ince the Skunk Works was founded in 1943, the world has witnessed extraordinary geopolitical changes. Does it therefore follow that the need for ‘Skunk Works’ type operations in today’s world is less now than it was nearly sixty years ago? The author would argue that the need is greater. Such an assertion is made not through some romantic attachment to the aviation pioneers of a bygone era – there is no room for sentiment in today’s business world – but rather, it is founded upon the Skunk Works’ ability to embrace an ethic of continual change, whether it be in the pursuit of new technologies or the application of operating structures, as set out by Kelly Johnson all those years ago (see below). In August 1992 the Lockheed Advanced Development Company released a summary document entitled ‘The Skunk Works’ Approach to Aircraft Development, Production and Support,’ some of which follows:-
‘Over the past few years, we have witnessed sweeping geopolitical changes and revolutionary events that are triggering major changes in our nation’s defence requirements. Clearly, in future years, the Defence Department and serv ices will be operating with much smaller force structures and budgets. The resulting challenge will be to maintain a viable, responsive defence infrastructure in the face of budget reductions. To meet this challenge, both the Defence Secretary and Congress are proposing new approaches to DoD acquisition that emphasize research and advanced technologies: technology demonstrators and prototypes; selective upgrading of existing systems; and selective/low rate procurement of new systems.
But not only will we have to develop new technology and systems, we must implement acquisition strategics and management approaches that will enable development and fielding of new systems in a more timely and less costly manner. For the past half century, the lasckheed Skunk Works and its government customers have employed specialized management methods that have done just that…The Lockheed Skunk Works has demonstrated a unique ability to rapidly prototype, develop and produce a w ide range of highly advanced aircraft for the US armed forces and intelligence agencies. The P-80, U-2, F-104, SR-71 and, more recently, the F-117 are widely recognised as among the most significant achievements of the aerospace industry.
These and other Skunk Works aircraft have incorporated breakthrough technology to achieve new thresholds in aircraft and systems performance. The common thread among these aircraft is that they were created by men and women working together employing a unique approach to aircraft development – the Skunk Works approach. This management approach, developed by the founder of the Skunk Works C. L. "Kelly" Johnson, fosters creativity and innovation, and has enabled prototyping and development of highly complex aircraft in relatively short time spans and at relatively low cost. It has also demonstrated efficient, economical production of complex systems in small quantities and at low production rates.’
This is of course the skunk standing up for itself, but it 112 is hard to argue with the logic, or the history.
Based on lessons learned from early Skunk W’orks programs, Kelly Johnson developed and wrote the Basic Operating Rules of the Skunk Works. These fourteen "rules" addressed program management, organization, contractor/customer relationships, documentation, customer reporting, specifications, engineering drawings, funding, cost control, subcontractor inspection, testing, security, and management compensation. Consider rules One to Four:
(1) The Skunk Works’ manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher [In other words, it is essential that the program manager have authority to make decisions quickly regarding technical, finance, schedule, or operation matters.]
(2) Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the’customer and contractor [The customer program manager must have similar authority to that of the contractor. I
(3) The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use of a small number of good people (10 to 25 per cent compared to the so-called normal systems). [Bureaucracy makes unnecessary work and must be controlled brutally.]
(4) A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided. [This permits early work by manufacturing organizations, and schedule recovery if technical risks involve failures.]
All of these rides still make sense. That the Skunk Works has been staffed by the most innovative and talented people in the aerospace industry is beyond dispute – Kelly once remarked to Bob Gilliland, (then Chief Test Pilot of the SR-71) "I’m a prima donna and I’m surrounded by prima donnas."
Latterly, Lockheed has performed well, buy ing up in the process Martin Marietta and General Dynamics. With a management hierarchy in all three companies, there is a clear need to consolidate. The new president of this empire is Dain Hancock, from Lhc General Dynamics Corporation’s F-16 Fighting Falcon program. When Jack Gordon, president of the Skunk Works suddenly announced that he was retiring, he was replaced by another ex-GD man, Robert T Klrod, who holds a master’s degree in business administration. Paul Martin, former Skunk Works executive vice president, has also gone. Gary Grigg, a company spokesman confirmed that: "There may not be as many skunk logos on the buildings when we repaint them".
When a new Chief Executive is appointed to any large corporation, they invariably come with their own agenda and ‘baggage’, gathered from past experiences. In the author’s opinion, it would be a disaster of terrible proportions, maybe for the company, maybe for the US, maybe for the world, if president Hancock’s agenda included dismantling the Skunk Works by stealth.