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Defense Acquisition University
Defense Acquisition Magazine
Using Industry Best Practices to Improve Acquisition
Written by: Craig M. Arndt, D. Eng., P.E.
June 20, 2018
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Development and acquisition of the very best weapons and systems constitute the priority mission of the Department of Defense (DoD).
Everyone in the acquisition business continues to ask how we develop and acquire the best weapons and systems for our men and women in uniform. In the May 2017 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, the chairman of the Section 809 Acquisition Advisory Panel, Deidre Lee, said that the acquisition system is deficient as ever and is becoming a threat to national security. Those were strong words but not too different from what we have heard many times from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress and others in and around our business.
As a result, there are many calls for updates and changes in the DoD’s acquisition systems and processes. One of the biggest government acquisition trends over the last 20 years is the tendency to look at and, in some cases, emulate “industry best practices.”
Defining Industry Best Practices
A best practice is one that has been generally accepted for producing results that are superior to those achieved by other means or because it has become a standard way of doing things—e.g., of complying with legal or ethical requirements. Best practices are used to maintain quality as an alternative to mandatory legislated standards and can be based on self-assessment or benchmarking. Specific industries have different practices that reduce risk and generally improve outcomes.
Trends and Constraints
No one ever told us that this would be easy. So let’s look at some (by no means all) of the reasons why defense acquisition is hard. First, we are trying to develop the best systems to give our warfighters overwhelming superiority in every fight. Developing the most cutting-edge systems is inherently harder than any other kind of development. And technology continuously and rapidly changes. This is particularly challenging for organizations like DoD.
In the first place, we keep many of our systems such as planes and ships for a long time (sometimes up to 50 years). During this extended period, technologies can change many times as can threats and enemies that the nation faces. Secondly, changes of technology can and will change the methods of developing and operating our systems. Rapid change drives development forward ever faster. Therefore, one best practice is to let the pace of technological change drive our DoD development time lines. In other words, the DoD’s development time lines should be limited by the pace of technology development, not the time needed to work the acquisition processes. The time needed to conduct acquisition processes should be constrained by the time available (if worked in parallel) to develop, test and field the technology—and not by time needed to fulfill the paperwork requirements.
Stewards of the Taxpayers’ Money:
The federal government, by definition, spends the taxpayers’ money. We need to set up methods and procedures to ensure that we are spending the money effectively and in a way that maximizes the utility of the end product to the mission: defense of the nation.
And since DoD is part of the federal government, we must maintain a policy of “fairness to all.” We need to be fair to the people that the government does business with, and fair to the operational units receiving the systems we acquire, and make sure we provide them with the best capabilities we can obtain using the resources that we have been given.
A Great Deal of Oversight: The Defense Acquisition System by the nature of its organization and founding and operational laws, regulations and guidance has a great many people and organizations with some degree of oversight to exercise. DoD is very large and very structured. As a result, both the military Services and the Office of the Secretary of Defense provide internal oversight to the acquisition process. In addition to internal oversight, acquisition programs get oversight from Congress, the press and a number of different audit organizations.
All this oversight tends to lengthen the acquisition processes and reduce risk that can reasonably be expected. It is a well understood organizational principle that negative accountability can create inaction.
A Lot of Process and Procedure:
The many people inside and outside of the Defense Acquisition System have contributed to one of the world’s most complex organizational processes. All of the regulations (the Federal Acquisition Regulation [FAR], the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement and others) and processes and procedures were created for good reasons.
As a part of the Better Buying Power initiative of former Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall, an effort was made within DoD to reduce unnecessary processes. Despite many attempts at such reductions over the years, the DoD and the federal government as a whole have developed more processes and procedures than ever for the acquisition and development of systems—and more than is known of any other organization in the world.
On the positive side, a number of very innovative and aggressive processes have been developed by the DoD and other government organizations to reduce time and improve the acquisition efficiency. Two the most promising were Alpha contracting and Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs). In Alpha contracting, all parties agree to meet at one time with the authority to make final decisions and work out contracting. OTAs are a method of contracting for government work without using FAR.
Government contracting and even more so the development of weapons and systems for the DoD inherently have a great many stakeholders. These stakeholders can include the end users (soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines), the Services (U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, etc.), the manufacturers and other vendors, Congress, the American people (the voters), as well as U.S. allies and other overseas interests—just to name the biggest ones. People and organizations inherently have different and competing interests in how, when and where the DoD’s systems are developed and in the cost schedule and performance of these systems. The current system is designed to take the interests of these different stakeholders into consideration during program development—however, it does nothing to align these different and competing interests. Lack of alignment, as George Labovitz and Victor Rosansky note in their bestselling management book, The Power of Alignment, can destroy any organization’s ability to meet its mission.
In industry, alignment is achieved by reducing and/or eliminating the incentives to the misalignment. This is effective in industry only because (and when) the leadership has the authority to change the different stakeholders’ incentives. In the government and particularly in DoD, the program leadership (the program manager or PM), lacks the authority to change the incentives of the many stakeholders and may not have insight into many of the stakeholders’ decision-making processes and many of the actions that affect their programs. As a result, it is nearly impossible for PMs to correctly align the efforts and action that affect the successes of their programs.
The effective and efficient development of complex systems requires limiting the number of conflicting stakeholders to those with direct impact from the system (operators, maintainers, and resource sponsors). The program leadership needs to continuously work to discover and minimize the impact of conflicting interests of program stakeholders.
The DoD Need for Speed
The March 2011 GAO-11-273 report,
Warfighter Support—DOD’s Urgent Needs Processes Need a More Comprehensive Approach and Evaluation for Potential Consolidation
, stated: “Over the past two decades, the fulfillment of urgent needs has evolved as a set of complex processes … to rapidly develop, equip, and field solutions and critical capabilities to the warfighter.” (On page 2 of the report, we find the following: “DOD’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review cited that the department’s institutions and processes needed reforms to better support the urgent needs of the warfighter; buy weapons that are usable, affordable, and truly needed; and ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and responsibly.”
GAO noted that a 2009 Defense Science Board stated that DoD “identified more than 20 organizations, processes, and funds with the purpose to address warfighter needs rapidly. The GAO report stated that GAO had “identified at least 31 entities that manage urgent needs and expedite the development of solutions to address them.”
The GAO-11-273 report identified which organizations were involved with transition, transfer, or termination, defined as: “The decision regarding the final disposition of the capability in terms of whether it will be (1) transitioned to a program of record if it addresses an enduring capability need, (2) transferred to an interim sponsor for temporary funding if it addresses a temporary capability that is not enduring but needs to be maintained for some period, or (3) terminated if it addresses a niche capability that is not enduring, nor is it to be maintained for current operations.” This report found that only 9 of the 31 entities actually considered transition to be part of their missions. When roughly one-third of the organizations assigned an urgent acquisition mission are involved with a transition disposition decision, it is not surprising that there is no formal disposition process.
Also, the timeline in making a disposition decision is not standard. “It is JIEDDO’s [Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization’s] policy to decide within 2 years whether to transition or transfer the capability over to a service or agency or to terminate it. … The Special Operations Command determines at the 1-year mark whether the capability is still needed in-theater, and if so, defines out-year funding requirements and how the funding will be obtained,” the 2011 report added.
The Army instituted a process to correct this gap. The Army used the Capabilities Development for Rapid Transition process to make the disposition decision until 2015 when an Army Memorandum initiated the Nonstandard Equipment (NSE) Army Requirements Oversight Council (AROC) process. The NSE AROC disposition decision called for an AROC Memorandum (AROCM) that “captures decisions made, assigns taskings and responsibilities, establishes a source for future requirements determination and initiates other actions, such as the resourcing process.” However, there is no formal disposition decision codified in DoD policy outlining organizational involvement.
Why Improvement Has Been Inadequate
There really are two questions embedded here. The first asks if matters are getting better or worse as we continue changing the acquisition system. Secondly, are we actually applying industry best practices? If so, is this causing improvement? Many will say that we are seeing no real improvement. For many of the reasons that we have already discussed, we continue to take one step forward and two steps backward in relation to an effective development and acquisition system.
Are we using industry best practices? The short answer in some cases is yes, but in most cases is no. One good example is DoD’s attempts to implement agile software development methods. As we ask our vendors and our own developers to do agile development, we often ask at the same time that they not follow all of the principles of agile. As a result, we only follow industry best practices in part.
We employ only parts of best practices because we are not in the same business as our industry counterparts. What industry are we in? From the beginning of the United States, the Army and the Navy have been in the business of “Providing for the common Defense.” This has meant either preparing for war or waging war. With our industrial base, and the best uniformed men and women in the world, the United States has been great at both waging and preparing for war. However, in today’s world we can no longer prepare for war, and this requires that we develop differently. We must continuously develop as if we actually are at war. The most important thing to learn is that we cannot ignore or change fundamental truths about technology, business and war. Carl von Clausewitz said that “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” Sun Tzu said that “All warfare is based on deception.” We might similarly say that “War is the business of the Department of Defense, so doing acquisition as if we are in a shooting war is the business best practices of the Department of the Defense.”
How Wartime Acquisition Is Different
Over the last 60 years, there have been several good examples of wartime acquisition. For brevity’s sake, I will only examine the two key wartime development efforts. The first is World War II and the second is Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). During World War II, the U.S. economy was mobilized for wartime development and production in an unprecedented way. The keys to not only producing high volume but developing rapidly were:
High-risk development (a lot of failures).
Schedule-driven development (develop and deliver the best solution at a specific date).
Establish very high-skill teams with complete authority to manage their programs.
Have teams, including contractors, that are worthy of being invested with high degrees of trust.
In World War II, the government staff and the contractors worked literally side by side to develop and deliver the new systems.
In the second example, OEF, DoD created a number of new organizations to develop and deliver needed new systems. In a manner very similar to the development done during World War II, the acquisition processes of the Army Rapid Equipping Force (AREF) was conducted by small high-level groups doing development at schedule-based programs, in work closely coordinated with the users. Since the days of OEF, there has been a general recognition that DoD needs some level of rapid acquisition.
What is the end state we are working toward? It’s not about making the acquisition process go faster than at present; it’s about changing how we manage development and make the process go as fast as possible given the technical and manufacturing challenges of delivering a useful military capability. It is not about just focusing on the process and on departmental and congressional oversight.
We find, again, that the best practice is to conduct acquisition in a manner consistent with only our key stockholders and key interests. This drives us toward wartime acquisition policies and not traditional acquisition, for the latter is forced to deal with highly conflicting, and unaligned interests.
Best Practice: In time of war, acquisition trades resources for time. But this is not only a matter of money. The most important resources applied are talent, creativity and risk. Success in these cases is created by small highly skilled teams that have the authority to manage risk and deliver product. This is also is how high-tech start-ups work.
Should We Change the System?
The key objectives are: First, acquisition must be faster (and in some cases a great deal faster)—as fast as is practical, provided it is based on good design and technical risk. Second, the requirements for systems should be responsive to the real-time needs of operational field commanders (needs influenced by threat and by capabilities of technology). Third, we should plan for the contingency that some development efforts inevitably will fail and have alternative systems development at the ready to come in rapidly behind any failures. Fourth, it is critical that defense systems have the latest technology.
A number of key new methods are required to properly implement the needed changes. The template for these changes has been drawn for the use of the AREF and other organizations.
The keys are:
The development teams need to be both small and highly skilled. They also must have direct operational experience and be in constant (daily) contact with commanders in the field, and have highly responsive support staffs (you cannot move fast if a legal review takes a month to get done.
Developers need responsibility and flexibility to be positively engaged in every aspect of the design and development of the system, including making design decisions and directing the vendors (constructive changes to contracts).
In order to make smart and efficient decisions about the development of complex systems, project teams need full budget authority over program funding.
It is most important that we start using technology effectively in program management. This includes dynamic requirements generation. There must be continuous development and updating of system design requirements throughout development, fielding and operations. And these changes must take into account changing threats and the capabilities of other systems in the field to give the commander the greatest capability and flexibility.
Acquisition can be reformed though regulation, legislation or policy—or some combination of all three. What we have learned over the last 30 years, however, is that acquisition reform has a limited effect on how we actually do acquisition. A number of major acquisition reform, and many high-level initiatives (including Better Buying Power) have changed how we do acquisition. But for a wide range of reasons, DoD acquisition still has as many if not more issues and problems as ever. More than 60 years of acquisition experience since World War II has shown us is that we will only radically change how we do acquisition in response to the critical needs imposed by war. So the inevitable conclusion is that the real driver for change in the acquisition system are the needs of the warfighters (lest they suffer additional and unnecessary loss of lives) and the imminent possibility of losing a war.
The idea of using traditional or private industry as a guide for DoD operations is highly flawed at best (limited to only parts of DoD’s operations) and potentially dangerous. The military acquisition system must be relied upon not to create profit or private-sector jobs but to ensure the very survival of the nation, its people and its values.
Dr. Craig Arndt is a professor and past chairman of the Engineering and Technology Department at the Defense Acquisition University, Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Arndt also has extensive experience as a senior executive and technology leader in the research, engineering and defense industries. As a senior scientist at the Air Force Labs and the Air Force Institute of Technology, he developed advanced smart bomb technology and advanced flight-control systems. He holds five university degrees, including a Doctorate of Engineering in Electrical Engineering from the University of Dayton, a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, a Master of Science in Human Factors Engineering and a Master of Science in Systems Engineering from Ohio’s Wright State University and a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Ohio State University. He is a licensed Professional Engineer.
The author can be contacted at
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