Military Projects: A Case Study in How Not to Be Lean

While I’m sure there are many areas of government operations ripe for lean transformations, I’d like to nominate one in particular: The design and development of new military technology.

An article in
The New York Times today focuses on construction of a new combat ship for the Navy. The headline is “Costly Lesson on How Not to Build a Navy Ship.”

A project heralded as the dawning of an innovative, low-cost era in Navy shipbuilding has turned into a case study of how not to build a combat ship. The bill for the ship, being built by Lockheed Martin, has soared to $531 million, more than double the original, and by some calculations could be $100 million more. With an alternate General Dynamics prototype similarly struggling at an Alabama shipyard, the Navy last year temporarily suspended the entire program.

The program’s tribulations speak to what military experts say are profound shortcomings in the Pentagon’s acquisitions system. Even as spending on new projects has risen to its highest point since the Reagan years, being over budget and behind schedule have become the norm: a recent Government Accountability Office audit found that 95 projects — warships, helicopters and satellites — were delayed 21 months on average and cost 26 percent more than initially projected, a bill of $295 billion.


Reading further, it appears the problems have a lot to do with product design as well as the development process.

In a narrow sense, the troubled birth of the coastal ships was rooted in the Navy’s misbegotten faith in a feat of maritime alchemy: building a hardened warship by adapting the design of a high-speed commercial ferry. As Representative Gene Taylor, the Mississippi Democrat who leads the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Expeditionary Forces, put it, “Thinking these ships could be built to commercial specs was a dumb move.”

Behind the numbers in the Accountability Office study, experts say, is a dynamic of mutually re-enforcing deficiencies: ever-changing Pentagon design requirements; unrealistic cost estimates and production schedules abetted by companies eager to win contracts, and a fondness for commercial technologies that often, as with the ferry concept, prove unsuitable for specialized military projects.

At the same time, a policy of letting contractors take the lead in managing weapons programs has coincided with an acute shortage of government engineers trained to oversee these increasingly complex enterprises.

We’ve published several books having to do with product design, which is clearly one part of the problem. These include The Toyota Product Development System by James Morgan and Jeffrey Liker, and the just-released Value Stream Mapping for Lean Development by Drew Locher. (Copies of the new book should be available next month.)

It sounds like a good number of people involved in these military projects could benefit from reading them.

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