High and mighty




Auniverse of unique problems impact project management in the aerospace and defense industry, and the solutions are just as expansive. While PMI's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) offers a process blueprint, the industry doesn't always follow it to the letter, says Steve Reinhardt, a certified trainer for enterprise management tools with project management consultants DRMcNatty & Associates, Mission Viejo, Calif., USA.

“If the aerospace industry simply followed the methodology laid out in the PMBOK® Guide, it would alleviate a lot of problems,” he says. “It is a whole integrated process, a true integration of cost and schedule that means you have created a true tracking of that and put a performance rating with it. The reaction within aerospace has been to set the costs but let the schedule wander around without being tied to it. The value of integrating the two seems to escape them. But, in truth, government [attention] plays a major role in not keeping costs and schedule aligned.”

A Wing and a Prayer

Sometimes the best-laid plans require fine-tuning and a seat-of-your-pants flexibility. This was the case with the world's first flight test of a scramjet—an air-breathing supersonic combustion ramjet engine. Testing was conducted at the Woomera test range in the Australian Outback on 30 July, the culmination of a four-year effort and one previous failed flight attempt. Called HyShot, it was run from Australia under the direction of a consortium headed by the University of Queensland (UQ), Brisbane, Australia, using rocket motors provided by Astrotech Space Operations, Titusville, Fla., USA.

For us, project management is find the money, figure out the best way to spend it, make your choice with the information at hand, then do it.


Given its tight schedule, limited budget and complexity of international agencies and companies, HyShot would seem a perfect candidate for tight project management-based controls. However, the uncertainty related to the new technology and constantly shifting work requirements made execution informal and “seat of your pants,” according to the Project Manager Allan Paull, a research fellow at UQ's Centre for Hypersonics.

“For us, project management is find the money, figure out the best way to spend it, make your choice with the information at hand, then do it,” Paull says. “What's the aim and goal and what have I got to get there. I know this is not the normal management style. It's very laid back and having confidence in the people you've got—and we didn't have many.”

In fact, the UQ team consisted of only three or four people for most of the project. Even so, they were responsible for managing the effort, getting the payloads built and tested, designing the operations codes, supplying all safety templates, interfacing with all the other components—including handling all the paperwork from multiple governments—even seeking additional funding as needed.

Because the operating environment was constantly evolving, formalized schedules and processes were difficult to control. “The rules often were made up as we went—and then changed,” he says. “The legislation to fly a rocket out of Australia had just been passed, but the regulations we were required to follow hadn't even been drawn up. So we made it all up as we went because no one had ever done this sort of thing before. The only way we could get through it was to deal with each element as it came up, working toward an overall goal.”

In the end, Paull says they achieved their goal: a successful scramjet flight that ultimately could dramatically reduce the cost of launching small space payloads and perhaps even lead to commercial aviation breakthroughs that could take an aerospace plane from Sydney to London in two hours.

With the July success behind him, Paull is now negotiating with a number of international collaborators for that future effort, seeking $50 million in funding for a program of six flights in the next five years that could lead to a free-flying scramjet engine.


Top: Members of the successful HyShot team are (from left) Judy Odam, Ross Paull, Bert Paull, Allan Paull, Susan Anderson, Myles Frost, Suhee Won and Aggie Branczyk. Above: The staged HyShot rocket on the launchpad at Woomera Instrumented Range, ready for the 30 July 2002 scramjet experiment.



NASA's Imager for Magnetopause to Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) successfully launched on 25 March 2000. The key scientific objective of the instrument (top) is to make the invisible magnetosphere visible, revealing the big picture of space weather. The IMAGE master schedule (right) shows the major milestones along the project schedule.



Different Feathers

Bill Gibson, assistant vice president for the space science and engineering division at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio, Texas, USA, says that a relaxed attitude toward integrated processes applies more to military than civil programs, such as those SwRI undertakes for NASA. “Every corner of aerospace—international, civil, military, spacecraft, missiles, aircraft—has its own specific priorities and concerns,” he says. “In [unmanned civil space], for example, cost is everything and we may reduce performance to optimize cost first, performance second and schedule third. On the military side, performance is first, then schedule, then cost—usually.”


[Project work] takes unending attention to detail, responding to problems the first time they appear, coupled with a passionate and relentless determination to hold the schedule.


And, he notes, the biggest problem may lie with neither the contractor nor the immediate government agency customer, but with old-fashioned politics, both domestic and international. “The wild card for something like a space station is the political component, no matter how good the project manager is, he says. “Every time there's been a change of administration, there has been a change of requirements for the space station.” Even without that, “programs like a space station are so big, I don't know that any one mortal can get his arms around it all. I don't know how you can have a simple set of metrics to look at and measure the mission.”

Reach the Stars

While the size and complexity of major aerospace programs have kept traditional project management techniques largely underutilized, they have been applied successfully to smaller efforts, especially unmanned civil space missions. SwRI applied rigorous project management to NASA's Imager for Magnetopause to Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE), the first of the agency's newest generation of mid-sized Explorer missions.

The NASA program manager warned the mission would be canceled if they failed to meet cost or schedule—making active project management a necessity, says Gibson. As a result, the organization created a comprehensive cost and schedule tracking system.

SwRI project teams developed equipment at eight different locations, including three in Europe. To generate a viable mission-level schedule he could use to make decisions, Gibson created a distributed scheduling system and a mission work breakdown structure incorporating all the equipment developers.

Each of the eight team members scheduled their activities with the work breakdown, and at the end of the month, they e-mailed the files to be integrated into one master mission-level schedule. SwRI wrote additional software to produce tabular performance reports, enabling Gibson to measure individual team efficiency—a simple ratio of work accomplished to top efficiency estimates.

Throughout the four-year project, which culminated in a satellite launch on 25 March 2000, Gibson and his team responded to any new problem the first time it appeared rather than employing a “wait-and-see” approach. “Professional consultants have many more sophisticated techniques than we have ever used, but I am convinced it doesn't take sophisticated techniques,” says Gibson. “It takes unending attention to detail, responding to problems the first time they appear, coupled with a passionate and relentless determination to hold the schedule.”

IMAGE was completed four months early, about $1 million under budget and was 40 kilograms lighter than the original design. The end result? In March 2002, the mission was extended three years as a testament to successful project management from day one.

Telescope or Microscope?

Paul Sonnenblick, a former aerospace industry manager now an independent consultant in San Francisco, Calif., USA, says aerospace project managers must pay special attention to detail—very small details.

Sonnenblick, who invented the term “inch pebble” [see sidebar, “Tiny Steps”] at Ford Aerospace in the 1970s, promotes the procedure to track costs and progress. “Unless you track both and make progress commensurate with the costs incurred, you're in hot water,” he says. “Inch pebbles make the automating of status-taking really easy and flows very nicely into using earned value, which the military calls CSSR (cost/schedule status review).”

To employ the strategy, lay out your total program into work units, each assigned a pot of money. The sum of the pots assigned to each work unit equals your budget, less any reserve you keep as a prudent program manager. Earned value lets you determine where you are, not only from a cost or schedule point of view, but from both combined.

“Milestones are made up of lots of inch pebbles, so if you plan your program out and force those working on it to come up with inch pebbles—which they generally don't like to do—you will be able to get excellent status because everything will be binary, with no 90 percent syndrome; you're either there or you're not there, with no guess work,” Sonnenblick says.


Inch pebbles make the automating of status-taking really easy and flows very nicely into using earned value, which the military calls CSSR (cost/schedule status review).


The “90 percent syndrome,” in which an activity always is reported as “almost finished,” is a sure sign that cost overruns will materialize along your time line. “If you're building a JSF [joint strike fighter], you're going to have a whole lot of subsystem done by a lot of different companies,” Sonnenblick says. “Each of those companies will have subsystem and component managers whose job it is, as they lay out the work effort, to determine where the inch pebbles are.”

Johanna Rothman, president of Rothman Consulting Group, Arlington, Mass., USA, is a proponent of inch pebbles as a way to best achieve milestones in any form of project management. However, she says there are severe additional complications if the project has international partners, as is commonly the case in aerospace.

“Multicultural projects require more formal requirements and architecture reviews than other projects; the formalism helps reduce the risk of communications problems,” she says.“Some people may not comment [and others] may not realize you want them to comment unless you have a formal review mechanism. E-mail-only reviews and inspections are not adequate for effective review of requirements and architecture documents; the cultural differences and therefore the focus of the discussion cannot be bridged without some audio contact, preferably face-to-face.”

From the Top

In defense, there's a strong focus on technical competence and a much weaker focus on managerial competence, especially when it comes to project integration, says Bud Baker, professor of management at Ohio's Wright State University, who spent more than two decades as a U.S. Air Force officer. He also was a project manager with the B-2 Stealth bomber program.

“If you look at it from the [U.S. Department of Defense] viewpoint, the problem is projects are becoming so complex and so lengthy, by the time a system is fielded, the threat for which it was designed has changed,” Baker says. “So a real challenge facing the industry is how to shorten that development cycle in such a way that you field a system that is both effective and timely. It is fundamentally different than the automobile industry—nobody is planning a system to shoot down the next Cadillac.”


Attitudes are changing within bureaucracies, although direction can swing unexpectedly with a change of administration. “The biggest variation on project management in aerospace is the complexity,” he says. “Every program is a little different. On a cost-plus government program, getting the right technical solution generally takes a front seat ahead of cost concerns. The JSF effort has tried hard to use cost as an independent variable and not just allow requirements creep to go on forever, but the ability to meet technology requirements with major weapons systems generally has taken precedence over cost.

Project management must jump other hurdles in aerospace, especially ingrained ways of doing things. Contractors currently seem to turn to project management primarily in response to the pressure of short development cycles, but the norm in military programs is a long cycle, Baker says.

The complexities of aerospace, especially on the international level but also when dealing with large numbers of partners and sub-contractors, can make one teaming solution—co-location—extremely difficult, if not impossible. “If all these people work at the same table, you eliminate the start-stop-start-stop effect, where the engineers had to keep sending plans back to the designers because they couldn't do everything the design required,” Baker says.

First, recognize there is a problem, then define and resolve it. The DoD is mulling total system performance responsibility. But while contractors want system requirements, they prefer the government to leave development of the solution to them. PM

J.R. Wilson is a Houston, Texas, USA-based aerospace writer who has worked as a public relations manager for McDonnell Douglas Astronautics and Cubic Defense Systems and as a writer for a host of international trade publications, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Aerospace America, International Defense Review and Asian Aerospace.

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PM NETWORK | OCTOBER 2002 | www.pmi.org



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