What do the Skunk Works operating rules have to do with software? Well… I’ve been an avid aviator my entire life and have studied many aspects of aviation. One organization had more to do with the advancement of aviation and other related technologies than any other group on the planet. It is the famed Lockheed Skunk Works.
Kelly Johnson, creator of the Lockheed Skunk Works, is the best aircraft designer ever! He and his team had specific operating methods that have direct implications on the effectiveness and efficiency of any technology-related business, even software. Mr. Johnson’s impact went beyond that of just building aircraft; it extended into organizational operating structure.
In my personal discussion with Robert “Bob” Gilliland, my suspicions were more than confirmed as to Kelly Johnson’s genius and relentless drive of the organization. Bob was the first test pilot of the famed Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (pictured left), yet another aviation legend.
Below are the rules that were first put together by Don Palmer, a senior member of the Skunk Works. Mr. Palmer had the foresight to articulate these rules and commit them to paper. Now more than 50 years old, these “Best Practice” guidelines are the philosophies that we at Avior Computing have chosen to adopt as our own.
Although the men of the Skunk Works were visionaries, even they could not have imagined that their Operating Rules would be the ideal guidelines for a 21st century software developer.
The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.
-It is essential that the program manager have authority to make decisions quickly regarding technical, finance, schedule, or operations matters.
Strong, but small, project offices must be provided by both the customer and contractor.
- The customer program manager must have similar authority to that of the contractor.
The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use of a small number of good people.
-Bureaucracy makes unnecessary work and must be brutally controlled.
A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided.
-This permits early work by manufacturing organizations, and schedule recovery if technical risks involve failures.
There must be a minimum of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.
-Responsible management does not require massive technical and information systems.
There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed, but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program. Don't have the books 90 days late and don't surprise the customer with sudden overruns.
-Responsible management does require operation within the resources available.
The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for the sub contract on the project. Commercial bid precedures are very often better than military ones.
-Essential freedom to use the best talent available and operate within the resources available.
The inspection systems as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to the subcontractors and vendors. Don't duplicate so much inspection.
-Even the commercial world recognizes that quality is in design and responsible organziations; not inspection.
The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn't, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles.
-Critical if new technology and the attendant risks are to be rationally accommodated.
The specification applying to the hardware must be agreed to in advance of contracting. The Skunk Works practice of having a specification section stating clearly which important military specification items will not knowingly be complied with and reasons therefore is highly recommended.
-Standard specifications inhibit new technology and innovation, and are frequently obsolete.
Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn't have to keep running to the back to support government projects.
-Rational management requires knowledge of, and freedom to use, the resources originally committed.
There must be mutual trust between the customer project organization and the contractor with very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum.
-The goals of the customer and producer should be the same - to get the job done well.
Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.
-This is a program manager's responsibility even if no security demands are made; a cost avoidance measure.
Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised.
-Responsible management must be rewarded, and responsible management does not permit the growth of bureaucracies.
An additional technology notable worth studying who has continued this “More with Less” philosophy is Dr. Paul MacCready. By utilizing a small group and very efficient engineering methodologies, Dr. MacCready was able to produce the Gossamer Condor. This engineering marvel won the leading prize for man-powered flight. He has continued this pursuit of efficiency in many areas of technology beyond that of aviation, that include electronics, transportation and energy. Dr. MacCready has won numerous awards including: “Engineer of the Century”, Lindbergh Award, Collier Trophy, “Inventor of the Year” – 1981, Edward Longstreth Medal and many more.