VIEWPOINT AIR FORCE NEWS
Thinking Differently Critical For Air Force's Future
Air Force illustration
In the same week in September, I read an Air and Space Forces magazine editorial, “Build an Air Force” by Tobias Naegele, and an Automotive News story on the passing of Francois Castaing, the former vice president of engineering at Chrysler during the 1990s.
These seemingly unrelated articles served as a reminder to “think different.”
Having been saved by the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act of 1979, the company again was facing difficult times going into the latter half of the 1980s. While the funding from the loan guarantee gave Chrysler the resources to become competitive in the domestic market, it was still far from competitive globally.
Much to his chagrin, the company’s chairman Lee Iacocca discovered that his once successful product development process, which made his former company Ford successful in the 1960s through the early 1970s, did not work as well in the late 1980s.
In addition to products not measuring up to the competition, the development process was too long and costly. Every time a post-K-car vehicle was launched, it was deemed by the market and the critics as derivative, resulting in Chrysler having to immediately apply rebates for those products to sell. The resulting lower margins put Chrysler into another extremely difficult situation.
Having made a huge impact on the turnaround of BMW and Ford of Europe, Bob Lutz, now with Chrysler, had a deep understanding of what they needed to produce to succeed.
What was also needed was someone who could effectively lead and implement changes to significantly reduce product development costs and schedule while yielding high-quality, “gotta-have” vehicles. This person needed to anticipate market needs, delight the consumers and surprise the competition. And this person would need to implement these changes within very tight budget constraints.
Enter former Renault executive Francois Castaing. His Formula 1 racing background taught him the value of collaboration, communication and continuous improvement. When he became the vice president of product engineering for AMC, he used those lessons and introduced the very profitable Jeep Cherokee, ushering in the era of the modern SUV and saving the company at the time.
When Chrysler purchased AMC, he was put in that same position. He led the effort for Chrysler to think differently about product development, effectively implementing a process that is now known as product lifecycle management. In the 1990s, its introduction of popular, high-quality and profitable products resulted in Forbes magazine naming Chrysler as their 1997 “Company of the Year.” That magazine cover headline best described the changes in Chrysler’s management, culture and market perception: “Chrysler: Smart, Disciplined, Intuitive.”
These changes were not easily made. Legacy processes and organizations were challenged and, in some cases, adversely impacted. Simply speaking, organizations, processes and people were required to evolve or be left behind.
Lutz’s book, “Guts,” has a section on how the internal “guardians of the status quo” would reach out to Iacocca on how the product development process was “destroying” Chrysler. But, of course, looking back it was quite the opposite as illustrated in the results.
Currently, the Defense Department is trying to transition its processes to be more commercial-like, specifically trying to ride the “digital wave.” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall’s remarks on digital being “overhyped” could be viewed as an indictment of the true value of this commercially proven practice to the Air Force. However, it’s more appropriately viewed as a true indication of the change that needs to take place within the Air Force, the rest of the department and the defense industrial base to fully realize the potential and benefits of digital electronic systems engineering.
Ironically, a center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is actively demonstrating the value of digital electronic systems engineering. Working with companies on the congressionally endorsed Defense Microelectronics Activity’s “Trusted Supplier/Trusted Foundry” program, this center has been engaged with a leading electronic design automation company to use state-of-the-practice digital electronic systems engineering to solve problems quickly and efficiently in acquisition, sustainment, modernization and diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortages.
This same team has developed and is teaching the Defense Acquisition University’s “Microelectronics Series 1 Semiconductor and Systems 101 for Defense Department Program Managers” course, educating more than 1,100 students.
Air Force leadership, as well as the rest of the department, must stop asking the “return on investment” question about the value of digital electronic systems engineering. Rather, they should practice this quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “Gentlemen, we have run out of money; now we have to think.”
So, to build an Air Force and Space Force that is timely, affordable to operate and sustain and agile to modernize systems that result in the ability to anticipate the adversaries’ actions, don’t just add money — spend more time thinking differently about how to achieve the desired results. ND
James Chew is senior global group director of aerospace and defense at Cadence Design Systems and board chair of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Science and Engineering Technology Division.
Topics: Defense Department