How to speed acquisition timelines through the power of innovative thinking.
by Lt. Col. Mark P. Henderson
Through innovative thinking and process improvement, the Army Acquisition Corps successfully transformed airborne operations in just two short years, culminating on Sept. 30, 2017, with the fielding completion of the full Ku-band operational capability of Enroute Mission Command (EMC). Mounted on Air Force C-17s, this revolutionary capability turns aircraft into flying command posts, enabling the Global Response Force to conduct real-time continuous mission command from home station to the drop zone.
Other network communications solutions making rapid debuts in 2017 included low-rate initial production for terrestrial radios that provide information superhighways; coalition enclaves to support the growing needs of our allied partners; secure Wi-Fi, making command posts significantly more survivable, agile and lethal; intelligence enclaves reduced to the size of a suitcase; and the first instances of 4G LTE enabling communications through smartphones—all delivered roughly within two years after their requirements were approved. These successes come despite news reports of long timelines in the development and fielding of new technologies and can help to answer the question lingering in the minds of Army and acquisition professionals over the past year: What innovative procurement methods can we use to deliver capability to Soldiers more rapidly?
I have managed rapid acquisitions since I was a major, from the largest major defense acquisition programs to smaller, non-programs of record based on operational needs, at all phases of the acquisition life cycle. I have learned that all facets of acquisition can benefit from a little innovative thinking, especially in the networks and information technology realm, where technology becomes obsolete so quickly.
By looking at six separate aspects of acquisition—policy, requirements, documentation, funding, programmatic considerations and testing—I offer possible approaches that apply broadly and could help some programs, when and where applicable, thus demonstrating the speed with which we as a community can and do deliver. I am not asserting that there are no challenges in the acquisition process or in the surrounding bureaucracy, only that we are empowered to shape our own destiny.
We can and do move fast in the acquisition world. In fact, we are compelled to do so. DOD 5000.02 is the playbook that maps out acquisition rules and processes and contains multiple references that are consistent with the following: “Milestone decision authorities (MDAs) … will tailor and streamline program strategies and oversight.” It goes on to say that MDAs are authorized to tailor not only acquisition procedures, but also the regulatory requirements to cut through bureaucracy as efficiently as possible and rapidly deliver capability. In other words, DOD and senior leaders expect that stakeholders will work together to streamline processes to provide the latest capability in the shortest time possible.
One creative solution to speed acquisition timelines is to brief an MDA before a milestone C or full-rate production decision on ways to reduce staffing processes, regulatory requirements, bureaucracy, schedule or anything else that may add unnecessary complexity. Gaining approval in advance to cut through these obstacles can save a great deal of time and effort up front.
To support Soldier readiness based on a Soldier and product focus, the Army acquisition community and program managers must abandon risk-averse, process-based thinking. Rapid acquisition requires leaders who can and do take prudent risks within the law in an effort to speed antiquated timelines.
The most recent edition of Webster’s International Dictionary contains more than 470,000 words in the English language. This allows a great deal of flexibility to describe a capability in performance-based language, taking care not to dictate specifically what that product should be. Flexible requirements and capability-focused language are powerful tools for an innovative acquisition leader to leverage. The more prescriptive the language, the less latitude industry partners and the acquisition community have to rapidly deliver the best product. That said, in some cases new and shiny is not always better. If a requirement can leverage aspects of an existing capability, avoid the lengthy process of developing new requirements. Instead, use that underlying capability or system as a baseline and add to or modify it.
For example, modifications and upgrades to an existing system using a “mod-in-service” funding approach have enabled the product office to continually modernize the tactical network baseline of the Warfighter Information Network – Tactical (WIN-T) Increment 1b. With a fielded, standardized and stable baseline that meets program requirements, two things can occur: The baseline can itself be modified, and new products can be rapidly added as technology advances to boost the capability even more.
Some of the network fixes involve concepts like using commercial off-the-shelf equipment, but that is only part of the answer. The view needs to be holistic. The equipment we are delivering is designed to work on all parts of the tactical network regardless of the WIN-T node so that it will be interoperable not only today within the Army, but into the future.
Another consideration is to focus requirements on procuring smaller quantities of new capability more often. This enables a large network or technology to remain nimble enough to leverage newer technology as it materializes and continuously fosters competition. The key here is to develop technology that is interoperable instead of stovepiped. The art of acquisition lies partially in avoiding the elevation of new products or systems to major defense acquisition program status whenever possible. Similarly, delegate MDA responsibility from the acquisition executive or DOD component head to the program executive officer (PEO) level for adjudication—even down to the project managers—for as many programs as practicable. That will untether Army senior leaders from the unnecessary day-to-day management of these programs.
Keep organizations postured to steer clear of large, long-term procurement models whenever possible. As technology changes or improves, procure the next iteration as a technology insertion or modification, always keeping interoperability in mind. While an operational needs statement or directed requirement can be an effective method to rapidly implement capability, it’s not the only way to get things accomplished. Think about using an integrated product team, working integrated product team or cross-functional team of representatives from appropriate functional disciplines to work together on devising innovative ways to improve processes, identify and resolve issues, and make sound and timely recommendations to facilitate decision-making. Ideally these forums will not become bureaucracies, but will enable movement through them.
Additionally, look beyond the local applicability of a baseline requirement and talk to other services like the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force or U.S. Special Operations Command and leverage mutual needs—in other words, work together. Doing so will naturally increase interoperability with little extra effort and drive economies of scale to reduce cost using better buying power concepts. Building relationships is as important as building things. As a final note on this topic, look at programs holistically to reduce complexity by considering redundancy, cost and interoperability.
Another fresh approach to speeding acquisition timelines is to gain MDA approval to tailor or streamline documentation to significantly reduce redundancy and the likelihood of errors in substantial amounts of paperwork. Even for Acquisition Category (ACAT) III programs, which are the bulk of Army programs, there can be as many as 39 information requirements, with 16 needing MDA approval and accounting for as many as 550 pages to read.
My team and I have implemented a streamlined approach for ACAT III programs in the PEO for Command, Control and Communications – Tactical that effectively trimmed 39 information requirements to eight baseline documents through consolidation or reduction. The net result was a 79 percent decrease. MDA signatures were reduced by 50 percent to eight, and total page count fell 53 percent, from 550 pages of documentation to 256. Because senior leaders do not have limitless time, the MDA received the complete package plus a new executive summary that distilled all the key information needed to make a decision in a five-page rollup—a 99 percent reduction in reading material. This enabled the MDA to make a recent full-rate production decision more easily and rapidly.
There are a couple of ways to increase the speed and flexibility of programs through funding. Some programs come with a dedicated funding line, while others do not. When managing a product without a dedicated funding line, things often move faster because there is inherently less regulation and bureaucratic oversight.
For programs with dedicated funding lines, one recommendation is to consolidate as many products from a capability production document into a single line and product management office. This creates a natural ability to flex between those products within the consolidated line from year to year, swiftly and with little effort. Adjusting the purchase plan annually is easy because no additional processes, such as above-threshold or below-threshold reprogramming, are needed to move money between products. In this way, project or product managers have maximum flexibility in executing their programs.
This approach is easiest to accomplish at the beginning of a program, though if needed it can be phased in over time. A word of caution here: Extending this approach to enable many requirements with funding to fall on several managers out of such a line can be high-risk. The failure of one or two managers to execute their funding on time can cripple the entire line through congressional marks, rescissions or other administrative actions.
Be bold and unafraid. Teams delivering capability rapidly can be lean or understaffed, so seek help as needed to retain momentum. Keep in mind that there are many government and industry partners to go to for help. Use technically mature, commercial off-the-shelf products that can enter the acquisition process at milestone C, a decision point that enables the initial procurement of equipment and allows the program to move forward to initial operational test and evaluation.
Actively manage and compress schedule to reduce risk by conducting as many events in parallel as possible to get things done in less time. By doing so, my team was able to get a new ACAT III radio product from a milestone C decision out to testing in two weeks. The entire process from milestone C to successful, full-rate production decision took just seven months.
Remember: Be creative in how you tailor a program. For example, to deliver capability more rapidly, if possible leverage DOD 5000.02 Enclosure 13, a provision that allows for reduced acquisition timelines based on urgent operational need. The EMC program office leveraged this approach and was able to deliver capability in two years.
Challenge convention and use nonstandard programs of record to accelerate the process where applicable. This approach gets capability into the hands of Soldiers rapidly while creatively meeting acquisition requirements and staying ahead of obsolescence. Get away from unique capabilities or designs where possible. In a previous assignment as an assistant product manager in the PEO for Enterprise Information Systems, I led a team that standardized strategic network architecture for long-haul communications by putting the engineering up front and standardizing the product selections on the back end, the reverse of traditional approaches.
Car manufacturers know there is no sense in doing a custom design for each new vehicle. Similarly, this concept worked well for the Army in the delivery of modular network capabilities that connected countries across Southwest Asia. The concept is repeatable and can apply to any network by figuring out capability based on mission and scale and addressing it with basic configurations such as mini, small, medium or large, then working out the engineering in advance with room for à la carte, Lego-like additions. At that point, a commander simply needs to select a scalable package that best fits his or her situation.
Though it sounds simple, think through the test strategy early in the process, well before testing begins. Ensure that testing is done in accordance with the requirements and does not extend into other factors outside of what is actually needed, adding little additional value. Make Soldiers, the end users, part of the process early and grow capability through user feedback in both laboratory and operational environments, to improve products using a test, fix, test approach. Don’t be afraid to find problems.
Also, do not be afraid to use capabilities and limitations reports or operational assessments in lieu of formal testing where applicable. When a formal test is required, partner with the test community early and leverage development tests or operational assessments with Soldiers in conjunction with the testers to eliminate surprise and reduce overall test risk. Remember to leverage teams and relationships by working closely with the requirements generators as well as the test community. Testers want to see the best capabilities get into Soldiers’ hands, and are typically willing to work with a product office to help move the ball down the field.
A little creativity and innovation can speed acquisition timelines, and despite recent news headlines, we as a community have been doing just that. DOD 5000.02 provides the authority to tailor the process, cut through bureaucracy, think holistically while leveraging relationships and apply creativity to get to “yes.” Rapid acquisition is real and can flourish with a little bit of innovative thinking.
COL. MARK P. HENDERSON is the product manager for Network Modernization, assigned to PEO C3T’s Project Manager for Tactical Network. He holds an executive MBA with emphasis in information systems management and a master of education with emphasis in counseling and psychology from Troy University, and a B.S. in political science and government from Kennesaw State University. He is Level III certified in program management and holds master’s certificates in Lean Six Sigma, negotiations, expert selling, applied program management and advanced program management. He is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps.
This article is published in the April – June 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
Subscribe to Army AL&T News, the premier online news source for the Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology (AL&T) Workforce.