Blog, Product Management

F-35 fails part 3. How many engineers does it take to change a light bulb?

F-35 on Aircraft Carrier

The F-35 Fighter fails saga

  1. The F-35 Fighter is a huge Product Management mistake
  2. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize!
  3. How many engineers does it take to change a light bulb?
  4. Chinese do it better

 

How many people should work on the design of a warplane? In 1983 the Lockheed developed the (supercool) F-117 Nighthawk, the first fighter with stealth capabilities. It was a revolutionary plane and 50 engineers broke their neck during 30 months in order to deliver it. Converting this data in standard project time, it sums 50 x 2.5 = 125 person-years.

For the F-35 Fighter project, Lockheed employed around 2000 engineers only in their Virginian HQ. After more than 10 years, the jet is still work in progress. By far, it sums up at least 20,000 person-years, and the jet is far from being ready for battle. With those resources, they could have developed more than 80 different F-117-like projects.

Just to put things in perspective, when Steve Jobs was secretly working on the first iPhone model, just one single developer was in charge of any mayor app. A bunch of young guys developed autonomously Safari, Calendar, Mail and the other default apps for a device that sold 6.1 million units in its first generation.

Did having more than 2000 engineers help to deliver the F-35 Fighter? Not at all. It only added complexity and lack of responsibility, the worst enemies of every colossal project.

As the project grew bigger, the decision chain went totally out of control. Thousands of expert engineers become almost useless if their efforts are directed toward the wrong direction. Moreover, without a capable Project Leader showing the way, anyone started working on their little piece of design. It suddenly became clear that this approach was the responsible for all the integration issues and undetected bugs.

F-35 smell of jet fuel

The current project leader, General Christopher Bogdan, explained this situation in a candid interview for Vanity Fair:

“We gave Lockheed very broad things that said the airplane has to be maintainable, the airplane has to be able to operate from airfields, the airplane has to be stealthy, the airplane has to drop weapons—without the level of detail that was necessary. We have found over the 12 years of the program that the contractor has a very different vision of how he interprets the contractual document. We go, ‘Oh no, it needs to do X, Y, and Z, not just Z.’ And they go, ‘Well, you didn’t tell me that. You just told me in general it needed to do something like Z.’”

Is anyone still thinking that listening to the client’s requirements before starting working on the project is actually a good idea? Only me?

Analyze the requests, look for synergies, calculate the project risks… Common practices that seem pretty unknown in the military scene.

Are we sure that there was no better way to spend almost $1.5 trillion? What would have happened if someone with better project management skills would have lead this huge operation? Would things have gone differently?

There is a simple way to find this out. Just ask one of the most probable US’s future enemies, which has coincidentally stolen some F-35 blueprints and started producing their own version.

Keep reading the F-35 Fighter fails saga:

  1. The F-35 Fighter is a huge Product Management mistake
  2. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize!
  3. How many engineers does it take to change a light bulb?
  4. Chinese do it better

Photo by Joint Strike Fighter Program.

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