Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Value of Receiving a Higher Education in the illities and Related Engineering Disciplines

by Russell A. Vacante, Ph.D.

With the ever-increasing cost of higher education and waning opportunities to realize a lucrative technological career, many students, especially those who are U.S native born, are steering their higher education sights away from a career in engineering.  Among those students who do pursue a formal education, few are actively seeking out courses of study in reliability, maintainability, supportability, logistics and systems engineering.  The reasons are many, however, they all boil down to “there’s little perceived return on investment.”

Newspaper articles and  television news programs frequently report on the increasing number of students graduating from college with huge student loan debt; a financial burden that follows them well into their adult life.  The repayment of their educational debt and the interest incurred, in many instances, is large enough to adversely impact their quality of life, e.g., marriage planning, purchasing homes, automobiles and more.  Exasperating as the repayment of student loans issue is, the opportunity to find well paying jobs upon graduating from college that will help to mitigate the economic burden of repaying their student loans is on the wane.  While it remains relatively accurate that students with engineering degrees often have a starting wage higher than their classmates graduating with non-technical degrees, it is also correct to say that well paying engineering jobs are increasingly becoming a scarce commodity. This is especially true for engineers specializing in “the illities,” e.g., reliability, maintainability supportability and logistics.  All of this leads us the next related subject to be discussed.

The cost(s) to run DoD cost and industry profits have increasingly been the driving force for acquisition reform and industry consolidation. This trend most likely began with The Packard Commission (1985) report on management and decision-making issues, gained momentum with the National Performance Review (1993) that promoted the commercial use of standards, followed by the Rumsfeld’s Challenge (2001) that underscored issues with an expanding DoD infrastructure and advances in industry technology outpacing the need within the DoD.

Most recently the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, The Honorable Frank Kendall, wrote in the Forward of the Performance of the Defense Acquisition System, 2014 Annual Report the following: “Most of the development and production on acquisition programs is conducted by industry under contract to the government. Therefore, we examine various incentive techniques to see how effective they are at driving cost, schedule, and technical performance.”  All suggesting that from 1985 to present the emphasis within DoD has been to increasingly shift DoD acquisition and technology tasks to industry, i.e., as means to reduce defense expenditures and remain on the cutting edge of advancing technologies.  How’s this working for us at a time when other advanced and advancing nation-states are graduating more engineers from college in one year than the U.S. graduates in ten years?

As I have discussed in a prior newsletter editorial, despite the numerous acquisition reform measures implemented by DoD during the last thirty years, disappointing performance, cost overruns and schedule delays remain a persistent nemesis of the DoD acquisition system.  The migration of DoD acquisition, technology knowledge, expertise and responsibility to industry, in many instances, has not streamlined the procurement of major weapon systems.  As DoD continues working at bringing down the cost of doing business, industry is also on a never ending quest to increase its profit margins.  It is well known within the industry defense community that senior technical employees frequently are among the first to get furloughed as a cost reduction or profit seeking measure while individuals with less experience and education are frequently retained or hired to assume the responsibilities and duties of those they have replaced.

The goal to make DoD more efficient while industry partners remain profitable is a notable endeavor. However, to do so at the expense of formal education and technical training in the engineering illities and technical fields in general is misguided. For example, the on-going DoD sequester has significantly reduced DoD and industry support of formal education and on-the- job training.  This is occurring at a period in U.S. history when the defense challenge from other countries appears to be escalating.  This seems to be a counter-intuitive approach to acquisition reform and national defense.  While the cost of promoting and supporting formal education and technical training in engineering and related illities initially may be more expensive, in terms of total life cycle cost savings, it will be proven to be cost effective to DoD in terms of providing systems with improved performance, fewer cost overruns and timely deliveries. 

It is important to note that lack of student interest in subjects such as reliability, maintainability, supportability/ sustainability and logistics is not what caused students to avoid pursuing an engineering degree.  It is low wages, questionable employment opportunity or well-paying jobs and long term, secure employment opportunities are influencers for them to seek other career alternatives.  Less focus on government cost savings and industry profit margins would be good for the engineering profession, educational institution and our national defense.

DoD is a large enough proverbial dog to wag the tail of industry with respect to establishing educational priorities within the DoD community.  When DoD leadership acknowledges the importance of and need for reliability engineers and related technical disciplines, industry will also make education and training a higher priority for its workforce.  As a positive consequence, colleges and universities will have an incentive to grow their engineering programs and students will once again view engineering as an intellectually fulfilling and economically promising career.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

On the Potential Brink of Chaos – the Korean Peninsula

by Russell A. Vacante, Ph.D.

To say that there are a number of political-military threatening activities in the world today that have the potential of endangering the national security of many Asian nations, especially the Republic of Korea (ROK), does not come as a surprise to many political observers.  These menacing political-military activities spring up at a time the political, economic and military resources of the United States are stretched and when U.S. citizens have a low tolerance for foreign additional military engagements.  The American public is close to being psychologically exhausted from seeing so many of its youth return home from distant shores in body bags, with missing limbs and other seriously injuries.  This disposition is exasperated by the huge economic strain placed on the wallets and purse strings of U.S. citizens who see only a questionable return on their international military investment.  This is a circumstance that some totalitarian regimes recognize and are ready to exploit.  This psychological and economic strain currently being experienced by the American public certainly is not going unnoticed by Kim Jong Un and the military leaders of North Korea.  The Kim regime is an astute observer of American military capabilities and the U.S. national political climate.  They are also opportunists that will attempt to leverage any perceived lack of U.S. political will into military gains on the Korean peninsula.  From their ethnocentric position in world politics they are following socio-political events in the U.S. as a potential means to acquire a tactical military advantage on the Korean peninsula.   

The conflict between Israel and Hamas fighters over control of the Gaza Stripe has become a daily preoccupation of the U.S. President, Congress, and many American citizens.  It has Secretary of State Kerry doing shuttle diplomacy to the Middle East in an attempt to broker a cease-fire between two archenemies that for centuries, in one way or another, have been at war with each other.  The potential of this Middle East conflict globally escalating is real, therefore there is a pressing U.S. government sense urgency to stop the violence and have the two sides reach some sort of peaceful accord for the sake of all non-citizen combatants. The longer this conflict continues the higher the potential risk to U.S. national security.  As an allied of Israel, there are a growing number of folks in the Arab world that view the U.S. as being partially responsible for the killing and maiming of Gaza Strip residences and the destruction of their homes by Israel’s motor shells and bombs.  This Arab perception, legitimate or not, puts the U.S. in direct conflict with much of the Arab world that may seek retaliation against the U.S. for its support of Israel.  This looming threat to U.S national security is just one of numerous other Middle East conflicts stretching the political energy, as well as, the economic resources of the U.S. government and citizens.  The relatively sudden and surprising emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that is currently capturing and holding large pieces of real estate in Iraq and Syria appears to over take political priorities the U.S. has concerning the Gaza Strip.    

The Russian Prime Minster, Vladimir Putin, aggressive designs toward the Ukraine is another political destabilizing event that the U.S. (with allies) is attempting to address without getting militarily caught up in a major conflict that has a potential of resulting in a show down between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.  U.S. and European sanctions, thus far have not acted as a successful deterrent in quelling the territorial conflict between Ukrainians and Russian separatist living in Ukraine who are armed and reportedly supported by the Russian military.  Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine is largely based on Putin’s understanding that much of Europe is dependent on Russian oil and that Russia is Europe’s third largest trading partner.   Putin sees the U.S. imposed sanctions only as a minor economic irritant while knowing there is much internal economic leverage to be gained from making the Ukraine a subservient state of Russia.  Putin’s move on Ukraine is further fueled by his ambition to restore his nation to former Soviet Union world power status.  If this activity strains U.S. – Russian relations to the point rekindling Cold War relationship, to the determinant of current cooperative endeavors between the two counties, Putin seems willing to take this risk.  In the event the U.S. cannot, through diplomatic channels, persuade Putin from “annexing” the Ukraine, the only remaining course of action may be providing heavy weapons support to the Ukraine.  However, Putin—in a similar way to Kim Jong Un --is also reading the preverbal political and economic tealeaves in the U.S.  He is counting U.S. citizen distain for additional international military involvement and the U.S.  government preoccupation with the Middle East conflict as a green light for pressing on with an invasion of the Ukraine.

China’s growing military is a third global destabilizing force that the U.S. has to prepare potentially to confront. Similar to Putin’s quest for the recreation of the Soviet Union, the Chinese government also seems to be looking to the past to shape its future.  It may not be an intellectual exaggeration to suggest that China longs for recapturing its Middle Kingdom status to which its neighboring countries would once again pay it tribute to China. 

China’s expanding naval activity on the East China Sea, to include laying claim unpopulated islands govern by Japan, and its growing territorial tensions with Malaysia, the Philippines, and Viet Nam all seem to indicate Middle Kingdom type aspirations.  Diminishing or eliminating U.S. naval dominance of the sea is first necessary for China’s hegemony of East Asia to succeed.  The challenge to U.S. naval dominance comes in the form of roaming trucks equipped DF-21D, 900 mile range missiles that pose a threat to U.S. aircraft carries.  China’s development of an aircraft carrier fleet and the development reportedly of supersonic submarines that can reach the west coast of the U.S. in just over two hours is another threat to U.S. naval superiority on the high seas. The rapidly expanding naval resources of China are its attempt to capture control of East China Sea trading lanes.  China’s dominance over regional sea commerce is threat to U.S. national security interest.  Its control of East China Sea lanes would potentially impose trading restrictions U.S trade with its allies, as well as, potentially interfere with American-Korean joint military exercises in the region.  More immediate U.S. concern is that China’s aggressive growing naval activity could accidently, or intentionally, results in the killing and injuring of American sailors and marines.   Such an incident would mostly likely result in an U.S. military response that in turn may result in escalating war tensions between the two nations. Defusing China’s “Middle Kingdom” aspirations is increasing becoming diplomatic priority of the U.S. State Department and U.S. citizens.

Of course there are the conflicts in Syria, the menacing political and military activity of Iran, along with genocide taking place throughout various parts of Africa that all tend to drain the energy, attention, and time of U.S. government officials, as well as, U.S. economic and military resources.  As a world leading power, the U.S. is busily challenged with putting its preverbal fingers in so many Middle East political dikes in order to help prevent neighboring nations from drowning in military chaos.  The ominous U.S. political situations mentioned above, Kim Jong Un may believe, has the potential for creating chaos for the Republic of Korea (ROK).

The leadership of north Korea may try to seize upon the opportunity to ferment political and military unrest within the ROK mistakenly thinking that the U.S. resolve to defense the ROK has been weakened by recent international events.  Also, north Korea knowledge of China’s increased military presence in the region may lead the DPRK to falsely assume U.S. military defense of the ROK would not occur due to Chinese intervention.   Given the political disposition of north Korea’s government and the global challenges confronting the U.S. this year, the chances of north Korea stepping up its political and military campaign again the ROK has a high probability of increasing.   Kim Jong Un and his military leaders should understand that the U.S. anticipates what the Pyongyang leadership is thinking and that the U.S. and Korean governments will not be taken by surprise by any attempts of military aggression coming from the north.

Aside from the U.S. anticipating and being prepared for any potential military aggression from north Korea, let it be known that while the American public through war wryly, is far from being too preoccupied to come to the defense the ROK, our long standing ally.  Our people and cultures are interwoven much so that an attack on one party is an attack on the other.

Korean culture has emerged, in recent years, as a major subculture in the U.S.  There is respect, feelings of friendship and admiration among many Americans for the Korean community living within the U.S. and in the ROK. Korean and American soldiers fought and died together during the Korean War, the Viet Nam conflict and at other global hot spots.  Any military intrusion from north Korea that endangers the well being of one of Americas staunches friend and ally would not be taken likely.  Endemic to American culture is the willingness of its people to come to the aid of others, especially when those in danger are endearing friends.  There is much economically and politically more at stake for the ROK and the U.S. now then there was during the 1950-1953 Korean War, so the north should realize that the ROK-US military response to any military aggression will be of a different kind and intensity.       

Monday, September 29, 2014

Defense & Auto Industries: Peas in the Same Pod?

by Russell A. Vacante, Ph.D.

There is one high level or “big picture” characteristic that has contributed to current global competitive difficulties for both the U.S. auto and defense industries, and it is this - a resistance to promoting and embracing change.
From an institutional perspective, managing and implementing change involves a willingness of senior leaders to recognize and accept the impact of new influences, e.g., globalization and technological advances. Since these influences are, for the most part, “external” to an organization, successful implementation requires that they be accepted and managed “internally.” This is where the “rub,” or primary challenge, is found. The structure, culture, deep-rooted processes and routines of an organization’s leadership can be the biggest hurdle to accepting and adopting new influences.  This is particularly evident in both the U.S. automobile and defense industries, where leadership often resists the need for change when new influences come up against “the way it has always been done.”

Many professionals within the automobile and defense industries are familiar with the challenges associated with career development.  Employees know that in order to be promoted they are expected to regularly attend change management and technical training sessions. The employer’s intention is: employee training will serve to keep the organization competitive, particularly when it comes to technological advancements.  A partial reason for this is training sessions don’t usually require organizations to make huge financial investments and employee’s training opportunities can, and often are, turned off and on at will.  Conversely, employees are at the beck and call of their employers when it pertains to training.  Often the employees return to the workplace with knowledge and information from a training session that will prove beneficial to their organization and possibly to their career, if properly implemented.  However, it should not be a surprise to most that employee recommended changes frequently are not implemented by the employer.  Conversely, employers often blame employees for the inability of their organization to accommodate change.  For the sake of our discussion, let’s call institutional change initiated or suggested by employees “micro” organizational change. With this said, it is acknowledged that instances of micro organizational change, that is, change from the bottom up, rarely occur.

Change at the macro institutional level, i.e., top down, is more likely to occur than change from the bottom up.  When macro changes do occur within an organization, it usually is at a snail’s pace.  For instance, the U.S. automobile industry’s reluctance to retool its factories to accommodate “green” technology continues to keep it at a competitive disadvantage to foreign auto makers, in particular, Japan and Germany. Maintaining the status quo seems to be the modus operandi of U.S. auto makers, an industry whose leadership, incrementally and slowly, implements change only after serious competitive coercion from the marketplace forces. 
The U.S. automobile industry’s precipitous decline in the global marketplace began years ago and parallels Japan’s auto industry's accession in the international automobile market. Leading Japan’s charge to change were two change management advocates, Deming and Taguchi.  The Japanese auto industry's willingness to accommodate macro organizational change, based on their recommendations, led to significant product improvements in quality and reliability.  Thus,   Japanese vehicles became more reliable, easier to maintain and support than U.S. automobiles and as a result captured the buying public’s attention and dollars. Japan’s automobile initiative towards producing “greener” cars is the proverbial frosting on the cake that will help the Japanese auto industry guarantee customer satisfaction well into the future.

It also comes as no surprise to professionals within the government that change does not come easy to the U.S. defense industry.  Cost overruns, schedule delays, and poor performance of many defense systems can be attributed to institutional resistance to change.  The defense establishment, government and private industry alike, often requires its employees to be flexible.   In place of recognizing the necessity of making important institutional changes the defense industry seemingly laboriously develops and implements new policy and procedural reforms in accordance to which way the political winds are blowing in Washington D.C.  We have seen the demise of the Willoughby templates and experienced standardization reform, and have endured numerous other “reforms” to the DoD 5000 document series.  Our collective attention to the addressing of institutional changes has been ignored, in large part, due to our preoccupation with implementing micro level “reforms.”  The Under Secretary of Defense (AT&L), Frank Kendall, memorandum dated August 21, 2014 and the accompanying guidance entitled “Guidelines for Creating and Maintaining a Competitive Environment for Supplies and Services in the Department of Defense” apparently is a micro, as opposed to a macro, attempt once again at acquisition reform.

Similar to the U.S. automobile makers who have lost the attention and “voice” of the customer, the U.S. defense industry appears to have lost the message regarding present and future global defense challenges.  The defense community has spent years reforming administrative policies and procedures that have resulted in questionable results.  Little, if any, measurable progress has been made towards controlling cost overruns, reducing schedule delays and improving system requirements definition and associated performance.  With this said, let us hope that the Kendall’s recent reform measures, at a minimum, help control escalating acquisition cost. However, a macro initiative probably would include a new management approach for also controlling schedule and performance. The Japanese automakers implemented macro institutional change that has led to improved quality and reliability of their automobiles - could this be a lesson to the U.S. automobile and defense industries?

            The fundamental story line in this editorial is - the U.S. automobile and defense industry’s resistance to change is proving to be an important factor in contributing to their global competitive decline. Books have been written that cite the causes of institutional resistance to change; issues covered in these books include changing educational priorities, changing work ethics and entrenched leadership and outdated organizational values and interests.  Most literature of this nature leads us down the path of micro level reform as opposed to macro level institutional change and often is written by “experts” who have long-standing and vested interests in prevailing institutional structures.  We cannot expect these experts to recommend an “out with the old and in with the new” approach to any organization.  As a result, their micro advocacy to change reinforces the automobile and defense industry’s “bandage” approach to correcting organizational deficiencies, while missing the opportunity for macro institutional change that can improve their global competitiveness.

To meet the competitive challenges of the 21st century the U.S. automobile and defense industries need to embrace macro rather than micro institutional change.  Institutions that refuse to change get sidelined or die.  The U.S. steel industry is a shadow of its previous self and unless the U.S. auto and defense industry leadership begins focusing on making more macro level changes they will likely suffer a similar demise.