Skunk Works is the official name of the Advanced Development Programs (ADP) at Lockheed Martin, a US manufacturer of military aircraft.

Skunk Works Achievements

One of the most famous works of the Skunks Works is the U2 reconnaissance plane . The most remarkable thing is that this aircraft was designed and manufactured in only six months, whereas airplane design usually lasts several years.

The other iconic achievement of the Skunk Works is the famous SR71. Also include the F117 (first operational stealth aircraft), the F22 and the F35. In short, SkunSkunk Worksk Works built many technologically advanced US military aircrafts.

How do they work ?

There are two interesting facts about Skunk Works : it’s a small team of about twenty people who often work after a verbal agreement with the customer. Does it remind you something ?

The Skunk Works historical director, Kelly Johnson, had a very particular idea of ​​how to manage his teams. He became famous then for the management approach known as « Kelly’s 14 Rules ».

The 14 rules of Kelly

(From Kelly’s 14 Rules & Practices)

  1. The Skunk Works® manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.
  2. Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and industry.
  3. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10 % to 25 % compared to the so-called normal systems).
  4. A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided.
  5. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.
  6. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been Skunk Worksspent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program.
  7. The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are very often better than military ones.
  8. The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to subcontractors and vendors. Don’t duplicate so much inspection.
  9. The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn’t, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles.
  10. The specifications applying to the hardware must be agreed to well in advance of contracting. The Skunk Works practice of having a specification section stating clearly which important military specification items will not knowingly be complied with and reasons therefore is highly recommended.
  11. Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn’t have to keep running to the bank to support government projects.
  12. There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor, the very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum.
  13. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.
  14. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised.

Agile before the hour ?

Kelly’s rules were developed during the XP-80 project in 1943, the first of the Skunk Works. However, it was not until the early 1950s that they were formalized and imposed as operational rules for Skunk Works.

If we let aside the rules specific to the secret context of the activity, we can summarize the approach as follows :

  • small, autonomous teams should be favored (agile manifesto : « The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams. »),
  • relationships with the customer are based on trust (Agile Manifesto : « Customer collaboration over contract negotiation »),
  • the customer must be able to test his product and the documentation is limited to what is strictly necessary (agile manifesto : « Working software over comprehensive documentation »),
  • the team’s plan is revised every month (A sprint splanning each sprint … ?),
  • dependancies between teams must be reduced to the minimum (does it remind you the loosely coupled squads of Spotify ?)

Sources :

To stay in the mood, a documentary about the U2 airplane :

About this series of articles on the history of agility

Through this series of articles, I explore a different approach to the history of agility . For many of us, agility is above all the four values ​​and twelve principles of Manifesto . However, the Manifesto is a commonly accepted formulation of pre-existing theories and practices. The order of the articles is not chronological, it depends only on the inspiration of the moment and the available time … Do not hesitate to give your opinion !

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