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When project management really is rocket science: A lesson from NASA

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When project management really is rocket science: A lesson from NASA

Aging government-owned equipment and infrastructure is one of those topics that never seems to get old in government circles. It’s a challenge that sparks much effort and even a little lateral thinking to find ways to fund improvements.

One recent example is the effort by Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and the House Armed Services Committee that he chairs to buy more equipment for the military by shifting funding authorization to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds, which were established initially during the height of Iraq / Afghanistan conflicts.

The aim of this is to significantly improve military readiness while operating in a sequestration environment, which has placed the concept of “readiness” at center stage of the debate between Thornberry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter in how to best achieve this.

Readiness is a complicated notion, especially in an organization as large and complex as the Department of Defense. However, regardless of the bookkeeping in terms of where the funding resides in the budget, dollars alone will not be enough to ensure readiness. A major make-or-break factor is managing major acquisitions, maintenance periods, and overhauls as effective projects and programs to ensure they are done on schedule, on budget, and meet quality requirements.

Consider a project like aircraft carrier refueling and overhauls that are so expertly executed by the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program (Naval Reactors) to meet budget, scope, and schedule. With a nuclear reactor refueling schedule that is stacked tightly back-to-back across the fleet, one hiccup in scheduling can result in a carrier not being at sea when needed. The same goes for the submarine force, tasked with ensuring that national mission tasking and strategic deterrence remain gap-free. In addition to ships, tactical aircraft require the best in project, program, and portfolio management to ensure that depot-level maintenance among the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps is able to keep aging aircraft flying longer.

This is no easy task, as shown by the delays in bringing Joint Strike Fighters online, or the challenge of figuring out how to re-power a fleet of aging B-52s. One solution being explored is private / public partnerships, which would add complexity and risk to the mix and require even more skilled project management. Add to this the never-ending smorgasbord of evolving threats in cyberspace and it’s clear that project managers have their work cut out for them to ensure the dynamic demands of a defense strategy are delivered via the projects and programs responsible for executing as designed.

The good news is that help is on its way. The Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act of 2015 is now out of committee and headed to full House consideration, after having already achieved unanimous passage by the Senate. The bill includes provisions to professionalize the federal government’s project management workforce, standardize practices and inspire executive leaders, all designed to improve government efficiency and reduce waste. PMIAA would not have been possible without the vision and leadership of the Government Efficiency Caucus co-Chairs Reps. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., along with the rare collaborative effort via Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, for bringing to life the caucus vision through a functional and rare bi-cameral effort that is providing forward momentum toward potential final passage.

So back to achieving readiness and making projects and programs deliver on the mission at hand, look no further than the high-tech hallways of NASA for an example of project management done well. The organization appears to have brought the same rigor to project management as it has to the complex work of space exploration. A recent GAO assessment of major NASA projects shows that 18 of the organization’s biggest projects received very positive reviews – with project management receiving credit for some of that success. What has proven to be extremely effective for NASA is utilizing standards and adapting tools and processes to the needs of the agency, while satisfying considerations of such leading practices as EVM, project costing, baseline establishment and blending of engineering disciplines into projects.

To cite specifics, there is a project to study the solid Earth, called NISAR, which represents a partnership between NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization. According to GAO, among the project’s risks are the potential differences between the two organizations’ project management processes, which could negatively affect cost and schedule. The NASA project team is managing this by working with ISRO to understand differences and expectations for deliverables, although this risk is expected to remain until a system integration review in early 2019.

The NISAR project is a good example of the kinds of challenges faced by the DOD. DOD internally has many potential variations of project and program management approaches across services, within services and across program executive offices and program managers that are leading projects/programs. Differences can also arise when the contractor/supplier base intersects with DOD through projects and programs being managed. Failing to take into account these many variations has the potential to turn into cost overruns and missed deadlines as the projects proceed, whereas adopting NASA’s approach of identifying differences/implications and use of standards could make a major difference.

Program and project management (foundation of technical, business/management, and leadership skills) have tremendous potential to improve the “readiness” of virtually any branch of the federal government, regardless of where the funding resides on the balance sheet. Readiness is delivering the needs of the defense strategy on budget, scope, and schedule. Whether an organization is trying to repair a space arm or a fighter plane is less important than whether it has a management framework rooted in leading practice standards, understanding and executive support for managing these endeavors, and the culture for PMs to lead projects and program to success, not just manage them. As an overall approach, it can mean the difference between success and failure to launch.