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DN Staff

April 24, 1995

2 Min Read
Advice from a Defense Guru

Developers of defense technology face some of their toughest challenges ever, now that the defense budget has dropped sharply from the Reagan era heyday to its current level of $262 billion. Defense system engineers-and for that matter any design team trying to develop pacesetting technology on a tight budget-must adopt more efficient methods. Defense engineer Ben Rich, who headed Lockheed's famed Skunk Works from 1975-1991, believes that small teams of talented, highly focused engineers can provide a big part of the answer.

Skunk Works (Little, Brown), Rich describes the working principles of the skunk works concept and how they were applied to nearly 30 aircraft projects during his 40-year career. Among these chief operating rules:

Give the skunk works program manager control over all aspects of the project so he or she can make quick decisions on technical, financial, and operational matters.

  • Restrict "in an almost vicious manner" the number of people having any connection with the project. Use a small number of very good people.

  • Implement a very simple drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes in order to make schedule recovery when problems and failures occur.

  • Keep reports and paperwork to a minimum but be sure to record important work

  • Review costs on a monthly basis, not only to assess what has been spent and committed but also to project costs to the program's conclusion.

  • Design creative ways to reward good performance by the development team and go beyond usual methods, such as basing incentive pay solely on management duties.

Many companies, of course, do not have the stomach to take the risks inherent in such skunk works operations. It takes "unusual pluck and courage," says Rich, to buck the smothering bureaucratic controls that exist in the product development arms of most corporations. Yet, as Rich points out, we are beginning to see more examples of these fast-moving, focused teams. Among the most notable: Chrysler's development of the LH platform and Ford's new Mustang.

Whether the product is a car or the exotic stealth and spy planes that came out of Ben Rich's shop, more companies are learning that to leapfrog the competition, they must be willing to revamp their development methods-sometimes drastically.

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