Thursday, April 2, 2009

Fixing Defense Programs with Knowledge

Following the report earlier this week from the GAO on the explosive cost growth and systematic delays in DOD’s portfolio of 96 major defense acquisition programs, new testimony from the GAO outlines the steps needed to fix the issues and get the defense acquisition system back on track.

The GAO outlines their approach to measure knowledge, processes, and outcomes that are critical to achieving the recommended improvements through the prism of best practices to gauge the health of these programs. According to the report:

GAO employs a set of knowledge metrics to determine whether programs have attained the right knowledge at critical points over the course of a weapon system acquisition, and facilitate the identification of potential problems that could lead to cost, schedule, or performance shortfalls. In essence, knowledge supplants risk over time. Key knowledge points and metrics include 1) achieving a high level of technology maturity at the start of program development, 2) reaching design stability at the system-level critical design review, and 3) demonstrating that critical manufacturing processes are in control before starting production.

GAO acknowledges that favorable outcomes are not possible if defense acquisition programs to not begin with realistic plans and clear requirements baselines prior to start of development. The report outlines GAO’s prerequisites to a program’s acquisition strategy that includes a knowledge-based business case for each acquisition, limiting time and requirements for product development to manageable levels, employing sound systems engineering practices early on in the process to ensure realistic cost and schedule estimates are created, fully funding programs upon approval, ensure programs are vetted against needs, and sound program management plans for delivery.

DOD’s performance will improve when the focus of defense acquisition programs are knowledge and outcomes. Knowledge metrics provide decision makers with the information for determining whether programs have met the requisite objectives to proceed with the next phase in development, thus lowering the risk of cost and schedule overruns. Outcomes metrics, combined with earned value, will ensure cost, schedule and performance goals are met and informed decision making is possible to effectively manage programs.


  1. I think there's something more fundamental at play here. I think the complexity of the acquisition process may be exceeding the capability of any effective management operation. Yes, technical challenges cause delays, but I think there's more at work. Defense Acquisition Programs get far more caught up in all the insane amount of stuff required for their milestone reviews and start to lose the bubble on their actual programmatic concerns.

    I think we need a real shift on how oversight is performed. The top-down oversight model has clearly not been effective. There is no evidence that more direct oversight (which is what you get when your program is rebaselined) doesn't lead to better managed programs. Perhaps the shift needed is to start providing immediate access to the program's working files. This notion of "access replacing reporting" would transform oversight into more of an insight process. The goal would be to get everyone on the same page to addressing programmatic problems far earlier than scheduled milestone reviews. The other change would be having the functions working to help the program when problems arise vice the current antagonistic model, where the program is almost incentivized to hide problems till the last minute - if they do, they can always just get rebaselined.

  2. The Department of Defense, headquartered in the Pentagon, is one of the most massive organizations on the planet, with net annual operating costs in excess of $800 billion, assets worth $1.3 trillion, liabilities of $1.9 trillion and more that 2.9 million military and civilian personnel as of fiscal year 2005.

    It is difficult to convey the complexity of the way DOD works to someone who has not experienced it. This is a massive machine with so many departments that no president, including Obama totally understands it.

    Presidents, Congressmen, Cabinet Members and Appointees project a knowledgeable demeanor but they are spouting what they are told by career people who never go away and who train their replacements carefully. These are military and civil servants with enormous collective power, armed with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, Defense Industrial Security Manuals, compartmentalized classification structures and "Rice Bowls" which are never mixed.

    Our society has slowly given this power structure its momentum which is constant and extraordinarily tough to bend. The cost to the average American is enormous in terms of real dollars and bad decisions. Every major power structure member in the Pentagon's many Washington Offices and Field locations in the US and Overseas has a counterpart in Defense Industry Corporate America. That collective body has undergone major consolidation in the last 10 years. What used to be a broad base of competitive firms is now a few huge monoliths, such as Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and Boeing.

    Government oversight committees are carefully stroked. Men like Sam Nunn and others who were around for years in military and policy oversight roles have been cajoled, given into on occasion but kept in the dark about the real status of things until it is too late to do anything but what the establishment wants. This still continues - with increasing high technology and potential for abuse.

    Please examine the following link to testimony given by Franklin C. Spinney before Congress in 2002. It provides very specific information from a whistle blower who is still blowing his whistle (Look him up in your browser and you get lots of feedback) Frank spent the same amount of time as I did in the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) but in government quarters. His job in government was a similar role to mine in defense companies. Frank's emphasis in this testimony is on the money the machine costs us. It is compelling and it is noteworthy that he was still a staff analyst at the Pentagon when he gave this speech. I still can't figure out how he got his superior's permission to say such blunt things. He was extremely highly respected and is now retired.

    The brick wall I often refer to is the Pentagon's own arrogance. It will implode by it's own volition, go broke, or so drastically let down the American people that it will fall in shambles. Rest assured the day of the implosion is coming. The machine is out of control.

    If you are interested in a view of the inside of the Pentagon procurement process from Vietnam to Iraq please check the posting at this blog entitled, "Odyssey of Armaments"

    On the same subject, you may also be interested in the following site from the "Project On Government Oversight", observing it's 25th Anniversary,