and take those learnings and incorporate them into the programs we’re providing to our leaders on a much broader scale that says what we learn, we’re trying to leverage across a much bigger audience.”

Further, Stoufer and her team are part of Boeing’s Internal Services business unit. “I have affordability targets and billing rates, and I have a long-range business plan and a scorecard that I report on every month on my quality, delivery service, productivity, customer satisfaction, sponsor satisfaction, safety and rates. The rates I charge for my services and the volume that I deliver are all established as part of my long-range business plan and are agreed upon by the business units,” Stoufer said. “When you talk about having to run training like a business, believe me, this puts a whole different meaning to that statement. My organization is very virtual and located in 22 different states, and we account for everything. It’s been a change for part of my group, but a change that I think the business has welcomed because it makes all our training less like motherhood and apple pie.”

Moving forward, Boeing will work to raise the bar on its next generation of leadership development programs. The company will install an enterprise-wide LMS and leverage more Web training and coaching into its on-site curriculum. Boeing also will look at knowledge networks or communities of practice so that first-level leaders who receive training and development interventions have an opportunity to learn from one another, for example. “If we can get them connected on a regular basis, if they have questions, they can query their own community and get some answers and some coaching,” Stoufer said. “We are the end-to-end process owner. We have responsibility for benchmarking and looking at best practices and demonstrating thought leadership. We are in the knowledge business. That’s the world we play in. My big deal is start small, learn from what you do. If it works, go broader. Always go where the energy is and where the passion is.”

Kellye Whitney is associate editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at

April 2005 Table of Contents