Government projects

expecting the unexpected




Whether you are a project manager for a small information technology firm or one who guides multibillion-dollar projects for a large corporation or government, you must be flexible and roll with the tide—even if it's a tidal wave.

“No one can predict when a hurricane will strike,” notes Bill Shepherd, a consultant for management consulting firm Booz Allen & Hamilton, McLean, Va., USA, a retired U.S. Navy captain and the former deputy program manager for the versatile F/A-18 E/F aircraft. Eight countries ranging from Malaysia to Finland own variations of this military craft. “The world will change, and requirements will change. The biggest challenge facing project managers is shifting budgets and priorities. That's just a fact of life.”

Obviously, overseeing a successful project is easier said than done. The question is, how does a manager effectively run a project that faces unforeseen events, political hurdles and fluctuating budgets while still adhering to tight schedules, quality guidelines and competing interests?

Raytheon's high-profile Tomahawk program certainly tested limits for speed. When George Mavko, the Tomahawk program manager for Raytheon Missile Systems, Tucson, Ariz., USA, received word that the Navy would be almost doubling its order for enhanced Tomahawk missiles, he knew that the rush order would mean a quicker project timeline and speedy contract communications.

The US$414 million order, part of an overall $4 billion emergency supplementary bill to fund NATO‘s air campaign to oust Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, was rushed through the Pentagon, Congress and The White House at an unprecedented pace. Instead of upgrading 324 older missiles as originally planned, the Navy needed 624 Tomahawks equipped with Global Positioning Systems—and fast. “We didn't have to go through the red tape because [the order] had that emergency aura to it,” recalls Mavko, who has been involved with the Tomahawk program since 1993 and has been manager for the past five years. Raytheon is halfway through delivering the upgraded missiles. “We hammered out a deal and agreed on a price. It wasn't a typical negotiation where you fight tooth and nail.”

Open dialogue between you and your government or corporate counterparts, your subcontractors and your employees is the short answer to dealing with the unexpected. Through communication comes understanding, an awareness and appreciation of each other's needs, limits and strengths.

“That cross-talk is critically important,” says U.S. Navy Capt. Jeffrey Wieringa. As the program manager for the evolved F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, Wieringa must juggle concerns on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon with those of several private companies, including Boeing (manufacturer of the airframe), Northrop Grumman, General Electric and Raytheon. “You need an open, honest environment. That keeps things rolling without anything being deferred or delayed.”

As a rule, Wieringa conducts two two-hour meetings each Monday—one to discuss one-third of the project, another to discuss the other two-thirds. He also holds “Net meetings” every other week, bringing together everyone from Seattle to St. Louis to Washington on a conference call in which slides or other charts and visuals are displayed via the Internet.

The regular communication, he observes, allows him “to mentor folks on something they otherwise might not know.” It also ensures that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.



Throughout the world, particularly in Africa, Asia, South America and Eastern Europe, cultural conditions dictate some “unusual” business practices. So learned Rommy Musch, who as the customer program director for Holland-based Equant Network Services spent the past couple of years undergoing crash courses on how to conduct business in various cultures and with international governments. Musch, chairperson of the Project Management Institute's Program Management Office Specific Interest Group (SIG), says that inducements often are part of doing business globally.

As a result of the oft-unexpected delays and costs, Musch adds 20 percent to the schedules and budgets. “We would, by default, automatically add 21 days” to the timeline, Musch says. Local employees do the brunt of the research and negotiating; the project managers’ job is to ensure that they stay within company guidelines and the host country's laws.

Seemingly unnecessary paperwork also is a challenge; for example, some governments refuse to send or receive documents via fax while others demand reams of paperwork for simple work orders, she says. Government regulations, including restrictions by home countries that want to protect software or encryption technology, also cause holdups.

Highs and Lows

When the Super Hornet was conceived in the mid-1990s, original plans included the Navy and Marine Corps purchasing up to 1,000 aircraft, which have much greater range, payload and targeting capabilities than the C and D Hornet models.

However, with tightening budgets and the emergence of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a futuristic aircraft intended for the two services plus the U.S. Air Force, the Marine Corps dropped out and the Navy is now planning for only 548 Super Hornets over the next 20 years.

Currently the U.S. Navy has an $8.9 billion contract for 222 Super Hornets, and even though the first operational squadron received its 10th aircraft in August, Wieringa concedes “this year has been frustrating” because unexpected budget cuts have forced him to leave some subcontractors dangling, hoping they will remain available in the future.

Budgets that are a fraction of official expectations chopped 80 percent of the infrastructure after the Super Hornet's evaluation, manufacturing and development testing—a crucial part of working out the kinks in any new product, much less a complicated jet fighter. The Super Hornet, like many of its components such as Boeing's Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) system, is considered a “high-risk” program. This means that Wieringa must overcome opposition both inside and outside the Navy.

The first aircraft are rolling off the production line. Key systems intended for them, namely ATFLIR, the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, the AIM-9X sidewinder air-to-air missile and the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, are scheduled for installation in 2003 (AESA won't be installed until 2007). Wieringa compares the pressure to have these systems ready now to “expecting a baby after six months instead of nine months.”

“What's slightly frustrating to me is I often work with people who aren't in acquisition, and they equate ‘high risk’ with ‘try harder,’” he says, adding that he has to spend much time explaining the complexities of the aircraft and its various systems to outsiders. Part of his job as program manager is to sell the Super Hornet to politicians and their aides and to inform them of its capabilities.

Still, as recent cutbacks have shown, a good program manager expects the unexpected, or at least responds well to the eventuality. Having been a part of the F/A-18 team since 1992, Wieringa is proud to declare that the Super Hornet, which in 1996 won the Defense Department's Acquisition Excellence Award, has always met both its schedule and budgets. That's why delays in the acquisition of ATFLIR and other components have been so frustrating, because they spoil an otherwise spotless project record, he says.

Jumping Technical Hurdles

Overcoming technical problems has been a major task for Dan Seely, TRW's program manager for the Electronic Data Gathering Analysis and Retrieval (EDGAR®) system. This complex computerized filing format is being adopted by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

TRW, a Cleveland, Ohio, USA-based international company engaged in the performance of systems engineering, research and technical services, is halfway through a seven-year, US$100 million contract with the SEC to devise EDGAR, which enables any public company to file its quarterly reports with the SEC electronically.

“Saying what you are going to do [during contract negotiations] is the estimating part, the part everybody usually gets wrong,” Seely says. “The harder side is software development: estimating the effort and staying within budget while meeting deadlines.”

To combat the tendency of software engineers to either overestimate or underestimate the time needed to develop high-tech systems, Seely has devised a set of policies for gauging the progress and reliability of EDGAR. The top priority is to collect historical data, a process that usually takes a couple of years for each project.

“You have to make a lot of mistakes to get this data, and you have to believe it, which isn't always easy,” says Seely, who has been in project management for 10 years, mostly working on submarine projects.

Earlier versions of EDGAR worked well but were self-contained and hard to modify by those outside the network and difficult to introduce new technology, Seely says. EDGAR 8.0 is designed to interact with systems available to companies that file with the SEC—JAVA, Web browsers and so forth—and is built to be flexible and adaptable, with parts that are easy to interchange or upgrade.

The F/A-18 has had to clear technical hurdles, too. When flight trials in 1999 revealed that in certain circumstances the Super Hornet experienced “wing drop,” an involuntarily shudder or dip in the wings, Wieringa and officials at his program office conferred with counterparts from Boeing, then consulted engineers at NASA, who had been studying the phenomenon of wing drop.

The solution was, in fact, rather simple: Hundreds of holes no larger than the tip of a pen were drilled into the wings to smooth the airflow and steady the wings.

The inherent challenge in developing high-tech systems is that technology is rapidly evolving. “Eventually you have to have a design freeze and go with a 4.0 system, even though you know 4.1 will be available in a few months,” adds Shepherd, the former deputy program manager for the Super Hornet. “At some point you have to stop cutting the bait and start fishing.”

Planning, Teamwork, Understanding

To run a healthy project, Seely says, a good plan is essential. “You must get to the point in which you can close your eyes and visualize” your product, he asserts. “It keeps the daily distractions to a minimum, and makes it so the program is not just a bunch of independent pieces and parts.”

About 40 percent of EDGAR's work is subcontracted out although TRW moves those workers to its offices and essentially makes them “part of the team.” Seely institutes a series of monetary bonuses and incentives among TRW employees and subcontractors to motivate them and ensure quality and timeliness.

“Giving people responsibilities is also important, not just having management come down and make unreasonable demands,” he says. Managing a successful program boils down to the ability to “put yourself in the shoes of a customer or contractor,” Seely says.

Mavko, the Tomahawk program manager, agrees wholeheartedly. He says you must develop a sense of trust and credibility to really understand the product and your counterpart's needs. Because approximately 85 percent of the Tomahawk's components are subcontracted, Mavko spends much time with both subcontractors and customers to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

The Navy's emergency order for the 624 refitted Tomahawks started slowly in 1999 because some small parts needed to be manufactured, but now Raytheon is nine months ahead of its contract schedule. Mavko says that the last upgrades should be completed in March 2002, just in time for the company to re-tool its production line for the more sophisticated, more powerful Tactical Tomahawks—the U.S. Navy plans to buy up to 1,300. PM

Greg Seigle is a Washington, D.C., USA-based freelance writer specializing in government topics. He has written for Jane's Defence Weekly and the Washington Post.

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