Costly Navy Ship Screw-Up Illustrates How Not to Innovate

The New York Times has one of those “your tax dollars at work” stories in the form of “Costly Lesson on How Not to Build a Navy Ship.”

The article recounts how the Navy set out to build a new type of vessel, “littoral combat ships,” which would become the first line of defense in asymmetric warfare, which is military speak for “low tech can blow up our big ticket toys.”

The littoral combat ships were to be fast and adaptable:

To Navy planners, a ship designed for coastal combat could neutralize hostile submarines, surface warships, mines and terrorist speedboats, clearing the way for other combat ships to operate in offshore waters and support combat ashore….

The Navy also wanted ships that could travel fast, better than 40 knots. And they needed to be easily outfitted with different weapons and surveillance systems. A removable package of mine-sweeping equipment, for instance, could be replaced with a package of special-operations gear used by a Seal team.

Um, what led to the need for the rethink on ship was the attack on the Cole, which was launched not by terrorist speedboats, but a rubber dingy. Never mind.

But Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of “transformational warfare,” of which these ships were an example, turned out to be another example of Bush Administration faith-based policies:

“The littoral combat ship is an imaginative answer to emerging military requirements, but it has the most fouled-up acquisition strategy I have ever seen in a major military program,” said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a policy research center.

Where did they screw up? The story gives tons of particulars, and is fascinating appalling reading, but they can be boiled down to one major mistake: the Navy tried innovating on all axes at once. That effectively meant that everyone was making things up as they went along. To illustrate:

In their haste to get the ships into the water, the Navy and contractors redesigned and built them at the same time — akin to building an office tower while reworking the blueprints. To meet its deadline, Lockheed abandoned the normal sequence of shipbuilding steps: instead of largely finishing sections and then assembling the ship, much of the work was left to be done after the ship was welded together. That slowed construction and vastly drove up costs.

“It’s not good to be building as you’re designing,” said Vice Adm. Paul E. Sullivan, commander of the Navy branch that supervises shipbuilding.

So how was the Navy trying to do things differently? Consider:

1. Completely new design. This wasn’t simply a new ship, this was a new type of ship, adapted from commercial high speed ferries. And the Navy fell into the same bad behaviors of clients for major new custom software: not being clear about what it wanted, changing requirements as the project was underway.

2. Innovating on methods. The Navy decided to build this never-before-anything-like-it littoral was going to be launched in record time:

The first model was to be delivered no more than six years after conceptual planning began, half the normal time. Construction was to take two years, instead of the usual four or five.

But worse was that this innovation was supposed to achieve the impossible:

The Navy first publicly declared its intention to build the ship on Nov. 1, 2001. In those days, the Pentagon’s defining procurement mantra was “Faster, Better, Cheaper.” From the first, the coastal ships’ defining characteristic was speed.

Have you every heard of the project triangle? Draw a triangle. At each apex, write one of these three words: Good, Fast, Cheap. The rule of the project triangle is you can have only one leg at most. You can have Good-Fast, Fast-Cheap, or Cheap-Good. You can’t have all three. But the Navy clearly hoped to create the military program equivalent of cold fusion.

3. Inexperienced contractor. Bad enough to try something almost destined to fail as 1 and 2 together. But who did the Navy choose? Lockheed, which the Times tells us “had virtually no shipbuilding experience.” Yes, they did hire a naval architect “and two shipyards.” I can’t believe the Times repeated the latter as bolstering Lockheed’s credentials. Where other than a shipyard could they possibly have built a ship? In an car factory?

But do read the piece. It’s yet another example of how at its core, this Administration valued staying faithful to its ideology, no matter what the cost, over achieving tangible improvements.

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