Kelly Johnson

Profiles of leaders in collaborative design.

Name: Kelly Johnson

Dates: February 27, 1910 — December 21, 1990

Bio: Celebrated aeronautical engineer at Lockheed Martin for more than 40 years. Designed 40+ spy planes and is ranked 8th by Aviation Week’s “All-Time Top 100 Stars of Aerospace and Aviation”.

Influence on Collaboration

Kelly Johnson created the legendary Skunk Works program at Lockheed Martin and was known for his “brass-tacks” management style — a style summed up by his motto, “Be quick, be quiet, and be on time.” Kelly’s 14 Rules of Management set strict conditions for how Lockheed and the customer would interact with his group. This is interesting because it set up protected conditions for his design team. The rules are rather specific and are an apparent response to corporate and government bureaucracy. Kelly’s 14 Rules below (Note: the term “contractor” here refers to the Skunk Works organization)

  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 spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program. Don’t have the books 90 days late, and don’t surprise the customer with sudden overruns.
  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 with 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.

What He Knew

Johnson clearly had experienced the frustration of “decision by committee” and therefore limited the size of the team to the bare minimum. These teams were able to make quick decisions without the time and bureaucracy associated with garnering large group consensus. These nimble teams combined with Rule #4, a more flexible drawing release program, allowed for smaller cycles of design and feedback — what we know today as rapid iteration. He created an environment where the team could fail early/fail often.

Johnson also sought to reduce the administrative time-suck associated with reporting and correspondence. His team could spend more time designing the product and less time producing documentation for upper-level management.

The fact that Johnson aimed his ruleset “up” at the parent organization demonstrated the power he wielded. This power could not have been obtained overnight within a dogmatic corporation such as Lockheed. No doubt he earned it by consistently delivering innovative products on time and on budget. The first incarnation of the Skunk Works was assembled due to the constraints of time and secrecy. It was World War II and the military crucially needed to keep up with Germany’s fighter planes. Johnson made a bet that he could design and build a jet fighter in 6 months. He delivered and cemented the program within Lockheed. The rest is history.

One Last Thing

The term “Skunk Works” was a reference to comic strip, Li’l Abner in which one of the characters worked in a factory called “Skonk Works” distilling skunk oil and old shoes. The fumes it produced were noxious to its nearby residents. Johnson’s first facility was next to a malodorous plastics plant which prompted the team informally to adopt the title. When the Department of the Navy called and inadvertently transferred to an inside desk, the phone was answered casually with “Skunk Works” and the name stuck.


Originally published at www.mind-arc.com on April 29, 2013.