Archive for November, 2010

DoD’s Affordability Eyeball

The DoD wants to do the right thing. Secretary Gates wants to save $20B per year over the next five years and he’s tasked Dr. Ash Carter to get it done. In Carter’s September 14th memo titled: “Better Buying Power: Guidance for Obtaining Greater Efficiency and Productivity in Defense Spending” he writes strongly:

…we have a continuing responsibility to procure the critical goods and services our forces need in the years ahead, but we will not have ever-increasing budgets to pay for them.

And, we must


I like it.

Of the DoD’s $700B yearly spend, $200B is spent on weapons, electronics, fuel, facilities, etc. and $200B on services. Carter lays out themes to reduce both flavors. On services, he plainly states that the DoD must put in place systems and processes. They’re largely missing. On weapons, electronics, etc., he lays out some good themes:  rationalization of the portfolio, economical product rates, shorter program timelines, adjusted progress payments, and promotion of competition. I like those.  However, his Affordability Mandate misses the mark.

Though his Affordability Mandate is the right idea, it’s steeped in the wrong mindset, steeped in emotional constraints that will limit success. Take a look at his language. He will require an affordability target at program start (Milestone A)

to be treated like a Key Performance Parameter (KPP) such as speed or power – a design parameter not to be sacrificed or comprised without my specific authority.

Implicit in his language is an assumption that performance will decrease with decreasing cost. More than that, he expects to approve cost reductions that actually sacrifice performance. (Only he can approve those.) Sadly, he’s been conditioned to believe it’s impossible to increase performance while decreasing cost. And because he does not believe it, he won’t ask for it, nor get it. I’m sure he’d be pissed if he knew the real deal.

The reality: The stuff he buys is radically over-designed, radically over-complex, and radically cost-bloated.  Even without fancy engineering, significant cost reductions are possible. Figure out where the cost is and design it out. And the lower cost, lower complexity designs will work better (fewer things to break and fewer things to hose up in manufacturing). Couple that with strong engineering and improved analytical tools and cost reductions of 50% are likely. (Oh yes, and a nice side benefit of improved performance). That’s right, 50% cost reduction.

Look again at his language. At Milestone B, when a system’s detailed design is begun,

I will require a presentation of a systems engineering tradeoff analysis showing how cost varies as the major design parameters and time to complete are varied.  This analysis would allow decisions to be made about how the system could be made less expensive without the loss of important capability.

Even after Milestone A’s batch of sacrificed of capability, at Milestone B he still expects to trade off more capability (albeit the lesser important kind) for cost reduction. Wrong mindset. At Milestone B, when engineers better understand their designs, he should expect another step function increase in performance and another step function decrease of cost. But, since he’s been conditioned to believe otherwise, he won’t ask for it. He’ll be pissed when he realizes what he’s leaving on the table.

For generations, DoD has asked contractors to improve performance without the least consideration of cost. Guess what they got? Exactly what they asked for – ultra-high performance with ultra-ultra-high cost. It’s a target rich environment. And, sadly, DoD has conditioned itself to believe increased performance must come with increased cost.

Carter is a sharp guy. No doubt. Anyone smart enough to reduce nuclear weapons has my admiration.  (Thanks, Ash, for that work.) And if he’s smart enough to figure out the missile thing, he’s smart enough to figure out his contractors can increase performance and radically reduces costs at the same time. Just a matter of time.

There are two ways it could go: He could tell contractors how to do it or they could show him how it’s done. I know which one will feel better, but which will be better for business?

A Call To Arms for Engineers

Engineers make magic.  We are the only ones who create things from nothing: cars, televisions, bridges, buildings, machine tools, molecules, software… (You get the idea.)  Politicians can’t do it, lawyers can’t do it, MBAs can’t do it. Only engineers.

And the stuff we create is the foundation of sustainable economies.  We create things, our companies sell them for a profit, and that profit creates wealth and fuels our economies – a tight causal chain.  Said another way: no engineers, no products, no profits, no wealth, no economy.  The end.

Engineers used to be valued for our magic.  In medieval times we were given high status for our art, for making stuff that mattered: swords, trebuchets, armor, castles… (You get the idea.)  And the best of us were given a special title (wizard) and special consideration (if not reverence) for our work. These folks were given a wide berth, and for good reason.  Piss them off and they’d turn someone into a toad, or worse yet, stop making the stuff that mattered.

In the industrial revolution we were valued for our magic, for making stuff that mattered. This time it was the machines that made machines and weapons: water powered factories, gun drills, lathes, grinding machines, honing machines… (You get the idea.)  Politicians used our magic to advance their causes and industrialists got rich on our magic, and our status was diminished.

Since then we’ve made more magic than ever: cars, televisions, bridges, buildings, machine tools, molecules, software… (You get the idea.)  We still make magic yet have little influence over our how our companies do things. How did we let this happen? We forgot that we make magic.

We forgot our magic is valuable and powerful (and scary). We forgot that without our magic the wheels fall off.  No magic, no profit, no economy.

Engineers – A call to arms!  It’s time recognize our magic is still as powerful as Merlin’s and it’s time to behave that way again. Watch out politicians, lawyers, and MBAs or we’ll turn you into toads.

What if labor was free?

The chase for low cost labor is still alive and well. And it’s still a mistake. Low cost labor is fleeting. Open a plant in a low cost country and capitalism takes immediate hold. Workers see others getting rich off their hard work and demand to be compensated. It’s an inevitable death spiral to a living wage. Time to find the next low cost country.

The truth is labor costs are an extremely small portion of product cost. (The major cost, by far, is the material and the associated costs of moving it around the planet and managing its movement.) And when design engineers actively design out labor costs (50% reductions are commonplace) it becomes so small it should be ignored altogether. That’s right – ignored. No labor costs. Free labor. What would you do if labor was free?

Eliminate labor costs from the equation and it’s clear what to do. Make it where you can achieve the highest product quality, make it where you can run the smallest batches, and make it where you sell it. Design out labor and you’re on your way.

Design engineers are the key. Only they can design out labor. Management can’t do it without engineers, but engineers can do it without management.

A call to arms for design engineers: organize yourselves, design out labor, and force your company to do the right thing. Your kids and your economy will thank you.

Rage against the fundamentals

We all have computer models – economic models, buying models, voting models, thermal, stress, and vibration. A strange thing happens when our models reside in the computer: their output becomes gospel, unchallengeable. And to set the hook, computerized output is bolstered by slick graphics, auto-generated graphs, and pretty colors.

Model fundamentals are usually well defined, proven, and grounded – not the problem. The problem is applicability. Do the fundamentals apply? Do they apply in the same way? Do different fundamentals apply? We never ask those questions. That’s the problem.

New folks don’t have the context to courageously challenge fundamentals and more experienced folks have had the imagination flogged out of them. So who’s left to challenge applicability of fundamentals? You know who’s left.

It’s smart folks with courage that challenge fundamentals; it’s people willing to contradict previous success (even theirs) that challenge fundamentals; it’s people willing to extend beyond that challenge fundamentals; it’s people willing to risk their career that challenge fundamentals.

Want to challenge fundamentals? Hire, engage, and support smart folks with courage.

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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