As an employee of a fellow defense contractor, my ears perked up a little more than usual when Professor Cook mentioned one our competitors in class, Lockheed Martin. And the story that followed was even more compelling. It took Lockheed Martin 143 days to create a world class fighter jet in 1943…and no that is not a typo. The seemingly “impossible” was completed and this was before we made our most dramatic advances in technology and even before the study of project management caught on in academic fields. So how was the “impossible” made “possible”? It was accomplished through the implementation of a Skunk Works team which still operates today and continues to produce revolutionary technology in the defense industry.
So what is a Skunk Works team? A Skunk Works team is a small team of highly motivated and capable individuals that is taken out of its traditional working environment and given almost endless freedom from their corporation’s standard, procedures, rules, and regulations to create cutting-edge products or services on limited funding and under strict timelines. Kelly Johnson, the chief engineer at LM and mastermind of the Skunk Works project management technique, created a set of 14 rules that should be used in implementing Skunk Works. The 14 rules can be read in link 2. Although the rules outlined by Johnson were for a government/defense environment, the basic concepts can be boiled down to three concepts: “First, it’s more important to listen than to talk; second, even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision; and third, don’t halfheartedly wound problems–kill them dead (2).” These rules emphasize the importance of leadership and decision making for effective Project Managers. Without these qualities, the team will not work optimally which will impact cost, schedule, and performance which cannot be sacrificed in critical R&D projects.
The ideas have recently drifted outside of R&D projects. One example is Malaysia Airlines, which created “laboratories”to bring together teams to tackle specific issues such as boosting sales, increasing customer satisfaction, and reducing overhead costs among other. The group stays committed on its task for an extended time ( ~month), until it has fulfilled its agreed-upon “exit criteria”. The idea has gained so much traction at the company that the airline’s CEO believe working on such a team, “is not a job; it’s a calling”. Another uproot of Skunk Works is the creation of creative workspaces that boast bright colors, open layouts, and more flexible workplace regulations that foster the sharing of ideas and risk-taking. Many of the most successful companies in the world (Google, Apple, Amazon,etc) have mastered the creative workspace and continue attract the brightest talents and push the limits in their respective industries.