Doing the same, expecting better

Why do people continue doing stupid things?  Consider the development of weapon systems for the US military:  Chuck Spinney made the cover of Time magazine back in 1983 — that’s 25 years ago — for documenting to Congress that the acquisition system was getting worse at an increasing rate.  Anybody who thinks he was wrong, or who thinks that things have improved, is welcome to post a refutation (observing, of course, our comment policy).

Reality has not escaped the people who work in the system.  What we have, in other words, is a stupid system composed of bright people,  lots of bright, well-educated, and often experienced folks working diligently to try to solve the wrong problems.  This fact isn’t lost on the project development community, which, from time to time, produces some brilliant insights on itself, and, even more interestingly, publishes them.

Dan Ward, Gabe Mounce, and the other members of the group that call themselves “rogue project leaders,” for example, have been writing about the  absurdity of the system for years, and getting their stuff published in the primary venue for the field, Defense AT&L.  I guess that may be the lone ray of optimism in this dreary debacle.

Dan’s latest, “Call Me Sisyphus,” is well worth a read:

Since more than 46 years of reasonable, intelligent-sounding solutions have failed, perhaps it is time to try some unreasonable solutions.

He begins by quoting an article by Maj. Frederick Stark in Air University Review:

“The cost of growth in military hardware is increasingly the subject of national debate. Critics of the Department of Defense cite massive cost overruns on major weapon programs, usually aircraft, as evidence of mismanagement and waste. … We are currently paying eight times the cost per pound for fighter aircraft that we did in the 1940s. We are paying four or five times as much as we did in the 1950s. … These are production costs. Development costs have grown even more.”

Then Dan lets you in on the fun — this was published in 1973, ten years before Spinney’s testimony.  Although Dan didn’t point it out, it took the F-22 22 years to go from the initial studies to initial operating capability (IOC).  The next fighter in the pipeline, by the way, is the F-35.

What’s the solution?  Dan is right that more control mechanisms (mandated reports, plans, procedures, reviews, etc.), more “reform,” more tinkering is just going to produce longer delays, higher costs, and even greater mismatches with the world situation when its products finally appear in the field.  As he points out, though, we used to be pretty good at developing weapons, and some organizations can still imagine and create products that meet the needs of their customers.  Toyota, as he notes, is not only good at this, they’re getting better.  Going in the opposite direction from DoD, as it were.

It’s also worth pointing out that Toyota operates in a highly competitive environment where stupidity gets selected out.  It may take a while, as GM and Chrysler are now demonstrating, but let competition work and the result is inevitable.  Of course, competition is exactly what we don’t have in DoD program development.  After source selection, which for the F-22 was in 1991, the program became a monopoly, which leads to an observation that I made years ago in Neither Shall the Sword (p. 68):

If you can’t afford two sources for a system, you certainly can’t afford one.

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