Skunk Works®

Invented at Lockheed in the 1940’s, one could call this the original ‘agile’ approach. A small dedicated expert team getting on with the job, unencumbered by other pressures.

The Skunk Works was a secret facility run by engineer Clarence “Kelly” L. Johnson. It was set up in a separate building with a dedicated team of hand-picked engineers and technicians.

The initial task was to produce a flying prototype jet fighter, the XP80, for the airforce that could do 500mph and be built in 180 days from receipt of the letter of intent. Kelly Johnson’s team of 23 engineers worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week and after 143 days it performed its first test flight and reached 502mph.

What allowed Kelly to operate the Skunk Works so effectively and efficiently was his unconventional organizational approach. He broke the rules, challenging the current bureaucratic system that stifled innovation and hindered progress. His philosophy is spelled out in his “14 rules and practices.”

How the Skunk Works® Got Its Name

The original Lockheed facility was located adjacent to a malodorous plastics factory. On one occasion an engineer jokingly showed up to work wearing a gas mask. To comment on the smell and the secrecy the project entailed, another engineer, Irv Culver, referred to the facility as “Skonk Works”.

He was a fan of Al Capp’s newspaper comic strip, “Li’l Abner,” in which there was a running joke about a mysterious and malodorous place deep in the forest called the “Skonk Works.” There, a strong beverage was brewed from skunks, old shoes and other strange ingredients.

One day, Culver’s phone rang and he answered it by saying “Skonk Works, inside man Culver speaking.” Fellow employees quickly adopted the name for their mysterious division of Lockheed and “Skonk Works” became “Skunk Works.”

At the request of the comic strip copyright holders, Lockheed changed the name of the advanced development company to “Skunk Works” in the 1960s. The name “Skunk Works” and the skunk design are now registered trademarks of the Lockheed Martin Corporation.

That’s the official story anyway.

I like to imagine that when a manager finally went to the shed where 23 engineers had been locked up for 143 days, the smell that hit him when he opened the door meant he cried out, “Who’s been working here – a load of skunks?”

Comments on Skunk Works

Working in a small expert team unencumbered by managers, bureaucracy, processes and paperwork, has a mythical attraction to engineers and developers of all disciplines, and it can work, but not always.

Clearly the original project was a great success, as were many others that followed. However this is not always the case, and it depends what you mean by success. For instance the F104 Starfighter only took 21 months from start of concept to 1st flight., but it also had a poor safety record, especially in Canada and Germany, where it was called ‘The Widowmaker”.

The problems with a Skunk Works, or any small ‘expert’ team, such as in Agile are:-

  1. The Company is entirely reliant on the expertise of the chosen group, with no ‘system’ as a back-stop. So whilst the engineers in the team may love it, the company management hates it.
  2. The experts may not turn out to be so expert. In 1962 a group of top engineers left Ferrari to set up their own racing team. The resulting car, the ATS, was a complete flop. In my own career, at one company where I worked, a select team was chosen for a flagship project. However the resulting car was too expensive, especially in the USA, and never recouped its investment. In this case the team lacked expertise in project management, manufacturing engineering, cost control and market research.
  3. Many modern day products are much more complicated then those of an earlier age and it is impossible to be an expert in every aspect, so larger teams are necessary, or one ends up with a team and product that is biased in one direction; ultimate technical performance for instance, but weak in other aspects, e.g. design for manufacture or customer focus.
  4. It is all very well if you are chosen to be in the ‘A’ team, but what about everyone else? Those who are in the B or C teams tend to get bitter and demoralised. If the company wants to do 10 projects, should they put all the best people in one team, or spread them around?
  5. Also note that what the original Skunk Works team were good at was getting to the 1st prototype quickly. What is often not mentioned in the story is was what happened afterwards – the long slog of testing and validation of the design and productionising it.
  6. Separate project teams can drift away from the mainstream, develop their own ways of working and not keep up with developments, technical and otherwise in the rest of the company and elsewhere.

Elite’s opinion is that a Skunk Works has its place, as long as it does not get too smelly! In other words think carefully about when and how to use this type of approach and when not, and rotate teams and team members so that there is always a supply of fresh thinking and fresh blood.

If you would like to discuss the pros and cons of having your own ‘skunk works’, please contact us.

More Information

For more information on the original Skunk Works see the following books:-

Kelly – More Than My Fair Share, by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson with Maggie Smith

Skunk Works, by Ben R, Rich & Leo Janos

Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works: The Official History, by Jay Miller

“Skunk Works” and the skunk design are now registered trademarks of the Lockheed Martin Corporation.