Can Portfolio Management and Systems Thinking Improve Air Force Acquisitions Efficiency?

Colonel Dave Morgan

By David Rosenbaum
November 23, 2010

When Col. Dave Morgan was told by the Air Force that he was being sent to MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM) to study systems engineering to see if Department of Defense (DoD) acquisition processes could be improved, Morgan wondered whether he really wanted to go back to school. He already had a B.A. in math from Temple University, an MBA from Ohio State, and a M.A., Military Operational Art and Science, from the Air Command and Staff College, and he knew the people he’d meet at SDM would be younger than he and, he jokes, "smarter." Of course, as a career officer, if the Air Force tells you to go somewhere, you go. But now, on the eve of graduating from SDM with his M.S. in Engineering and Management, Morgan wishes he could stay a little longer.

Colonel Dave Morgan, one of two candidates selected for the United States Air Force’s inaugural Senior Development Education at MIT, is set to graduate in February 2011. Col. Morgan’s thesis addresses the application of Portfolio Management theory in Air Force weapons acquisition and how it can curb cost overruns and schedule delays.
Photo by Sgt. Joyce Woods

"I’ve learned a lot," he says. "I’ve acquired a mental model that helps me think about systems holistically. That’s how you solve problems: driving ambiguity out of the system, adding flexibility, understanding risk, taking into account feedback loops. Not to mention that the professors and the cohort are great."

Col. Morgan’s thesis, which he’s worked on with MIT’s Lean Advancement Initiative, focuses on the potential of Portfolio Management theory to improve DoD weapons acquisition. Right now, says Morgan, the acquisition system takes a lot of criticism on excessive cost inflation and late delivery dates. It is estimated 30% to 60% of all DoD projects are over budget and between 12-24 months behind schedule.

"Most people in acquisitions are frustrated," Morgan admits. "There are so many stakeholders—the GAO, Congress, the financial managers. I mean, when Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense, he told Congress the DoD didn’t want a specific weapons system, and he wasn’t able to convince them with sound logic and reason. So if the Secretary of Defense can’t effect change . . ."

"My thesis models the current process and asks whether giving Project Managers a bit more authority within their portfolio of projects might improve the system’s efficiency and save money," says Morgan. Right now, he says that managers don’t have the power or enough power to move resources—people and money—between projects even if they know that one may be compromised and another, given increased support, would have a better shot at success.

"My model suggests that giving greater latitude in apportioning resources to the project managers could improve the system incrementally," says Morgan. "And given the money these weapons cost, even a small percentage savings equals a great deal of taxpayer money."

Morgan does not expect his thesis suddenly to reform the DoD’s acquisition processes, nor to inculcate systems thinking theory and systems engineering practice in the Congress or in any of the other major DoD stakeholders. "After all," he says, looking through a systems thinking lens and incorporating stakeholder psychology, "increasing one person’s authority means decreasing another’s, and people don’t give up authority easily, especially when it concerns money. At best, I hope my thesis is a conversation starter."