Acquisition is a slow process by nature; always has been, always will be. Or is it? Could the remedy be as simple as getting out of our own way? In Walt Kelly’s words: ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’
by Lt. Col. Joel D. Babbitt
In the world of acquisition and project management, cost, schedule and performance are king. Actually delivering a product that meets the needs—performance—in the agreed-upon timeframe—schedule—and with the resources you’ve been given—cost—is harder than it sounds and is doubly so within DOD. The challenges are formidable:
- A requirements process that takes two to four years.
- A money forecasting process that takes two to seven years.
- A milestone approval process that takes three to six months of staffing at each checkpoint.
Add to the above list of challenges the customer expectation so clearly expressed by one of my former customers: “I want it now. If I wanted it in three years, I’d ask for it in three years.”
We’ve all heard of rapid acquisition offices, such as the Rapid Equipping Force, or organizations within United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), but the vast majority of us serve in acquisition organizations that do not have special rules, special authorities or any way of accelerating what is otherwise a very onerous system. So, how does a practitioner actually make acquisition rapid? It starts with a proactive, take-appropriate-risks, get-it-done mindset. So, if you have that mindset, here are several examples of how acquisition can be made rapid to help you frame your acquisitions for speed.
LESSON 1: GO SMALL, WIN BIG
To increase their effectiveness, special operations forces (SOF) wanted the same communications capability on Air Force C-17 aircraft while flying to an overseas objective that they had back in their joint operations centers or command posts. Rather than develop a solution from scratch, SOF acquisition adopted the existing Southwest Airlines Row 44 Ku-band internet solution with slight modifications to ensure connection to the necessary networks. Later, Warfighter Information Network – Tactical Increment 1 adopted this solution for an initial operational capability (IOC) in the Army, calling it the Enroute Mission Command Capability (EMC2), while simultaneously taking the next step and adding Ka-band to the antenna for the full operational capability (FOC).
These small steps allowed the effort to build momentum and provide immediate capability to the Soldier while developing the future capability. Each of these phases (SOF capability, Army IOC capability and Army FOC capability) was two to three years long. DOD names as a primary goal of Better Buying Power (BBP) 3.0 incentivizing greater and timelier innovation by removing barriers to the use of commercial technology. Leveraging commercial technology can make big efforts small and small efforts fast.
The lesson learned? Leverage other people’s developments and make your efforts small to win big.
LESSON 2: SLOW IS SMOOTH, SMOOTH IS FAST (SNIPER MAXIM)
When USSOCOM initially approached the Air Force program office, the time estimate for the C-17 antenna installations was six years—a lifetime to special operations. To reduce that timeline, USSOCOM framed the effort. Instead of immediately chartering a project and standing up an integrated project team, USSOCOM went back to basics, launching a series of studies.
The first was a network study to figure out which military or commercial airborne satellite network should be leveraged, followed by an antenna placement study to determine where on the aircraft the antenna should be located to minimize technical risk and, therefore, cost. The approach was most aptly summed up by the deputy J-6: We were “going slow to go fast.”
Doing two studies allowed for better framing decisions to be made, which reduced the risk to the antenna and aircraft contractors and the government at the same time. A prototype further reduced risk, followed by a kit-proof, or operational prototype effort, before the full production run.
All this time, we managed the two contractors (antenna and aircraft providers), rather than putting one in charge of the other. By production time, all the risk was wrung out of the effort, which reduced costs by more than half between development and production. Overall, the original six-year and $50 million-plus working estimate for a “give it to a prime integrator” approach was reduced to three years and just under $25 million. Effectively, both the budget and schedule were cut in half.
The lessons learned? Take the time to do the brain work up front, be innovative in your approach, control the process and keep the system-level integration in-house if possible.
LESSON 3: START SMALL, BUILD ON SUCCESS
For the Army’s Transportable Tactical Command Communications program, which provides small satellite dishes to teams through company-sized Army units, the program office leveraged a developmental effort from USSOCOM—the X-Band MicroSat Project (XBMS). The XBMS project produced the first high-bandwidth, sub-one-meter X-band satellite dishes through a three-part developmental effort: a proof of concept through the Air Force Research Laboratory, followed by an open competition for prototypes and a production competition for those who submitted prototypes. The total cost of development was less than $1 million and took about a year and a half. That three-step process resulted in the full fielding of these terminals throughout subordinate units at a little over the original targeted price of $50,000 per terminal.
The lessons learned? Decompose large efforts into small efforts, start with a government lab rough prototype to show what’s possible, have cost targets that vendors must meet to stay competitive and foster robust competition.
LESSON 4: SMALL PIECES SOLVE BIG PUZZLES
The Program Executive Office (PEO) for Enterprise Information Systems, Wideband Enterprise Satellite Systems (WESS) program office is essentially the Army’s satellite gateway program—a place tuned to constant, incremental change to meet customer needs. WESS fields and upgrades the Army’s 18 enterprise gateways (formerly called STEP sites). Other than the Modernization of Enterprise Terminals mission, a program that fields 12.2-meter satellite dishes around the world, WESS’s efforts comprise small, incremental upgrades to existing products or technology refresh of legacy functions. The umbrella of a large program allows for running many smaller programs start to finish under it, ensuring the freedom to create and field new capabilities such as precision timing racks, modem upgrades and next-generation satellite control software, to meet the gateways’ needs by keeping oversight at the PEO level and avoiding what would be an unnecessary acquisition category oversight structure.
This freedom has led to innovative technical solutions that are being fielded not only to Army gateways, but by the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Air Force and others. We follow the DOD BBP 3.0 guidance to “eliminate unproductive processes, and bureaucracy.” BBP 3.0 advocates reduction of reviews and unproductive processes, and admonishes PEOs and project managers to “exercise full responsibility and authority commensurate with their position.”
The lessons learned? Leverage existing programs to minimize oversight requirements, foster innovation within your program, give others the answers to your common problems and you all win together; keep it simple and don’t add unnecessary structure.
In each of the above cases, keeping the effort as small as possible was one of the keys to success. There are several reasons why keeping efforts small has positive effects, such as:
- Funding a large effort is a monumental task. It takes a lot of political capital, program objective memorandum planning and a lengthy requirements process to make a large effort happen. However, in most cases, the same result can be achieved over time by making each phase or spiral a smaller, discrete effort.
- Funding a small effort is much easier than funding a large effort. Within DOD, we have numerous rules for how much money can be realigned. The more money that must be realigned, the higher the approval must go and the longer it takes. Over time, funding a number of sequential efforts is much easier and allows for a quicker start than trying to fund one large effort.
- If things do not go as planned, or if expected results do not materialize, then a small effort is politically much easier to end than a large effort.
- Tackling big problems by taking them in multiple steps provides time to deal with challenges that arise. By stitching together multiple smaller, discrete efforts into a larger effort, victories add up over time. This provides time to work on the efforts that lag while keeping credibility intact.
- Starting small also attracts innovative small corporations to the effort, rather than large defense contractors with their high overhead costs and bureaucracy. BBP 3.0 advocates increasing small business participation to promote effective competition because it works. Corporate partners do not expect big payoffs from small efforts, so fees and overhead are typically smaller.
- Smaller efforts keep testing requirements right-sized and typically do not attract disproportionate oversight from the test community.
- Smaller efforts are less likely to experience serious bloat and become a target in the constant budget wars. Examples of programs that became too big, attracted too much attention and were then canceled are legion in the Army, such as Future Combat Systems, Comanche and Crusader, to name just a few. In a time when mammoth hunting is a fashionable sport, it is easier to not be a mammoth.
- With a limited fielding, once an effort is successful, other potential customers will clamor for the solution, which will drive up the basis of issue. The product will grow naturally, instead of imploding under excessive expectations.
Acquisition does not have to be large, slow and ponderous. However, making it small, fast and agile is a conscious decision that must be made up front in the framing of a program. Do not be afraid to stay small and agile and to take responsibility for making your system a success. Your customers—our Soldiers—will appreciate the results.
LT. COL. JOEL D. BABBITT is the product lead for Wideband Enterprise Satellite Systems, under the PEO for Enterprise Information Systems’ project manager for Defense Communications and Army Transmission Systems, Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He previously served as the product manager for WIN-T Inc 1 and for command, control, communications, computing and intelligence for a unit under the USSOCOM. He holds a master’s degree in computer science from the Naval Postgraduate School and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brigham Young University, and is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is Level III certified in program management, Level II certified in engineering and Level II certified in information technology. He is a Project Management Professional and a member of the Army Acquisition Corps.
This article was originally published in the July – September 2016 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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