Early F-35 Program Challenges Provide Lessons for Future Leaders

By Tom Burbage

Air Force photo

Think about the challenge that was handed to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter team: design, develop, test, field and sustain a family of highly common first line fighters to fully incorporate the unique requirements of Air Force operations, expeditionary operations off small ships and unprepared fields and projecting power from the sea from large-deck aircraft carriers.

While you’re at it, make that platform stealthy and supersonic, embed the most sophisticated suite of multi-spectral sensors ever employed in a fighter and make sure you capture economies of commonality and scale. And make sure our closest allies can participate with the goal of true interoperability and burden-sharing in future combat and peacekeeping operations.

In addition, revitalize a global industrial base that has atrophied over the years. Implement revolutionary new manufacturing capability based on very high precision, automation and motion-based production systems. Transfer technology that enables the industries of allied partner nations to compete on a global world stage with the best of the best. And do it during a generational change in the work force where impatience is the overarching personality trait.

As daunting as it may sound, the F-35 offers an exceptional leadership and learning experience to understand the challenges of managing very complex programs.

The first leadership challenge was the critical need to establish a unique “F-35 culture” capable of truly integrating a multi-corporate, multi-national industry team into a seamless, high-performance operation. Achieving consensus that the current culture was probably not capable of dealing with the new levels of complexity that were inherent in the F-35 program was a challenge. Specific steps to develop a unique F-35 common culture were required and it had to cross corporate, geographic and national boundaries.

While many of these concepts have been widely discussed in academic textbooks, few programs have taken specific steps on a large scale to implement them. The F-35 would be different. The management objective was to overemphasize a high-performance culture that was self-sustaining over the long term.

First, harvest lessons from similar challenges. We invited the program managers and chief engineers of every modern tactical development program to join us to discuss lessons learned. Surprisingly, all responded and the F-16, F-18, F-22, B-2, Eurofighter, Harrier, F-117 and Tornado were represented. The request was, “If you were sitting here where we are sitting, knowing the challenges you faced and that we are about to be awarded the most challenging fighter development program in history, what would you make sure you took into consideration?”

The next dimension was to envision the future. The first step in establishing a common language, common expectations and common objectives across a widely distributed team is to build and socialize a common vision of the future.

To facilitate the first of several visioning exercises, the magazine Fast Company agreed to let us use their format and logo to construct a mock cover dated 10 years in the future. The early F-35 management team gathered in a local restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, and put the oversized cover on an easel and debated the content of the magazine articles, both good and bad, that might be written about the F-35 program in the future.

The exercise began to focus the team on the process of shaping future outcomes that would be critical to program success.

The next step was to align objectives. Early program relationships between the contractor and government teams were, by necessity, a partnership. Organizational structures were carefully crafted to establish clear counterpart relationships and unambiguous responsibilities.

Program objectives, both short term and long term, were mutually constructed and agreed upon. Once established, the objectives were discussed across the entire government and contractor teams and posted in highly visible areas in every participating organization.

Next, it was necessary to establish norms and expectations, which is the core of creating a unique culture. This is especially critical in senior management and first line supervisors, even more so in a high-stress environment typical of the F-35 program. To address this, the team established a living set of F-35 “Behavioral Norms and Expectations” that would evolve as program focus, complexity and challenges evolved over time. Like the common objectives, the list was documented and displayed in all the program conference rooms and reviewed as part of the opening remarks in every weekly collaborative meeting.

Next, the program accelerated employee effectiveness during a steep hiring phase. One of the great challenges of a major program startup with a very steep hiring ramp is to accelerate employee effectiveness. Immediately following contract award, the No. 1 risk to the program in the eyes of the government customer was the ability to staff up in time to meet early program objectives.

This challenge was further complicated by a corporate objective to ensure that at least 50 percent of new hires were new college graduates with no industry experience. Two innovative but non-traditional concepts were introduced on F-35. The first was “on boarding,” a process where new employees would go through a three-day introduction and indoctrination into the world of F-35.

The second was the selection of three very experienced developmental engineers and leaders to be “coaches without portfolio.” These seasoned vets would have no direct reports but would be tasked to move among the team providing guidance and coaching to the integrated product teams as the organization scaled up from a small proposal team to a very large multi-corporate, global team.

Next, communication channels had to be opened across the geographically dispersed team. Fundamental to achieving all the F-35 cultural development objectives was to ensure that communication channels across the team were healthy and transparent.

To do this, a wide variety of techniques were implemented across the team. Periodic all-hands meetings connected the principal operating sites so employees could all participate. An employee-driven workforce vitality team developed innovative activities focused on work-life balance in the high stress environment of F-35. JSF Voice allowed any employee to register issues or concerns, anonymously if necessary. Weekly breakfast with management events and emphasis on “management by walking around” were all employed to a much larger extent on F-35 than any other previous program.

Next, the team turned corporate and national diversity into an asset. During the initial startup phase of the program the F-35 onboarding process was introducing 80 to 100 new employees each week. The diversity factor was unique as employees from other companies — both U.S. and international — personnel from the government and new college graduates all joined the team. To celebrate this unique opportunity to learn from other cultures and truly merge company, the workforce vitality team sponsored cultural appreciation events which allowed us to leverage the diversity factor rather than deal with it as a necessary distraction.

Building teams through competition was another dimension. National identities are often best observed through the lens of sports competitions and F-35 was no different. Engineers on site in Fort Worth from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy and Denmark fully embraced the competition. Soccer matches were particularly intense.

One of the U.K. stalwarts was an engineer named Ian McDonald who embodied all the parameters of a true teammate. Ian’s family remained in the United Kingdom while he was assigned to the F-35 in Fort Worth and, very sadly, he died of a heart attack while working on the project.

The annual soccer tournament then became the Ian McDonald tournament. His widow joined us to present the winning trophy the following year. The power of competition is often underestimated but it can be leveraged as a major factor in developing high-performing teams.

Finally, it was necessary to reinforce the difference between leadership and management, which was critical to achieving the new F-35 culture.

Management is a function of the past and future. If I can analyze past performance data, and I correlate that data with other models to generate an action plan to do better in the future, I can manage a program. Too often, managers are consumed by their data. Leadership, on the other hand, is a requirement to motivate and inspire people that are under incredible pressure to perform.

The challenge goes through every strata of the program. The greatest challenge of a real leader is time allocation and the hierarchy of needs.
It is a very large balancing act with many dimensions. The reality of leadership is that the only resource you really have are the hours in a day, and you need to constantly assess whether or not you are expending that resource in the most productive manner. ND

Tom Burbage was Lockheed’s general manager of the F-35 program from 2000 until 2013. Prior to leading the F-35 program, he was the general manager for the F-22 and president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems Company. He is the co-author with Betsy Clark, Adrian Pitman, and David Poyer of the new book, F-35: The Inside Story of the Lightning II.

Topics: Air Power, Air Force News

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