I’m no Einstein
“Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.” – Albert Einstein
Apparently little has changed since Einstein expressed that sentiment. The Air Force Chief of Staff recently sent a memo recalling the challenges he faced as a member of the acquisition workforce.
“One of my biggest takeaways from my time there is how difficult it was to navigate the bureaucracy to deliver timely combat capability to the warfighter,” wrote Gen. Mark Welsh, who served as the capability director for Global Power Programs, SAF/AQP in 2003. “But despite frequent delays and sometimes unanticipated obstacles, the acquisition professionals I met pushed on and found a way to prevail each and every day. I can’t tell you how impressed I was with our Airmen, who through amazing innovation and sheer determination, found ways to succeed.”
Does that refreshingly honest assessment mesh with VADM David Dunaway’s focus area that calls for us to Increase Speed to the Fleet? We have a NAWCAD Strategic Objective to “Reduce Acquisition Cycle Time and Total Ownership Cost.” Do we expect to find a magic key that will turn our rough-running minivan of bureaucratic malaise into a high performing NASCAR machine?
Finding that magic key is unlikely since one of our biggest problems is we are the bureaucracy! As I mentioned a few weeks ago in this spot, in March 1941 an independent assessment of our predecessors in the Bureau of Aeronautics concluded the planning was competent, but the control and execution left much to be desired, including relatively little attention paid to efficient and rapid procurement and maintenance of aircraft. More than 71 years ago our predecessors were told the same thing we know now – acquisition takes too long.
When asked about his challenges in forcing agility into DoD, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a magazine interviewer, “I found that in every instance I had to go outside the bureaucracy and create something new -- create a task force that would report directly to me.”
Suppose that Secretary Gates’ solution was correct. Why did it work? You may have a different opinion, but my answer is because we all like to exert our own control and none of us believe what we’re trying to do is unnecessary. Right? If what we were asking for was wasting time, it would be an indictment of our professional reputation.
It comes down to clocks and calendars. Whatever we are asking for takes a certain number of hours or days. Multiply by all of us across the bureaucracy and you get a 20-year acquisition program. If we want to have a 7-year program instead, we need to cut out 13 years of “stuff.” That’s going to be hard, since a lot of ‘stuff’ is really important. Maybe we can start with something all of us say we don’t like: meetings.
So here is a challenge for everyone over the next month – cancel one, just one, meeting or presentation that you have control over. That’s all. Cancel just one meeting between now and Thanksgiving. If half of us are able to cancel a one-hour meeting each, we may be 14,000 hours faster. I’ve been doing this for a while now, in a way not unlike former Secretary Gates. But instead of creating a group to report directly to me, I took myself out of the bureaucratic process by dropping the requirement for a pre-brief to me before most information goes up to my boss. Sure, I’ve been uncomfortably surprised several times, but each hour I didn’t consume with a pre-brief got information through the process one hour sooner. It takes practice to get comfortable, so maybe cancel another one in December. See how you feel. Then maybe two in January. Get the idea?
I’m no Einstein, but I can look at a calendar. In my opinion if we each aren’t willing to be consumers of less time, we’re not going to reduce our own role in the bureaucratic process and we’ll be stuck in that old minivan.