I wrote a few days ago about the remarkable Emergent Order found at Valve, a company that makes video games and an online game delivery system. Valve is highly successful and has essentially no management structure (see link for an article on the company and the company employee handbook which spends considerable time discussing this structural fact).
Contrast Valve’s success with Lockheed and the Pentagon’s utter failure in producing the F-35 joint strike fighter. Here is a key paragraph from a engineer on the F-35:
An electrical engineer who worked as a manager at Lockheed’s F-35 program headquarters in Fort Worth beginning in 2001 said the development effort was beset with “tremendous organizational inadequacies” and “schedule and cost expectations that never were achievable.” In his unit, he said, there were no firm development timetables and no budgets. “It was all on autopilot,” he said. “It was doomed from the beginning.”
Doomed from the beginning? Probably. The organization (the military and the government) are woefully inadequate in every possible way. But also a lack of imagination and initiative. A lack of willing to get yourself fired for what you believe in and for what is right. An utter lack of (positive) emergent order.
Valve employees cannot think this way. They don’t think this way. And they succeed. Other companies have similar corporate hierarchical structures – WL Gore is a good example of a similar company. Gore and Valve are highly successful at producing large software project, fabrics that other manufacturers turn into high tech clothing and biomedical devices that must perform in the human body. These are companies that engage in product manufacturing as complicated as the F-35, and they are successful at what they do. They don’t let “organizational inadequacies” get in the way.
Oh, and that quip above about not wanting to get fired? The engineer:
In 2005, the engineer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns he will risk job opportunities in the close-knit aviation industry, participated in a two-week-long assessment of the program.“There were reds and yellows across the board,” he recalled. But when he briefed his superiors, “nobody was interested,” he said. And when he gave a copy of the assessment to those at the Pentagon office responsible for the plane, he said, “they didn’t want to hear it.”
Which makes me turn back to the other comment above, the one about the military and the government being inadequate in every possible way. You cannot cheat reality. You cannot declare something to be true that is not true. Metaphysical and epistemological failures are the worst kinds of failures, and if an organization is rampant with such failures, then the organization is an utter failure. Clearly, in the case of the F-35, the military is a massive failure.
(And so, too, is the Consortium for the Advancement of Genetic Engineering, an organization with a similarly bankrupt culture.)
So, how does this story end? Not with a pivot. No. It ends with persistent stupidity.
“It was an unimaginable mess,” he said.
He, in this case, is the Marine General in charge of the program. And “was” is not the right existential verb. He should have said “is”. And yet the program will not and cannot be killed. The government, military, Lockheed cannot pivot. We – the taxpayers – are doomed to continue to pay for their mistakes. It is a culture upon which we have foisted ourselves. It is the government we have created. We have only ourselves to blame.
Successful companies (non-defense-related companies) have to get things right the first or second time. Consumers and competition provide no third chances and very few second chances. And so companies do get it right. Or they fail and we never hear from them again. It is the culture that is business, the startup world, Silicon Valley. The culture of the government and military? That failure does not matter. That there is always a second chance if the program is big enough. Too big to fail? Yes. And while we’re at it, let’s get a little bit bigger yet.
Note: there’s lot in this article to be disgusted with about which I didn’t focus. For example, there is massive cronyism in the way that the defense contractors operate with the Pentagon. Also, there is a gaping window into the sausage factory of government in the way that those very same contractors are savvy enough to realize that by putting some part of the project in 45 states that nearly every Congressman will be unable to vote against shutting this thing down. This is just a really good article to get you really pissed off at the utter failure of government. So…you gonna vote against this crap next time?