30 October 2009

Budget Cuts - YES!

Apparently there are some budget cuts looming over the horizon for the DoD. The article excerpt below describes the situation in very gloomy terms, such as "painful adjustments," "pressure" and an absence of "relief." Gosh, sounds like an unsuccessful trip to a chiropractor to me.

I think it's actually good news. Sure, I'm a glass-is-half-full kinda guy to start with. I'm also convinced that constraints foster creativity, and times of financial belt-tightening tend to produce (nay, demand) innovation. Those of us who hold to the FIST value set should be cheered and encouraged by this budgetary development.

So I'm all for reductions in spending on new weapon systems. Not for political reasons, but for reasons that are almost purely technical. Yes, it's possible to cut too deeply into the budget, but as far as I can tell, we're nowhere close to that limit. It'll be interesting to see what kinds of essential innovations will be produced once the budgets get a bit smaller.

October 28, 2009

Reed: Pentagon Should Prep For Cuts

By Roxana Tiron

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), an Army veteran and senior defense authorizer, on Wednesday said that the Pentagon will have to face "painful adjustments" in its budget.

Reed, the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Seapower panel, indicated that weapons modernization will suffer in years to come as a result of military operations in Afghanistan, but also because of the economic crisis.

"There is going to be significant pressure on the defense budget going forward. [...] I do not think there is going to be much relief on the personnel front ... so the likely path is to push and delay platforms that you do not think are absolutely essential," he said. Additionally, he said, weapons programs that continue likely will have to be reduced and bought in smaller numbers, in what will be "painful adjustments" for the Department of Defense.

29 October 2009

What Is Good?

Apparently my theme this week has something to do with measuring progress (I didn't plan to have a theme - it just sorta happened). While previous posts have mostly focused on the measurement part, let's take a look at the "progress" part today.

Specifically, I'd like to talk about priorities and values. What attributes do we consider desirable for our projects? What are our measures of merit? What indicators give us reassurance that we've got a good program?

Regular readers of this blog know I think it's "important and good" for a program to be Fast, Inexpensive, Simple and Tiny. I apply these values to every part of the program, from the requirements documents and system architectures to the organizational structure and operational processes. My research indicates that the FIST values not only support programmatic success (i.e. delivering on time), but also operational success (i.e. performing well in the field).

The funny thing about values is they are often assumed, not discussed. I seldom see explicit statements about a project's values, but there are plenty of indicators that show what the project leaders really think are important.

Look at any number of recently cancelled projects, and I think you'll find that nobody thought it was particularly important for the thing to be developed quickly or inexpensively, or for it to be simple. Rather, complexity is often treated as a sign of sophistication. Big budgets are a sign that the system is important. Take a long time to build it? Great! That means you're clearly doing a good job and exercising due diligence.

Here's the thing: when we aren't deliberate with our values, when we don't examine and discuss them, we run the risk of being guided by values that are counterproductive and ineffective. I'm not saying that FIST is the only value set that works - I'm just saying we should be purposeful with our values, and should be aware of the way they shape our decisions and behavior.

28 October 2009

Two Guesses & A Phenomenon

I can't believe I haven't already mentioned Dr. Roger Atkinson's paper titled Cost, Time and Quality: Two Best Guesses and a Phenomenon,

It's a great read. He points out that we come up with budgets and schedules "at a time when least is known about the project," then measure success based on the degree to which we live up to those guesses. Anyone else see something funny about that plan?

I would simply add that the longer the project, the less we know about it on Day 1 (or on Day -100, which is probably when we actually put the budget & schedule together).

Just one more reason to keep our schedules short... along with a compelling argument that the way we measure progress is often misleading, even when it's "accurate."

27 October 2009

Earned Value Management

As a follow-on to yesterday's post, I'd like to say a few words in praise of something called Earned Value Management (aka EVM).

EVM is basically a way of measuring progress in terms of actual work accomplished, not simply in terms of the number of discrete tasks that have been marked Done. It seems to me that EVM is just another word for honest accounting.

It boggles the mind that a project leader would use anything other than EVM to measure, assess and report progress towards their goals.

Some people try to say it's too complicated, too cumbersome and frankly too dang hard to do EVM. I've also heard that EVM isn't well suited for small projects, but in fact there are ways to do simple implementations, without relying on excessive overhead. For that matter, the simple implementations can probably be useful even on big projects.

Now, applying EVM to certain types of research projects, where future work paths are unknown, requires a slightly different tack... but it's possible to use some of the principles even in this area.

EVM - it's not just for breakfast anymore. Check it out!

26 October 2009


I recently read a quote that said something along the lines of "95% of acquisitions are done on time, on budget."

My first thought was - huh? What about all the GAO reports that say (over and over and over again) that military acquisition projects take too long, cost too much, and under perform when fielded.

And then I realized that it's entirely possible for both to be true.

When we say a project comes in on time & on budget, it sounds like a good thing. But what if it had too much time & money to start with? It's possible to spent too much money AND be on budget.

And what do we really mean by "on budget." Does that mean we delivered the stated capability using the original amount of funding? Or are we taking credit for staying under a budget line that has increased over the years, as additional funds get added to the baseline (because we've increased the schedule, added requirements, etc)? If we define "on budget" broadly enough, then I'll bet almost everyone is on budget. Maybe even 95% of projects.

But there's more to this story. The idea that 95% of projects are on time & on budget doesn't actually mean as much as it might seem. Imagine a portfolio of 10 projects. Nine of them each cost $100, and each deliver on time, on budget. The 10th project was supposed to cost $100,000, but ended up coming in at $150,000. Do we praise this portfolio for being "90% on budget," or do we acknowledge it spent $50K more than planned? I'm thinking the latter assessment is more accurate.

The flaw in the 95% on budget reasoning is that it is measuring performance on a per-attempt basis, using a straight count of the number of projects. What we should be measuring is the performance of our dollars (i.e. the proverbial bang for the buck).

Similarly, let's say we have a project that has 10 steps. Nine of the steps each take one day to accomplish. The 10th step takes a year. At the end of nine days, if we say we're 90% done with the project, because we have finished nine of the steps, we're seriously misrepresenting how much work has been done (and how much is remaining).

Statistics are funny things. It's entirely possible for a statistic to be true and misleading all at once. It's important to be careful and make sure the things we're measuring and reporting provide an accurate representation of the situation.

22 October 2009

It's a Small World After All...

In the summer of 1992, when I was still a cadet, I used to go running with an Army Captain whose in-laws live across the street from my parents. We've sort of kept in touch over the years, mostly by bumping into each other each Christmas as we're unloading our respective cars.

When I was stationed in Rome NY, he was at Ft. Drum (also NY), and he brought me up to visit and shoot some artillery (I even got to keep the shell!)

Anyway, I ran into him in the Pentagon today... 17 years after those training runs. He's a Colonel now, and we discussed our various jobs. He mentioned that he's working on acquisitions, which is my specialty. I mentioned that I have this FIST concept I've been working on for a while, and we talked about that a little. I happened to have a print out of a draft of an article I've been working on, and I gave it to him.

It turns out he now works for the Army 3-star general I quoted in the intro to the article. He said it sounds like the kind of thing this general would be interested in. So... he's going to take a closer look and I might get a chance to pitch FIST to the Army acquisition guys.

Little did we know 17 years ago what seeds were being planted, and what future doors were being opened.

20 October 2009

Book Recommendations?

One of the nice things about commuting (ok, it's the only nice thing about commuting) is that I get to do a lot of reading these days. Lately, I've been reading novels - I really enjoyed the Psych books by William Rabkin. But I'm thinking I'd like to dive into some meatier fare.

Any recommendations on some good books to read? I'm looking for stuff that's outside the mainstream, not just the books everyone's reading. Any thoughts from the far end of The Long Tail? Here's the challenge - give me something I've never heard of before...

19 October 2009

Faster, Better, Cheaper?

I've been doing some research into NASA's Faster, Better, Cheaper initiate from the 1990's. It's quite a story, and I must admit I'm stumped as to why FBC got scrubbed.

The results of the FBC missions were fantastic. For less than the price of the Cassini mission, NASA launched 16 mission, including the Pathfinder mission to Mars and the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), which no kidding, landed on an asteroid, after collecting 10 times more data than they'd expected. Of those 16 mission, only 10 succeeded, but that's still 10 successful missions for less than the price of a single planetary mission using the "traditional" Slower, Suckier, More Expensive approach (excuse me - I mean, the deliberate, modernist, Scientific Management approach, which never ever fails ever).

The crazy thing is, many people treat FBC as if it was not only a failure, but an embarrassing failure. As if NASA should have known better than to try something so absurd as reducing costs and delays in their pursuit of knowledge and adventure in space. As if 10 successes for the price of 1 is an inadequate track record. As if the data clearly shows we must "pick two," instead of pursuing simultaneous improvements in all three dimensions. I don't get it.

OK, I'm not really stumped. I have my theories about why the approach was rejected. But it's becoming increasingly clear that the rejection and ridicule of the FBC approach has nothing to do with the initiative's actual results, which were admirable and impressive.

How about you? What do you think when you hear the phrase "faster, better, cheaper"?

15 October 2009

People & Process

I recently came across this quote by Fujio Cho, Chairman of Toyota Motors:

“We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant systems. Our competitors get average results from brilliant people working around broken systems.”

Yikes! Anyone else find that somewhat disturbing? I mean, I've known for a long time that the process gurus really believe a good process is a substitute for good employees, and that process can replace talent and ingenuity. But it's not often the process people get so explicit about it.

Interestingly, Dilbert's pointy haired boss made this exact point on Sunday, saying "As you know, a good process is a substitute for good employees." That line made me laugh out loud - because it's one of those truths that isn't usually stated so explicitly. And I think Adams intended that line to be funny - surely, no boss would make a statement like that to his employees. But there we have Chairman Cho basically saying the same thing.

Now, there's probably a cultural element here. Everyone in America thinks they're above average, and to be described as "average" is an insult around here. That may not be the case in Japan.

But cultural differences aside, I'm not sure it's true that process trumps talent. In fact, I think it's the opposite. Talented people can overcome bad processes. Good processes can't overcome a lack of talent, motivation, initiative, etc. But maybe that's just because my perspective is based in an R&D environment, rather than manufacturing.

So, what do you think about the Chairman's statement? Would love to get your two cents...

14 October 2009

Work & Impressions

Two weeks ago, I mentioned having lots of projects in the works. But now I'm getting hit by crazy allergies like nothing I've experienced since I was a kid. It's making it kinda hard to do just about anything. And that got me thinking about work & humanity.

It occurs to me that when a person is tired, they should probably rest (crazy, I know). When you're not feeling well, when your head is cloudy and you can't concentrate, there's not much point to sitting at your desk - you should probably go home.

But often, we're reluctant to do that, for fear of looking like a slacker. Never mind that you're not accomplishing anything by staying at your desk until "quitting time." Appearances must be kept up. In the minds of some, it's more important to maintain the impression of doing work than to actually do the work (or to do the smart thing and go home).

As for me, I try to be the guy who goes home, boldly and unapologetically. That last 30 or 45 minutes wasn't going to be productive anyway - I might as well go get some rest so I can come back tomorrow (hopefully) feeling better.

12 October 2009

Adapting Rapidly

Steven Metz writes in his article Small Wars: From Low Intensity Conflict to Irregular Challenges (chapter 16 of Rethinking the Principles of War, Naval Institute Press):

"[A]n array of factors has characterized success for counterinsurgents and counterterorists in the modern era [one of which is]: Adapt at least as rapidly as and more effectively than the enemy. "

How is it possible to act this swiftly using the current DoD Weapon System Acquisition process? Maybe it's just me, but the current system seems too cumbersome, with all the processes and procedures and statutory regulations that must be followed, to achieve the speed necessary to rapidly adapt. I have an idea! What if we focused on being Fast, Inexpensive, Simple, and Tiny? I remember seeing that somewhere.....

09 October 2009

Open NASA Update

I don't get over to the Open NASA blog as often as I should. There's no excuse for it - the blog is fascinating on so many levels (technically, organizationally, humanly). I really should make more of an effort to stop by there more often.

And my new fav writer over at Open NASA is Jen, a senior aerospace technician at Kennedy Space Center. She first caught my eye with a post titled When Failure Is Our Best Option. Insightful, thought-provoking stuff. A little further down the list, she's got a post titled Tracing The Why's, that suggests spending less money (gasp!) if we want to do meaningful human exploration of space.

Rock on, Jen!

08 October 2009


It's always nice when good work is recognized as such, and so I'm happy to announce that everyone's favorite military technology magazine, Defense AT&L, just won the Silver Inkwell Communications Award from the International Association of Business Communicators! A hearty rogue congratulations to Carol & her whole crew!

This award is a recognition of high-quality work in business communication, and the entries are judged by senior communications professionals in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

Now, we already knew this magazine was the coolest around, but it's nice to see that the IABC concurs.

In Praise of the Polymath

Here at RPL, we're big fans of people who don't stick to their allocated lanes in life. We're in favor of having lots of crazy hobbies and wide-ranging interests. We think it's a good thing when people are not content to just be good at one thing, and instead branch out and make meaningful contributions in several areas.

Personally, I'm a fan of GK Chesterton. The guy wrote mysteries, histories, travel books, theology, fiction, essays - and had something intelligent to say on just about every topic you can imagine. I also really admire Will Smith, and the way he's done music, tv & movies - comedy & drama. Both guys went way outside the narrow bounds of specialization - and I think that's awesome.

And then there are those who go way beyond diverse writing or different forms of entertainment. Consider the beautiful and talented Hedy Lamarr, a film actress in the 30's and 40's (and beyond, actually), who also has a patent for spread-spectrum, frequency-hopping communication system (and it's quite a story how she came up with it, by the way).

And did you know that William Marston, the guy who came up with Wonder Woman, also invented the polygraph machine? How cool is that?

No doubt people asked Ms. Lamarr what business a movie actor has getting involved with communications technology for the Navy. No doubt people told Dr. Marston that serious scientists don't create comic books. And the world is richer for the fact that they did it anyway.

This is not about being a generalist or a specialist. It's about being a multi-specialist, doing a deep dive into several areas of activity.

How about you? Content to stay in your lane? Or ready to branch out...?

07 October 2009

Briefing Charts Redux

I keep coming back to this topic of presentations. I really think that if we could just have the guts, imagination and will to improve the way we give presentations, we'd find that we could fix all sorts of other problems. If we would spend the time necessary to communicate clearly & accurately, and if we valued telling the truth over making sure the charts are consistent with everyone else's format, not only would a lot of problems be easier to solve - I think many wouldn't even occur in the first place.

But it's tricky, isn't it? If your charts don't look as dense, complex and convoluted as everyone else's, it'll look like you didn't really do any work, 'cause everyone knows complexity is a sign of effort, right? Actually, a simple, clear message takes more understanding, more time and more skill than the jumbled messes we call "finished products."

So, to help get things started, here are a few thoughts and guidelines, in case you haven't picked up Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen yet:

1) You don't need your logo on every chart. Honest!
2) You don't need a redundant title on each chart either. Really, you don't!
3) Use hand-outs to present details. Use PowerPoint charts to present main topics
4) Limit yourself to somewhere between 1/2 an idea and 1 full idea per chart.
5) Time is always (always always always) the limiting factor (the only limiting factor). It's not about how many charts you use.

06 October 2009

Rethinking the Principles of Program Management

Some interesting concepts that come out of asymmetrical warfare strategy talk to the importance of taking advantage of opportunity and agility in maneuvering against an enemy. Often, these principles are linked to the conduct of war as an art form. As an art form, principles devised to guide conduct are not considered immutable or inviolable. One author even states,

The crucial element of its artistic application is recognizing unique contexts, the contingent factors, and the opportunities to create advantage purposely by violating principles or rules when needed. [A]rt accepts the existence of principles and rules, but only as guides. Each case has its own features - which modify the application of the rule, and may even make it at times wholly inapplicable.

- Frank Hoffman, Chap 17, Rethinking the principles of War, Naval institute Press, Oct 2005

If this applies to the messy work of warfare, why not program management? Isn't program management as much an art form as warfare? I think so. Yet too often (if not exclusively), the same defense department that conducts war treats the business of weapons technology development as a precise science to be quantified, measured, predicted and proven. This behavior is as if the human factor of "business" doesn't exist. But it does and with it comes the art of business. A craft that can't be accounted for by implementing rigid processes or precise controls. The artistic practice of business allows for unknowns and flexes to let humans use their ingenuity to solve problems rather than forcing them to stick strictly to the script. The artistic practice of business is attuned to serendipity.

Removing an over reliance on process and procedure is one step toward practicing the craft. Increasing tolerance of failure and allowing deviant practices as a matter of course are others. Anything that puts people back into the drivers seat of business - that's how to practice the art of business.

05 October 2009


I recently came across the idea of an "acquisition wind tunnel" that would allow us to test our organizations and projects, to see how streamlined and efficient they are.

I like that imagery... I think. At the same time, I wonder if some of the points of friction and resistance might not be some of the more interesting and productive parts of the project. I guess it depends on how we define friction.

It occurs to me that one person's friction is another person's traction. Similarly, one person's momentum is another person's inertia. So, in this hypothetical wind tunnel, we'd have to be specific about how we distinguish between negative friction and positive traction. And the tricky thing is, the line between friction and traction is probably pretty fuzzy (and it probably moves).

This wind tunnel concept no doubt could be implemented under a Theory of Constraints sort of framework. No doubt the Lean crowd would find that this idea resonates with them. And frankly that makes me hesitant about the whole thing.

At the same time, I do like the idea of setting up some well-defined streams of "wind" that we could point at a project, organization, etc, to assess its flight worthiness. A FIST-based wind tunnel could have real value in identifying opportunities to unleash the creative power of constraints and restraint.

Twitter Is Mission Critical

Hey everyone - the Oct issue of AFCEA's SIGNAL magazine is posted, so you can now read the full text of an article I co-wrote, titled Twitter Is Mission Critical.


01 October 2009

Project Update

I seem to have more projects than usual in various stages of not done. I think it has something to do with autumn. Fall always strikes me as a time of new beginnings, a time of renewed intellectual activity and productivity.

So, in my stack of current works-in-progress, there's my latest children's novel, the cover design for said novel, the outline for next year's novel, a handful of articles (not just for Defense AT&L), a white paper on "how to implement FIST across the Air Force," a grown-up novel (!) about a guy who accidentally deletes the internet, and the third installment of the FIST comic series.

I was on leave last week while my wife was in TN for a conference, but I didn't get as much done while the kids were at school as I'd hoped to. I'll probably have to go away on a trip of my own to really make a dent on the stack.