Applying Systems Engineering and Systems Thinking to DoD Acquisition Reform

Col. Gregory McNew

By David Rosenbaum
November 29, 2010

Typically, the Department of Defense (DoD) relies on contractors for systems engineering, "but we needed to develop systems thinking expertise on our side," says Col. Gregory McNew, a fellow in MIT’s System Design and Management Program.

As Deputy Program Manager for the U.S. Air Force’s Joint-Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) program, it was McNew’s responsibility to "get the warfighters what they need, when they need it and to get it at the best price." This, he explains, is why the Air Force first sent him to MIT and why he then chose SDM, which is where he could get the grounding he needed in systems engineering and systems thinking to address this complex interdisciplinary challenge.

For example, McNew came across a Carnegie-Mellon University Software Engineering Institute study on patterns of failure in software acquisition and felt that the "patterns were generic enough to apply to the entire DoD acquisition system." He is now working with MIT’s Lean Advancement Initiative to conduct his thesis work, which focuses on applying those patterns of failure to DoD acquisition in order to create greater awareness when "a program starts heading down the wrong path. This is not a fix," McNew underlines, "it’s a tool for program managers."

One of the failure patterns McNew has experienced personally is "firefighting," in which "you take people away from one project to fix another."

For example, McNew was working on a radar system attached to the belly of airplanes so they could track enemy ground movements for targeting by both ground and air fighters. "The contractor took used 707s," McNew explains, "tore them down to the skin and stringers, determined their structural soundness, fixed what needed fixing, and then replaced the old systems and attached the new radar system." But when the plane got to the last test station, some structural problems still had not been fixed, meaning the systems that had been installed had to be ripped out to fix the problems, and then the systems had to be reinstalled. In order to get that last airplane out the door on time, firefighting became the order of the day. "We had most of the people in the plant working on that one plane while other planes up the line were falling farther and farther behind schedule."

Says McNew, putting on his systems thinking hat, "You think you’re going to get a one-to-one ratio of effort-to-result but you don’t. There’s no linear correlation. The project you’re firefighting isn’t helped as much as you think it will be, and the other project falls farther behind as it’s operating with fewer resources. In other words, you’ve doubled the dysfunction.

"You spend dollars on firefighting," McNew concludes, "and those are taxpayer dollars. At the end of the day, our responsibility is to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ dollars." At SDM, McNew believes his research and his newly honed systems engineering and systems thinking skills will help save those precious taxpayer dollars.

Photo by L. Barry Hetherington