Do the acquisition professionals and senior executives in government understand engineering principles well enough to manage big programs?

July 1, 2007

Designing a simple platform that meets a specific operational need is difficult enough. But when the scope of operations or the complexity of the system design exceeds current management and engineering skills, conflicts will emerge between the performance capability of the total system and the ability of individual components to satisfy operational demands regardless of how good those components perform. Is there a lack of skilled engineering competence within the Defense Department?

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Greg Glaros' point should stir more debate on this vital topic. But it is very hard to do "Total system engineering" in the DOD environment. The System Engineering (SE) discipline is excellent for use in helping to lead and manage a program - if SE is used early and consistently throughout the architecture and execution process. Engineering should provide the "how" to SE's management and tracking of the "what".

One telling quote from Greg Glaros' article should be understood by all readers: "Only when needs are qualitatively translated into wants, and quantitative wants are systematically designed into engineering systems reflective of operational demands, will Defense Department programs consistently succeed." I'd phrase this a little differently, and admitedly more simply: IT IS ALL ABOUT THE REQUIREMENT. In my experience, it is always ill-defined requirements that cause programs to spin out of control. DOD programs must have a better, more focused requirements process that takes requirements down to more finite levels before successful program execution can be achieved.

And one P.S. Don't forget about the value of a highly disciplined Configuration Management process. Only by knowing where you are, can you efficiently get where you are going.

It's no mystery why the DoD suffers from an acute case of idiocy from the top down. Outsourcing anything and everything to the private sector has caused a massive brain drain out to industry where loyalties lie not to the country but to the almighty dollar. We must be down the rabbit hole when the typical beltway bandit is bigger than several federal government agencies combined. This may be good for the economy but it's horrible for the country.

Throughout the years, the Development Planning process within the Air Force has been ignored. Quite simply this process allows for rationalization of operational requirements through concept exploration and cost/performance tradeoffs (good systems engineering). These analyses would be conducted by an indepentant from a program office organization well before source selection and government/industry promises that cannot be met.

Requirement rationalization with costs allows the user/warfighter to understand what each item on the "must do" list will cost. Hopefully then, the list would get pared down to what can be provided within budget and schedule.

In the absence of Developmental Planning, program offices are formed prematurely. Once the program office is established its mission is to sell the program. Programs get sold by enticing the ultimate users to sign up by promising to provide everything on the "must do" list.