Nov 04 2013

What Agencies Can Learn from the Demise of a Massive Air Force Support System

The Air Force ERP system might be scrapped, but there is still plenty to learn from the failed project.

The Air Force last year pulled the plug on its Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS), an enterprise resource planning system that would have encompassed more than 250 major supply chain data systems affecting about 250,000 users.

ECSS was expected to cost more than $5 billion and take about seven years to complete. Its demise offers lessons that many agencies would be well served to learn.

Size Matters

ECSS was so big that it required oversight by the Secretary of the Air Force, but in many ways it was viewed as “just a logistics system.”

Projects of such magnitude require an authority figure who can lead, not just manage — someone who can see the whole rather than the parts, and who can inspire and guide those involved in the project. A leader must make risk-based value decisions and focus on solutions rather than tasks.

The scope of the ECSS was so broad that it posed major challenges to the Air Force based on complexity, the number of systems, the number of affected organizations, the pace of implementation and an inability to deal with risk. The lesson here is for leaders not to bite off more than they can chew. They should evaluate the overall game plan and divide it into executable plans based upon factors that include size, complexity, schedule, outside influences, cost and risk.

Management Challenges

In addition to the challenges posed by the size and scope of the project, the firm fixed price (FFP) acquisition was too inflexible for the immaturity of the program requirements. It drove too much administration and created a tense environment with many contract changes. A better plan would have been to employ a hybrid contract strategy using FFP where requirements were nailed down and other contract types where they weren’t.

Program management proved to be a major stumbling block as well. The program had major requirements and changes and lost its focus on the business case. Using process re-engineering and associated IT development methodologies that rely on a strict, 100 percent completion waterfall model is daunting for major projects like ECSS. An agile approach to program management likely would have been more effective.

Inadequate definition of requirements made it difficult to adopt industry-standard supply chain processes. ECSS had a tendency to revert to legacy processes driven by legacy systems. The project exposed serious problems in the accuracy and availability of data.

Core mission “capabilities requirements” must drive the processes enabled by the IT implementation. It’s not about the software; it’s about the mission value delivered by implementing improved processes. Process automation is only part of the solution; documentation and training must be included. Data must be clearly identified, architected, tested and maintained, because if it’s wrong, ­everything is wrong.

The Air Force selected enterprise resource planning solutions before selecting the systems integrator. When the applications couldn’t meet program requirements, the results were major cost increases and schedule delays. The Air Force can still achieve many ERP benefits by following the right game plan for bringing together an overall set of ­modernized legacy applications.

ECSS was the largest business ­system implementation the Air Force had ever attempted for establishing application development environments and running on its network. Despite sustained efforts to anticipate, find and fix bottlenecks, ECSS exposed numerous problems that couldn’t be overcome. While IT infrastructure still needs significant improvements, implementing smaller “chunks” will make that process ­possible through continuous iterations.

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