I admit it, I have a major acquisition nerd crush on the GAO. I don't read every report they put out, but their annual Assessment of Selected Weapon Programs is always a big event for me. It's like the Oscars and the Superbowl all in one, except it's not on TV... and the only uniforms involved are military... and it's not really a competition... and there aren't any commercials.
Anyway, I've also got a cross-service fondness going on for the Virginia Class submarine program. Shhh... don't tell the AF. Now, you may wonder how a guy who advocates the fast, inexpensive, simple, tiny approach could have anything nice to say about something as big, expensive and complex as a nuclear sub? Read on...
The 2011 GAO Assessment report had some fascinating things to say about the VA subs. For example, the Navy "expects to realize its goal of reducing cost to $2.0 billion per ship... and hopes to further decrease the time required to build each ship." Of the 71 other programs assessed in that report, only one or two had bothered to set a goal of a reduced cost or time. Imagine what would happen if this was a standard practice? What if every program got a budget and then was expected to set a cost goal that's below that figure? As in, not only will we not tolerate overruns or late deliveries - we expect early delivery, UNDER budget.
The Navy is showing this can be done... and incidentally they delivered the USS New Hampshire 8 months early, $54M under budget. Nice!
It gets better. The report goes on to say "the Navy has decided not to pursue two planned technology insertions," which is an impressive sign of design restraint and gutsy leadership. Why did they abandon plans, for example, to include a "conformal acoustic velocity sensor wide aperture array"? Because "it would significantly increase, not decrease, life-cycle costs and complicate maintenance." Since this array would have increased costs and complexity, they dropped it.
This isn't just the result of good leadership. It's evidence of a pervasive culture of restraint, one that says overreaching is foolishness and complexity is not the same thing as goodness.
In another case, they "determined the original requirements were unrealistic and would not be worth the cost to achieve them." If only every program would do this sort of assessment. And the funny thing is, there's nothing stopping us from taking this approach all the time.