Air Force Brig. Gen. Kathryn Johnson and Robert Shofner, a civilian senior executive, have been leading the Air Force’s logistics modernization efforts following the cancellation of the Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) in late 2012. The service pulled the plug on the program after spending roughly $1 billion for what one senior Air Force official termed “negligible capability.” But the project’s failure didn’t end the service’s need to improve its logistics management capability. Johnson and Shofner recently discussed the status of the program with Federal Times Senior Writer Sean Reilly. Following are edited excerpts.
You’d been given
a heck of an assignment to come in just as the ECSS was being canceled. How did you go about picking up the pieces, and are there any lessons that you’ve learned along the way that might be applicable for anyone else in this position?
Shofner: I will tell you that we executed an incredibly smart shutdown of ECSS, which did a lot for us. It helped us to capture of a lot of the metadata, the information — really understand where we were. That also allowed us to go through a very rigorous inventory of the systems we have today.
Johnson: I would add that we spent a lot of time decomposing ECSS and what went wrong with it, because we wanted to ensure that we did not go down and make the same mistakes. We had outside agencies come in and do a full review of the program, soup to nuts, and said, “Here’s where your failures were.” We have been very methodical about going back and making sure that we set into place ways so that we don’t make those same mistakes.
For example, governance was one of the lessons learned. The Air Force is huge and so there [were] so many people that had a say in how we were doing [ECSS]. There was no governance structure in place that said, “OK, this is how we’re going to do it, we’ve decided.”
Now we have that governance structure in place and it works. We do prioritization, “Here’s what we’re going to do first, here’s what we’re going to do second, here’s what we’re going to do third, here’s the things we want to focus on.” We want to make sure our tie to the logistics strategy stays intact so that we are moving this whole thing forward as a logistics community.
So would you say is this more bottom-up driven, essentially driven by requirements?
Johnson: By requirements, exactly. What is it I need it to do? We are making sure that every problem that can be brought up is brought up at the lowest levels so that we solve it before we get into the final solutions.
Is there a timeframe for completion?
Johnson: I see it as an iterative thing. You always have to go back and look at that and say, “Is this fulfilling the Air Force’s requirements? Will we do that in ten years? Yes.”
Would you be looking at a commercial off-the-shelf [software] solution?
Shofner: We’re looking at COTS, GOTS [government off-the-shelf] ... or a full development.
Johnson: It all starts with the building-the-requirements part. If you do that right, we should be able to buy something that works.
Was there an effort to do that under ECSS, to actually determine from the ground up what the maintenance centers’ requirements were?
Johnson: They did do some work, but I don’t think they did it to the level of fidelity that we’re doing it.
Shofner: In fact, that was one of the challenges; we outsourced a lot of that — we outsourced what was derivation of requirements for a very complex system.
Johnson: To be fair to CSC, we didn’t just say, “Tell us how do we do maintenance, repair and overhaul at the depots.” We said, “Tell us how we do Air Force logistics.” The lesson learned from that is not only do we need to do our own requirements, but we need to start smaller. We need to start with one piece of Air Force logistics; let’s work on that one first.
Is CSC involved what you’re doing now at all?
Johnson: No, this is all organic [with] Air Force personnel.
Any advice you would give for anyone who’s put in a comparable situation, based on your experience of the last year?
Johnson: Focus on the requirements.
Shofner: If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past year, year-and-a-half, you really want to avoid changing COTS software or even GOTS software very much. You want to minimize the amount of customization that you do. Don’t always make the answer, ‘Let’s just go change the software.’
Why do you stress avoiding customization?
: You’re asking code to do something different from what it was originally designed. A lot of systems engineering goes into designing an application that works today. The effects downstream of making a change in code [are] sometimes very, very hard to predict.
How long will you be in your current positions? Is that a concern that if you’re going to be moving on, say, after another two years, that you won’t have the continuity of leadership to see this through successfully?
Shofner: I think what we’re trying to do, what’s most important, is put things in place that are disciplined and repeatedable. And frankly, it shouldn’t matter a whole lot who the next person is [who] comes to the chair or when they come. ■