Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Plane Wrong

"You don't own that plane, the tax payers do!"
- Top Gun, 1986

In his Toronto Star piece $16 billion for the wrong planes Michael Byers writes how the Canadian government last week sole sourced 65 F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin at $135 million per plane, avoiding a tender process that would have drawn bids from other domestic and foreign companies including Boeing, Eurofighter and Saab. The sole source decision was justified on the basis of what Byers describes as "ridiculously narrow operational requirements" based not on Canada's unique air defense procurement needs but on "...instructions from the Pentagon". In addition to his general argument that the sole source decision has resulted in Canada's taxpayers paying too much money for the wrong aircraft Byers also makes the point that some of the $16 billion could have been invested in other high need areas such high speed rail for the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridor.

Michael obviously feels strongly about this issue and I can see why. It's a classic example of public sector procurement decisions being made wholly on political rather than technical or commercial considerations. But let's check our naivety at the door for a moment and smell the coffee while we're at it - the fact of the matter is that the US and Canadian aerospace industries are joined at the hip AND the wallet. The two countries represent over 50% of each other's aviation exports and imports so to all intents and purposes their aerospace companies conduct business and catch each other's colds as if under one flag. Consequently major equipment buying decisions are going to be inextricably linked to the impact of that decision on one or both of the two countries' aerospace industries. Were Canada to opt for Europe's Typhoon this would not only take a lead pipe to Lockheed Martin's knees but would severely wind a large number of the US defense contractor's Canadian supply base at the same time. So it's the F-35 boys! Even if it does mean running on fumes over the Arctic, tearfully fingering the family photo tucked into your cockpit windshield frame while a Hercules mid-air refueling tanker attempts to cover the 2000-odd miles from Vancouver before your nifty but short range jet runs out of gas over that rather uninviting ice flow below.

So what's a sourcing idealist to do? Well, start by realizing there are going to be times when political or other equally unsavory decision criteria trump your carefully constructed total cost of ownership evaluation model and MOVE ON. Next, introduce some best practice supply risk management principles to counter the impact of the award decision from hell. In the case of the F-35, for example, the Canadian Air Force could implement modified operating procedures to ensure that the shorter range aircraft always operates within a safe distance of mid-air refueling capability. Additionally the plane's range could be extended by retrofit mods such as external fuels tanks, lighter weapons packs, or other configuration modifications that in some cases will produce performance tradeoffs but that will ultimately serve to mitigate the negative impact of the original, technically flawed, sourcing decision.

Whether buying planes or pencils there will be times when the procurement professional's best laid sourcing plans run foul of political exigency or special interests. Don't cry over your spreadsheets at times like these but show the talking suits the right stuff you're made of. Whip out that risk mitigation plan. Look for ways to shield your internal customers from the potential fallout of a bad sourcing decision through outstanding supplier management.

And always carry an extra tank.