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Monday, June 1, 2009

Program Insider: Sikorsky’s Program Management

Managing production — especially developing and delivering aircraft and services on time and at promised prices — is something everyone in aviation knows the industry needs to get a lot better at, and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. is approaching that challenge in a novel way.

Even before a virtual epidemic of cost and schedule overruns led Congress to start considering major defense reforms, and even before a shrinking economy led commercial customers to become more demanding, Sikorsky established an intense, three-day course with a goal to inject more science into the art of program management.

Mark Goumas, director of business management for Sikorsky Military Systems, is the dean, so to speak, of its Program Management Academy. Goumas said the initiative wasn’t inspired by overruns but by Sikorsky’s need for more managers to handle a growing volume of work.

"We were on a growth trajectory in both our development and production business," Goumas said. "There was a high demand for strong managers. Trouble was, the customary way of training them, on the job, was unlikely to produce as many as Sikorsky was going to need soon enough." The company has roughly 100 program managers at any given time, Goumas said, and their deputies and other top subordinates also have to understand the many disciplines involved in major projects.

Rather than wait for future managers to learn their jobs solely by spending years doing stints in engineering, logistics, operations, quality assurance and other disciplines, Sikorsky created a crash course. Graduates aren’t immediately qualified to take over a major program, but what they learn in the PMA gets them ready faster.

Most of Sikorsky’s population of managers and potential managers fit into one of two generations, Goumas said. One is the "Black Hawk generation," who were hired in the 1970s and 1980s to work on the UH-60 and its many variations. The second group are the "Millenials," meaning those hired in the last five to seven years.

"What we’re trying to do here is formalize and accommodate the knowledge transfer from generation one to generation two," Goumas said.

PMA students get classroom instruction in 20 aspects of major programs and projects, broken down into modules taught by seasoned executives and managers. The subjects include customer expectations, acquiring business, program execution, contract management and aftermarket support.

Students also participate as role players in two case studies based on real Sikorsky programs, one military and one commercial. They play not only Sikorsky managers but also government and commercial officials, such as lead government engineer on a major defense contract or a foreign purchasing agent.

"We have them look at a set of information from the perspective of many different players in the program management process," Goumas said. "We give them a set of facts and say, ‘What would you do?’"

In developing the PMA curriculum with a group of other experts at Sikorsky, Goumas drew on what he has learned while working on a master’s in education and he consulted with instructors at the Defense Acquisition University at Fort Belvoir, Va. The PMA, however, is aimed at training managers to deal with commercial as well as Pentagon customers, he emphasized.

How much benefit Sikorsky and its customers will get out of the PMA is hard to measure, Goumas said, and will take time to tell. The PMA has held six sessions so far and he is still refining the curriculum, in part by asking government customers for feedback. — By Richard Whittle

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