Lean and the Military’s ‘Plasma Platform’

Our nation’s military forces are facing a crisis. We are in a situation where our ability to provide the kind of top-level defense we want and often need is at risk. And the widespread application of lean principles to military operations – which is taking place, to some extent – is absolutely critical to our future.

            I’m sorry if that sounds a bit melodramatic. But I’ve just returned from the annual conference of the Lean Aerospace Initiative, held last week in Cambridge, Maryland. It was a sobering experience.

LAI, headquartered at and supported by MIT, is a consortium of private companies and the government involved in researching and sharing information about lean strategies. Sharing information is a fundamental lean principle, and the more than 200 people who attended the conference tend to embody that principle.

I’ll be posting several articles about presentations I heard at the event, but I wanted to begin with an overview of what struck me as the most important issues.

            The mood at lean conferences tends to be upbeat, and this one was no different. I guess that’s because lean believers know what it can achieve and tend to be optimistic about prospects for improvement.

            There was plenty of optimism and passion among the speakers. On the military side, Vice Admiral Walter Massenburg, recently retired as commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, described with great enthusiasm his efforts over the past several years to transform naval air operations. Similar energy came from Dale Malone, a civilian who is deputy corporate deployment champion in NAVAIR, as he outlined the remarkably comprehensive effort to turn naval air operations into a lean organization.

            And it wasn’t just the Navy. Colonel Kenneth Moran of the Air Force spoke in detail about what is called D&SWS, or Develop & Sustain Warfighting Systems.

            However, several of the presentations started with the speakers outlining the forces driving lean through the military. And the picture they painted was troubling.

            Much of the equipment used by our armed forces is aging, with planes and ships that are often more than 20 years old. Equipment is expensive, and I’m referring not just to the billions of dollars required for new planes and ships. Simply outfitting our troops costs about $20,000 per soldier. And military leaders project a need for increased troops in the future.

            But right now, the military is stretched to the limit, so every available dollar goes to maintaining operations. Requests for the kind of major funding needed to update and upgrade the military get little support.

            Further, the ever-growing public opposition to our operations in Iraq means the public and the Congress are not in a mood to throw more money at the military. People want to see less money spent, not more.

            As one military speaker at the conference put it, it’s not just a burning platform – it’s a “plasma platform.”

            Some of the best comments at the event came from a non-military speaker: Jim Albaugh, executive vice president of Boeing as well as president and CEO of Boeing’s Integrated Defense Systems division.

            The perfect closing speaker for the conference, Albaugh simply and clearly put it all together.

            “There are too many requirements in the DOD (Department of Defense) and NASA chasing too few dollars,” he said. “I am not bullish on the defense budget. We’re really going to have to tighten our belts.”

            In addition to adopting lean strategies, he also suggested a change in how defense programs are structured. To illustrate his point, he referred to the Army’s Future Weapon Systems program, which carries $18 billion in development costs and isn’t scheduled to actually produce weapons until 2014. That approach will no longer be acceptable, he said, suggesting that instead of holding delivery until an overall program is complete, we should “spiral in the technologies to our current forces as they become available.”

            But that issue aside, the broader reality remains. As Albaugh put it, “you can’t be successful without lean.”

            He didn’t specify whether he was referring to the military or Boeing. But I think it’s clear his statement applies to both.


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