Once again, errors in the procurement process have thrown a major Air Force program’s future into doubt. And critics say that the Government Accountability Office report’s damning tone in this case indicates a wider problem in defense procurement.
A GAO report has recommended that the Air Force reopen competition for its bitterly contested contract for an in-flight refueling tanker. In a June 18 statement, GAO supported a protest by Boeing, the bidder that didn’t win, by finding the Air Force had made seven significant errors in awarding the contract to Northrop Grumman’s joint venture.
On each of the seven points, GAO found that the Air Force ignored or disregarded its own requirements for the contract solicitation in choosing the bid from Northrop Grumman/ Airbus.
Among other findings, GAO said the Air Force, “in making the award decision, did not assess the relative merits of the proposals in accordance with the evaluation criteria identified in the solicitation, which provided for a relative order of importance for the various technical requirements.” “The agency also did not take into account the fact that Boeing offered to satisfy more nonmandatory technical requirements than Northrop Grumman, even though the solicitation expressly requested offerors to satisfy as many of these technical requirements as possible.”
Coming on the heels of the shakeup in Air Force leadership, as reported by Kevin Fogarty, the dispute poses another major management challenge for the incoming Air Force secretary and chief of staff. Personnel cuts in the service haven’t helped, but processes seem to be a big part of the problem.
So it seems timely that Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England has ordered all Defense Department components to adopt Lean Six Sigma, a continuous improvement methodology based on the work of Naval Academy graduate Bill Smith at Motorola in the 1980s. However, ingraining a culture of continuous improvement in processes — a culture of change — will require a lot more than a mandate to adopt a specific methodology. It’s also going to take leadership from the middle ranks and recognition that things such as the tanker contract debacle can’t be business as usual at DOD.
Sean Gallagher is senior contributing editor for Defense Systems.