Lockheed’s Skunk Works may be one of the earliest models for sustaining innovation inside an organization – never mind the nefarious mission of making flying machines to kill people. These are the basic operations rules enunciated by founder Kelly Johnson in 1954, as cited in his successor Ben Rich’s book:
- The Skunk Works program manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should have the authority to make quick decisions regarding technical, financial, or operational matters.
- Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and the industry.
- The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people.
- Very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided in order to make schedule recovery in the face of failures.
- There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.
- 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 ninety days late and don’t surprise the customer with sudden overruns.
- The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are often better than military ones
- The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and the Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push basic inspection responsibility back to the subcontractors and vendors. Don’t duplicate so much 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.
- The specifications applying to the hardware must be agreed to in advance of contracting.
- Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn’t have to keep running to the bank to support government projects.
- There must be absolute trust between the military 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.
- Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled.
- 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.
Source: Ben R. Rich and Leo Janos. Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed (1994). Kelly’s 14 Rules & Practices may also be found here.
Photo: Skunk Works logo on Museum’s SR-71. Photo #2005-6014 by Dane Penland, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.