Instead of KISS (keeping it super simple), requirement writers for ACAT III programs often go to absurd lengths to document what a product should do—even when the product is already sitting on a shelf. Here’s how to write a requirement—and a better way based on the author’s doctoral dissertation.
by Dr. Donald Schlomer, Lt. Col., USA (Ret.)
To understand requirements, you first have to understand the concept of a “capability,” which simply means something that can do something. Whether it’s a high-tech jet that can take off vertically and reach the outer atmosphere in seconds, or a lowly boot made for extended jungle wear that won’t encourage trench foot, someone has to describe what is required of each before you can have either.
Closer to home, think of your fridge as a capability—a way to keep food from spoiling using refrigeration. Simple, right? For an Army requirement writer, it’s a different story, especially if the capability is an entirely new one.
What should the refrigerator be other than an insulated box that keeps food and drink cold? What should its capacity be in cubic feet? How many, if any, compartments should it have? Should it have a freezer? What range of temperatures is acceptable for food freshness? What level of humidity? What about efficiency and noise? What specific voltage and amperage should power it? What are the environmental rules and regulations that surround it? Is efficiency more important than, for example, speed of cooling? What should the box be made of? What kind of insulation? What kind of motor and compressor?
That might seem like excessive detail, but it just begins to scratch the surface of the amount of information required to define a capability that the Army needs.
While the Army buys some of its capabilities as commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products, a good many of its required capabilities necessitate defining specifications from scratch, essentially turning someone’s vision into reality. Often, that’s reality-by-committee, because the requirements necessary to bring a capability into existence are based on the input of the capability’s stakeholders—anyone who would be involved with using, contracting, acquiring, testing, fielding or disposing of the capability.
So, when DOD decides it needs a capability, someone must develop a capability development document (CDD). The CDD must define the capability for Congress and, by extension, taxpayers and all stakeholders. Accordingly, the CDD defines the requirement as to what to purchase.
GENESIS OF REQUIREMENTS
A capability requirement starts when Army leadership agrees that a military need exists and approves the need by signing a capabilities-based assessment (C-BA) document. The C-BA for the jungle boot, for example, was approved in 2012. The Army has not had a certified jungle boot since the end of the Vietnam War. This C-BA allowed for multiple facets of the Army leadership to agree on the need to acquire the jungle boot, with estimated cost. Based on that cost, the C-BA was assigned an acquisition category (ACAT) number. ACAT I programs are the high-priced items, such as tanks, ships and airplanes, with program costs of more than $2.79 billion. ACAT II programs have program costs between $835 million and $2.7 billion. ACAT III programs have costs below $835 million.
In the real world, when you decide you need something, you go out and get what your budget will allow. Sometimes that may entail a conversation with a spouse or significant other—a stakeholder—to make certain that everyone agrees that the purchase of a new pair of boots, for example, is justifiable and within budget. Such a conversation is nothing compared with what military personnel have to go through to obtain stakeholder approval to acquire a new capability.
To start, a Center of Excellence (COE) requirement writer within the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command develops a C-BA. The COE could be one of several established by branches of the Army. The C-BA for the jungle boot was assigned and completed by a requirement writer within the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCOE) at Fort Benning, Georgia. A C-BA contains a cost-benefit analysis that estimates the cost and value of developing, fielding, maintaining and disposing of a capability.
With the approval of a C-BA for a jungle boot, MCOE personnel develop the CDD that provides the requirements for it. What general specifications and efforts are required to obtain, field, train, maintain and dispose of the jungle boot?
To recap quickly:
- The C-BA establishes that what the military needs is actually a boot—not, for example, a different way of wearing an existing boot.
- The C-BA establishes that the benefit of the jungle boot is worth the cost.
- The CDD establishes requirements needed not only to develop the jungle boot but to maintain, field, provide training and dispose of it.
A SLOW PROCESS
The Joint Capabilities Integrated Development System (JCIDS) started in 2003 to provide a process by which military leadership can validate capabilities and, through the approval of a CDD, try to ensure that a product acquired by one branch of the military can interface with a product in another branch of the military. For example, if the Army wanted to purchase a radio by submitting a CDD, the JCIDS approval process would try to ensure that, before the Army purchased that radio, it would interface with an existing Navy radio. Once the CDD is approved, it is given to a program or project manager (PM) somewhere within the Defense Acquisition System who is responsible for developing the contract to acquire the capability that the CDD identifies.
Step 1: In the first step in JCIDS, the requirement writer establishes an integrated project or product team (IPT). An IPT usually has between five and 15 members. (See Figure 1.) The team members should be key stakeholders associated with the jungle boot, and each member should provide advice on how the CDD should be written. The knowledge and experience of the stakeholders are vital to the approval of the CDD.
Creating a good stakeholder IPT reduces the time needed to write and obtain approval of the CDD. An IPT should include enough members to generate a good CDD without taking years. An experienced requirement writer who understands the capability should decide how many stakeholders—not too few and not too many—will form the IPT. (Unfortunately, this was not the case for the jungle boot. See “The Jungle Boot” in the April – June 2017 issue of Army AL&T magazine.)
Step 2: The second step in writing the CDD is to understand but not question the need for the capability. IPT members address all facets of the CDD requirement in writing, starting with the specifications. For the jungle boot, for example, the specifications include a sole (tread), a tongue, straps (laces), sizes, color and fabric. Discussion of the sole and fabric might concern the amount of traction for the tread and the type of fabric, such as water-resistant and fast-drying. The specifications must be objectively testable, which means that the requirement needs to state that the boot must be water-resistant as defined by the ability to repel water for up to 20 minutes. An example of fast-drying would be the ability to dry in four hours in an 80-degree environment.
When coming up with specifications, requirement writers should always take the KISS approach—keep it super simple. (There are several other ways to define KISS, but all of them mean the same thing.) The specification may vary depending on the product, but usually it takes no more than two years to complete. Despite being a widely accepted design principle, KISS is applied far too infrequently in CDDs.
Step 3: Next is defining the quantity and effect across the Army—which units and how many Soldiers actually need the capability defined in the CDD. The quantity is derived from the number of units that will need the item and how many per unit will be needed. The effect refers to the possible changes in standard operating procedures or possible impacts on tactics, techniques and procedures resulting from the use of this product. For example, every Soldier in every unit could wear a jungle boot, but do they all need to be wearing them?
Step 4: Next, the CDD must address maintenance and disposal. For the boot, cleaning instructions include the type of soap and the type of utensils to use. The maintenance should include any requirement to repair the boot. Similarly, the requirements must include a definition of how worn the boot should be before the Soldier can turn it in for replacement.
Step 5: The CDD also must identify key performance parameters (KPPs) or key system attributes (KSAs) that a vendor absolutely must meet. For example, a KPP could be boot drying time. A KSA may be the color of the boot, such as brown. Therefore, tan, sand or khaki may be acceptable. Army leadership does not make fashion statements and doesn’t care if the boots match the uniform. But leadership does care if the boot achieves the requirement to support the warfighter.
For all ACAT programs—tanks, ships and boots—CDDs are restricted to a maximum of 45 pages. In researching my doctoral dissertation to develop a strategy to accelerate the approval time of an ACAT III program within the JCIDS process, I found that virtually all of the CDDs in my research, regardless of the complexity, had a page count of 45.
For ACAT IIIs, the ideal page count should be no more than 10 pages. Overly prescriptive requirements make the process harder—not only for the requirement writer but for the contractor who eventually will produce the product. They also slow the delivery, increase cost and inhibit creativity.
Helpful hint: Since all products must have a CDD, it makes sense when developing one for a COTS product to have the CDD’s wording reflect the actual capabilities of the product. Leveraging the established capabilities of the COTS product should make the description in the CDD shorter and easier to develop.
Once the CDD is approved, it’s the PM’s responsibility to develop a contract to acquire the capability. The PM shop will develop a document called the capability production document (CPD) to develop the acquisition and contracting strategy, which includes the type of contract to be used (firm-fixed-price, cost-plus or best value) and the request for proposal (RFP). The RFP will include the parameters by which proposals will be evaluated.
The CPD defines the specifications of the capability or product the PM is contracting to acquire. If the PM representative is an initial stakeholder, the development of the CPD can happen while the CDD is being approved. Months, if not years, can be saved if all the stakeholders work together simultaneously to develop a CDD and a procurement document such as a CPD.
A sensible question to ask is, “How long should it take to acquire a capability like a jungle boot?” Jungle boots currently exist in the commercial market—as a COTS product—that meet most if not all of the Army’s requirements. Thus, anyone can order a pair online and have them delivered within a week.
Does it make sense that it has taken more than four years to deliberate about the acquisition of a jungle boot through the JCIDS process? Why spend over a year writing a lengthy CDD, wait 120 days for approval and devote an additional 18 months to contract, just to acquire something that’s already commercially available? If the document writer can produce a CDD that is 10 pages or fewer and the CDD is understood by all stakeholders, that time frame and the entire acquisition process will improve.
Based on examples of approved CDDs that I reviewed, I developed the “approval time formula.” The formula takes into consideration six different factors that include the ACAT category, the cost of the program, priority and the risk of the project. Army management can use this formula to develop objective metrics to track the program approval process and apply emphasis when necessary.
Will the time to deliver a COTS product ever be reduced to a week? I think not. However, delivering a COTS product such as a jungle boot within two years is very much within reach.
For more information, contact the author at DonSchlomer@gmail.com or 813-826-1353; or go to https://www.dau.mil/tools/t/Manual-for-the-Operation-of-the-Joint-Capabilities-Integration-and-Development-System/. (A Common Access Card is needed to log in.)
DONALD SCHLOMER, Lt. Col., USA (Ret.), is an acquisition specialist at U.S. Special Operations Command. He has a doctorate in project management from Walden University, holds an MBA in finance from Clemson University and a B.B.A. in information systems from the University of Georgia, and is a graduate of the Quartermaster Officer Advanced Course. He has 14 years of JCIDS acquisition experience and was an instructor of the JCIDS process for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.
This article will be published in the October – December 2017 Army AL&T magazine.
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