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Skunk Works

Entry 2062, on 2020-06-17 at 15:27:44 (Rating 2, Comments)

The word "skunk works" doesn't sound like it is particularly important or impressive, but it is what we need more of. Just in case you aren't familiar with this term, let me explain...

Skunk Works is used in a general sense to describe specialised units in larger organisations, and more specifically often refers to a division in the American aircraft company, Lockheed Martin, which was where its use in this context started.

Here's the definiton from Wikipedia: Skunk Works is an official pseudonym for Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs (ADP), formerly called Lockheed Advanced Development Projects. It is responsible for a number of aircraft designs, including the U-2, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, which are used in the air forces of several countries. Its name was taken from the moonshine factory in the comic strip Li'l Abner. The designation "skunk works" or "skunkworks" is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, with the task of working on advanced or secret projects.

If you follow this blog you might be aware that I am not a fan of excessive rules and regulations - in fact, it's not just in excess, I'm not a fan of them at all! So the skunkworks concept basically releases certain units from the onerous demands of bureaucracy, and allows the original thinkers and expert engineers (usually) in the unit the opportunity to do extraordinary things.

Also if you follow this blog, you will know I have done a series of "favourite thing" posts, and one of them was specifically about the SR-71 Blackbird, which I discussed in a post called "Favourite Things 5" from 2013-02-25. You can see from the description above that the SR-71 is arguably the most impressive achievement of *the* Skunk Works at Lockheed.

The first project tackled by Lockheed Skunk Works was the first US operational jet fighter, built near the end of World War 2: the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. It took just 143 days from the first designs to going into production, but was only a moderate success, being outclassed by MiG-15s by 1950, ironically because the MiGs used swept wing technology based on research captured from the Nazis. The US used a similar design in the F-86 Sabre.

So you might say that was only a partial success, but it is doubtful whether a more conventional design and manufacturing process could have achieved any better results at that time. The Skunk Works concept still has benefits in my opinion, and many people would agree. Here are some quotes which I think also capture some of the essential elements of what I am trying to say...

Hell, there are no rules here - we're trying to accomplish something. - Thomas A Edison.

I suspect this isn't literally true, because it's probably impossible to organise a group of people without *some* rules. But the deeper meaning refers to the minimisation of rules, and the total avoidance of pointless rules. In fact, most people would agree with this - even people who are the bureaucrats this is aimed at - but they might disagree on which rules are "pointless".

Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work. - Albert Einstein

Again, this probably isn't literally true, but there is little doubt that bureaucracy makes work more difficult, it slows it down, and it forces productive people to find creative solutions to bypass awkward rules.

Powers once assumed are never relinquished, just as bureaucracies, once created, never die. - Charley Reese

This is becoming a theme, but this isn't completely true either. There are occasions when bureaucracies are disestablished but they are often replaced with slightly different bureaucracies, and sometimes there is a genuine decrease in bureaucracy. But the bigger picture is true: bureaucrats often have control and they are unlikely to use that power to reduce their own influence.

Entrenched bureaucracies are always opposed to fundamental changes. - Christopher Dodd

The word "always" is dangerous, but I won't repeat my "not literally true" argument yet again. But I think bureaucracies are mostly dedicated to supporting the existing system, which they benefit from, so change is always going to be difficult.

Bureaucracy is more people doing less things, and taking more time to do them worse. - Evan Esar

I think it is undeniable that a bureaucracy inevitably involves more people doing non-core work for the organisation involved. That's how I would interpret the phrase "more people doing less things". And I think it is also inevitable that those extra layers of "organisation" will slow things down, so the "more time" part also makes sense. It might be more debatable whether extra layers of management make things worse or better though. Of course, I would strongly suspect worse, although there might be some dysfunctional work environments where more supervision might actually improve things.

Q. How many twenty-second-century bureaucrats did it take to change a light panel? A. We'll have a sub-committee meeting and get back to you with an estimate. - Peter F. Hamilton

I think this is also a fair criticism of bureaucracies. Meetings and committees seem like an essential part of their structure. No one seems to be able to make a decision on their own, probably because most bureaucrats are also very ignorant, but the committee structure does give the advantage of not having a single person who can be blamed for its failures.

And finally, there is my personal favourite problem with bureaucracies: their failure to consult. Of course, they all say they consult fully, but this is usually misleading. There might be structures set up which make it look like they are consulting, but they aren't; it's all a sham. Here's my final quote, which is from Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" describing why there was no consultation on plans to demolish the Earth...

But the plans were on displayÖ
Arthur Dent: On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.
Mr Prosser: Thatís the display department.
AD: With a flashlight.
P: Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.
AD: So had the stairs.
P: But look, you found the notice, didnít you?
Yes, said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the leopard'.

It's unrealistic to think that bureaucracies are going to go away any time soon. A major reason for this might be that the decisions about disestablishing bureaucracies often need to come from bureaucracies, and they are unlikely to shut themselves down.

But the skunkworks concept might be a good compromise solution. We could still have conventional, large, bureaucratic organisations, but there could be a division in that organisation where real innovation happens. It has worked for some organistions in the past: Lockheed, Xerox, IBM, Apple, etc, and maybe we need more of it now.


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