Monday, August 31, 2009

The Skunk Works: Why Doesn't Everybody Work This Way?

Skunk Works
Lockheed Martin

"The Skunk Works® was formed in June of 1943 in Burbank, Calif. The Air Tactical Service Command (ATSC) of the Army Air Force met with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to express its need for a jet fighter. A rapidly growing German jet threat gave Lockheed an opportunity to develop an airframe around the most powerful jet engine that the allied forces had access to, the British Goblin. ... One month after the ATSC and Lockheed meeting, a young engineer by the name of Clarence L. 'Kelly' Johnson and other associate engineers hand delivered the initial XP-80 proposal to the ATSC...

"...The formal contract for the XP-80 did not arrive at Lockheed until October 16, 1943; some four months after work had already begun...."

The idea of finding competent, reliable people, telling them what needs to be done, and getting out of the way worked. And, still does.

There are (or can be) reasons for filling out forms, building consensus, and counting the paper clips: but it seems easy for a large company to use the Dilbert comic strip as the inspiration for its organization.

Although the Skunk Works® isn't as tangled in red tape as most outfits, there are a few rules. 14 of them: "Kelly's 14 Rules."

They seem to boil down to this:
  • If it needs to be done
    • Do it
    • With as few people as necessary
  • Document
    • Really important work
    • As little of everything else as possible
  • Communicate
  • Delegate
  • Trust
  • Define specifications up front or
    • Say which ones have to be filled in later
There's more detail - but, typically, about as much as necessary to define what the rules mean: and no more.

Sounds Like a Great Place to Work

I've worked in places that are more like Dilbert's company than the Skunk Works®.

I don't know why more companies don't do business this way. I suppose it's partly because you need self-starters to make that sort of system work, and not everybody works well that way. Partly, I think, it's because people with issues about control and trust sometimes get into management positions.

And I'm pretty sure there's a lot more to it than that. As John Muir wrote: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

(("My First Summer in the Sierra" John Muir, 1911) - You may have seen it as "Tug on anything at all and you'll find it connected to everything else in the universe." I prefer Muir's emphasis on "by itself" as contrasted to "everything else in the universe.")

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