From Concurrency. to Systems Management

We have found that concurrency is as unforgiving to inept management principles as a high performance aircraft is to pilot error. In fact, it requires MORE formality, not LESS.

— Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Bellis, 1962

By 1955, Bernard Schriever’s Western Development Division (WDD), in con­junction with the Special Aircraft Projects Office (SAPO) and Ramo-Wool – dridge Corporation (R-W), had implemented concurrency to rapidly move intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from development into testing. As tests unfolded in 1956 and 1957, Schriever’s officers and contractors found, much to their consternation, that Atlas failed at an alarmingly high rate. In the rush to push ICBMs into service, Schriever had created an organization that was remarkably informal and flexible but whose disregard of regular pro­cedures also cut out many essential functions of the air force’s bureaucracy. Many of these techniques had been put into place to ensure that there was communication among technical, financial, legal, and operational personnel. Focusing explicitly on the technical issues, Schriever’s officers and contractors let other concerns fall to the wayside. Problems with financing and schedul­ing were compounded by technical problems endemic to radical new tech­nologies.

To fend off criticism, Schriever’s organization had to improve the reliability of the complex weapons and better predict and control costs. This required more formal engineering and management practices. Engineers made mis­siles more dependable through exhaustive testing, component tracking, and

configuration control. Managers improved cost prediction and control using new tools like the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) and new procedures such as phased planning. The end result was systems management, a means to create new technologies rapidly but also to plan and control the excesses of concurrency. The new methods slowed development but increased reliability and cost predictability of air force technology programs.

While justifiable under the perceived national emergency in the 1950s, the huge costs of concurrency could not be sustained forever. To achieve cost control, Schriever and his cohorts adopted centralized, formal management techniques. Inherent in this shift was a slowdown in the pace of technological innovation, imposed by managerial checkpoints. Replacing a rapidly paced world of novel wonder weapons promoted by military officers and scientists was a more sedate world of dependable weapons and predictable adminis­tration offered by engineers and managers. Consistent with Secretary of De­fense Robert McNamara’s determination to centralize control and authority for weapons development, Schriever’s modified techniques became the basis for the new Air Force Systems Command and by 1965 the heart of the Depart­ment of Defense’s (DOD’s) development processes.1