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 April 2010 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)Trained, Disciplined Professionals Are Key to Acquisition Excellence 

April 2010

by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret) 

Acquisition reform and the search for acquisition excellence are never-ending topics of discussion. That probably reflects the fact that after hundreds of reform studies and thousands of articles, we still haven’t put many of those good suggestions into practice. The current performance of major defense acquisition programs would indicate we haven’t hit the proper groove yet.

There is now a serious effort under way in the House of Representatives on defense acquisition reform. A House Armed Services Committee panel has just released a draft of its findings that culminate a year of study under the leadership of Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J. Industry was invited to comment on the draft.

It is anticipated that the final product will form the basis of new legislation.  This will be something to closely track as we ramp up to the authorization bill and other legislation toward the end of fiscal year 2010.

Given this latest initiative, perhaps it would be useful to think in the simplest possible terms of just what constitutes acquisition excellence. Earlier studies go into detail about requirements discipline, accurate cost estimating, properly resourced and timely test plans, earned value management practices, use of management reserves, systems engineering practices, and on and on. All of these observations and recommendations are on the money, but they only constitute the tool set that provides a good foundation for acquisition excellence. The question is what high-level verities characterize an acquisition organization that uses these tools to best advantage.

We should ask first, what causes an acquisition system to fail? In a Harvard Business Review article by Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman, titled, “Delusions of Success,” the authors say, “In planning major initiatives, executives routinely exaggerate the benefits and discount the costs, setting themselves up for failure.”

This problem can be addressed by two factors: Highly experienced, professional acquisition personnel and a disciplined approach to requirements.

First, the system requires trained acquisition professionals to lead military program offices — most importantly, the service acquisition executives.

It seems counterintuitive that a key acquisition position would be filled by someone who is not an expert. Yet we all know it happens far more frequently than one cares to admit. On many occasions, waivers are provided to individuals who lack the requisite education or experience to hold a key acquisition position.
This does not happen in other sectors. Do we allow machinists on a manufacturing floor to come out of school and begin doing complicated milling or cutting jobs? The new employee is carefully trained on the job under close supervision, until a senior manager determines that the rookie can go it alone on certain tasks. An even better example is the medical profession. Graduation from medical school is only the first step in a long progression of closely supervised internships and residencies and progressively more difficult tasks until a physician is certified to go it alone.

The problem is that we don’t treat acquisition as a profession. Managed properly, we would educate and train just as other professions. But we don’t do it that way. At least we haven’t lately. Examine any successful, large program from the past, and you will find highly experienced acquisition professionals at the helm. Look at current program failures and you will likely find acquisition leaders who don’t measure up to the professional proficiency of their predecessors. We have seen unqualified leaders “parachuted” into acquisition organizations at fairly high levels. And even some senior acquisition executives have been, sadly, unqualified for the position.  

The second point is the need for a disciplined requirements process. There is a healthy tension between the requiring operators and acquisition professionals. The operators need to forcefully advocate their war-fighting needs, but this pressure needs to be counterbalanced by a professional acquisition organization. The acquisition professional needs to articulate the exact impact of the operators’ requirements in terms of cost, schedule and performance. The referee for this process needs to be the chief of the service.

The second point is best served by a block development approach. The requirements need to be programmed in blocks, and when that piece is scheduled to be delivered, the requirements need to be jettisoned if they don’t meet cost, schedule and performance criteria.

A program can proceed on cost and schedule, though with less capability than desired. If technology later provides the answer, the capability can be added. But the overriding objective is stable cost and schedule performance. Much is made of evolutionary acquisition and spiral development. They are OK if controlled, but if they result in unstable or undefined baselines, they should be avoided. Disciplined delivery of well-defined baselines on cost and schedule is the key.

If we built a system with disciplined block development run by real acquisition professionals, we would be pleasantly surprised by the results.

But real acquisition professionals don’t come cheap or easy. It takes several years of schooling and training on the job. It has taken us many years to walk away from acquisition excellence, and it will take us some time to get back to it. It doesn’t appear that the system fully appreciates just yet how important it is to treat acquisition as a profession.



Affiliate Associations

The Association for Enterprise Information    National Training and Simulation Association    Precision Strike Association    Women in Defense