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Skunk Works


My overall thoughts

I LOVED this book. It was a really fascinating look into the back stories and development of the U2 spy plane, stealth bomber, and other top-secret projects. The book's written by Ben Rich, who took over Skunk Works after Kelly Johnson (who started it) retired. Interspersed are anecdotes by pilots, military brass, CIA agents, and secretaries of state, so you get multiple perspectives. It's a great story in general, but really hits home on ways to design, build and innovate some of the toughest problems - all while dealing with crazy levels of secrecy and government bureaucracy.

Rather than summarize, a few choice quotes:

Page 46 & 47

"We had our own very unique method for building an airplane. Our organization chart consisted of an engineering branch, a manufacturing branch, an inspection and quality assurance branch, and a flight testing branch. Engineering designed and developed the Have Blue aircraft and turned it over to the shop to build. Our engineers were expected on the shop floor the moment their blueprints were approved. Designers lived with their designs through fabrication, assembly and testing. Engineers couldn't just throw the drawings at the shop people on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and walk away."

"Our senior shop people were tough, experienced SOB's and not shy about confronting a designer on a particular drawing and letting him know why it wouldn't work. Our designers spent at least a third of their day right on the shop floor; at the same time, there were usually two or three shop workers up in the design room conferring on a particular problem. That was how we kept everybody involved and integrated on a project. My weights man talked to my structures man, and my structures man talked to my designer, and my designer conferred with my flight test guy, and they all sat two feet apart, conferring and kibitzing every step of the way. We trusted our people and gave them the kind of authority that was unique in aerospace manufacturing. Above all, I didn't second-guess them."


"The shop manufactured and assembled the airplane, and the inspection and quality assurance branch checked the product at all stages of development. That was also unique with us, I think. in most companies quality control reported to the head of the shop. At the Skunk Works, quality control reported directly to me. They were a check and balance on the work of the shop. Our inspectors stayed right on the floor with the machinists and fabricators, and quality control intersections occurred almost daily instead of once, at the end of a procedure. Constant inspection forced our workers to be super-critical of their work before passing it on. Self-checking was a Skunk Works concept now in wide use in Japanese industry and called by them Total Quality Management"

Page 51

MUST READ: 14 Rules of Skunkworks

Page 100 - F-117A testing

"In the morning we'd find bat corpses littered around our airplanes inside the open hangars. Bats used a form of sonar to "see" at night, and they were crashing blindly into our low-radar-cross-section tails.

Page 210

"Having today's high-speed computers would have accelerated the design process and simplified much of our testing, but perfection was seldom a Skunk Works goal. If we were off in our calculations by a pound or a degree, it didn't particularly concern us. We aimed to achieve a Chevrolet's functional reliability rather than a Mercedes' supposed perfection. Eighty percent efficiency would get the job done, so why strain resources and bust deadlines to achieve that extra 20 percent, which would cost as much as 50 percent more in overtime and delays and have little real impact on the overall performance of the aircraft itself?"

Page 283 - Kelly Johnson schooling Ben on why Harvard Business School is a waste of time...

"I'll teach you all you need to know about running a company in one afternoon, and we'll both go home early to boot. You don't need Harvard to teach you that it's more important to listen than to talk. You can get straight A's from all your Harvard profs, but you'll never make the grade unless you are decisive: even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision. The final thing you'll need to know is don't half-heartedly wound problems - kill them dead. That's all there is to it. Now you can run this goddamn place. Now go on home and pour yourself a drink."

But I had persisted, and when I returned from Cambridge, wearing a new crimson tie, Kelly asked me for my appraisal of the Harvard Business School. To accommodate him, I wrote out an equation: 2/3 of HBS = BS"

Page 287

"I laid out Northrop's offer, and he closed his eyes and solemnly shook his head. 'Goddamn it, Ben, I don't believe a word that guy said to you. I'll bet my ranch against Northrop starting its own Skunk Works. Companies give it lip service because we've been so successful running ours. The bottom line is that most managements don't trust the idea of an independent operation, where they hardly know what in the hell is going on and are kept in the dark because of security. Don't kid yourself, a few among our own people resent the hell out of me and our independence. And even those in aerospace who respect our work know damned well that the fewer people working on a project, then less profit from big government contracts and cost overruns. And keeping things small cuts down on raises and promotions. Hell, in the main plant they give raises based on the more people being supervised; I give raises to the guy who supervises least. That means he's doing more and taking more responsibility. But most executives don't think like that at all. Northrop's senior guys are no different from all of the rest in this business: they're all empire builders, because that's how they've been trained and conditioned. Those guys are all experts at covering their asses by taking votes on what to do next. They'll never sit still for a secret operation that cuts them out entirely. Control is the name of the game and if a Skunk Works really operates right, control is exactly what they won't get.'"

Page 337

"We became the most successful advanced projects company in the world by hiring talented people, paying them top dollar, and motivating them into believing that they could produce a Mach 3 airplane like the Blackbird a generation or two ahead of anybody else. Our design engineers have the keen experience to conceive the whole airplane in their mind's eye, doing the trade-offs in their heads between aerodynamic needs and weapons requirements. We created a practical and open work environment for engineers and shop workers forcing the guys behind the drawing boards onto the shop floor to see how their ideas were being translated into actual parts and to make any necessary changes on the spot. We made every shop worker who designed or handled a part responsible for quality control. Any worker - not just a supervisor or manager - could send back a part that didn't meet his or her standards. That way we reduced rework and scrap waste."