Skunk Works — source of many engineering achievements

Aug. 1, 2000
Something different: a positive message on engineering achievements. Seems almost too good to be true, but it is true and the successes are well documented in a book published in 1994 and written by Ben Rich

Something different: a positive message on engineering achievements. Seems almost too good to be true, but it is true and the successes are well documented in a book published in 1994 and written by Ben Rich. This book describes the many achievements — and some of the problems — of that special and highly secret engineering center at Lockheed Aircraft known as the “Skunk Works.” This is the dedicated group that developed and designed, among many aircraft, the U-2, the SR 71 (known for flying faster than three-times the speed of sound) and the famous Stealth fighterbomber that was such a big “hit” in Desert Storm. In his well-written book, Skunk Works, Mr. Rich (who directed the organization from 1975 to 1991) describes engineering and management techniques the Skunk Works was using in the ’60s what are now considered modern. These include:

• Strong reliance on computers for design and design evaluation. Without their extensive computer capability, the Stealth would not exist. Because the engineers’ work was so secret, they couldn’t share their advances with the rest of us.
• Direct involvement by the design engineers in building the aircraft. All engineers were required to frequently walk the shop floor to see what was happening, which areas produced manufacturing problems, and be part of the total team, not just of the engineering team.
• Top executive selling. Both Ben Rich and his predecessor, Kelly Johnson, were the lead sales team. They had the vision and they knew the products so they sold them.
• Participative management. Mr. Rich realized that he didn’t have the best answers to all the questions, so he sought the opinions of others.
• Helping people develop pride in their work.
• Strong emphasis on quality and producing parts right the first time. Way ahead of the country, the Skunk Works placed strong emphasis on doing quality work in all phases of their endeavors.
• Most importantly, hiring good people, motivating them to work hard and efficiently, and paying them well. The compensation approach was critical to their many successes.

Because Lockheed sells to the government, one would expect some governmental interest in the operations. Fortunately for us, and because of their performance record, the Skunk Works executives did a pretty good job of running their own show. But the federal auditors just couldn’t stay out forever. So Mr. Rich describes the cases where the auditors flocked in to ensure the Skunk Works operated in a most economical manner. Naturally, the auditors knew nothing about engineering or building aircraft, so the Skunk Works headcount was nearly doubled to provide information the auditors could understand. Result: the auditors succeeded in raising the costs and delaying projects.

Not only will reading this book make you a better engineer or engineering manager, it will also give you a good psychological uplift. Plus, you’ll get another insight to governmental “help.” If you are an engineer or interested in technical challenges, reading it is just plain fun.

Flipping the page to another subject — the Denver Airport — you can benefit from the mistakes by others, and learn how some engineering approaches and practices generated one goof after another.

Thus, you can see both types of engineering. First read “Lessons from an Engineering Fiasco,” which starts on page 26 in this issue, then read the Skunk Works. You will then have gone from fiasco to fabulous.

— Phil Kingsley
[email protected]

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