Podcast: What Defines Program Excellence In A&D? Program Managers Share Their Thoughts

Listen in as Aviation Week Network's Program Excellence Awards Editor Mike McClary talks to two 2023 finalists from Honeywell and Skunk Works respectively as well as a reviewer from Raytheon about what goes into a winning submission.

Nominations for the 2024 Aviation Week Program Excellence Awards are open through March 30. Click here to find out more.

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Mike McClary:               Hello and welcome to Aviation Week’s Check 6 podcast. I’m Mike McClary, Editor and Program Lead for Aviation Week’s Annual Program Excellence Awards. 2024 marks the 20th year of Program Excellence and nominations for this year’s awards opened on February 15.

The Program Excellence Awards recognize program performance beyond technology goals, recognizing leadership, creativity, and process discipline. The aim is to identify best practices and lessons learned that can be shared across the aerospace and defense industry.

We thought the best way to talk about program excellence is to talk with those who participated in last year’s program. So, joining me today are Marlene Sharkey, Senior Program Manager at Honeywell Aerospace, Dee Hidalgo, a Program Director at Skunk Works from Lockheed Martin, and Brian Burton, Executive Director, Precision Fires and Maneuver with Raytheon.

Thank you all for joining us today.

We invited Marlene, Dee and Brian to talk with us, because each of them had a different role in last year’s program.

Marlene, you and your team were named finalists in the special projects category. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the program you submitted last year and what inspired you to submit it?

Marlene Sharkey:          We submitted for our Agile deployment within the Engine and Power Systems group of Aerospace in Honeywell. We chose to do this, because it has been very difficult to implement Agile in hardware environments. I actually had 25 years in manufacturing and had a good sense of what it would take to implement Agile, and then I had the opportunity to work with American Family Insurance in their software area and see a full transformation to Agile, and so I was able to bring that here. We have been very successful and like I said, it’s been very difficult. In fact, I’ll say they failed two times prior to this attempt and we have been very successful with this. We believe this is really a game changer for our ability to gain efficiencies and bring down costs for our programs.

Mike McClary:               All right, thanks, Marlene. So, Dee, your program was also named a finalist in Special Projects, but you took home the award for Top Overall Program. Tell us about the program you submitted last year and what inspired you to submit it.

Dee Hidalgo:                 We submitted Rapid Dragon as an Air Force industry submission. Rapid Dragon demonstrates the feasibility of air launching kinetic and non-kinetic effects from mobility aircraft, like the C-130, without any aircraft modifications. It transforms mobility aircraft into lethal, first-strike platforms and integrates with battle management systems, so missions and targets can be updated while the aircraft is airborne. It can also deploy non-kinetic effects such as decoys and ISR platforms, enhancing blue force survivability and situational awareness across the battle space.

From 2020 to 2022, the Rapid Dragon team took a palletized effects delivery system from clean sheet to first flight in less than 10 months. We participated in over 30 flight tests from four different transport variants. Three of those included live fire events with production long range munitions and were conducted both stateside and in the Arctic Circle. In 2023, the program conducted additional live fire cruise missile deployment from C-17 airlifters overseas, as well as a series of flight tests to demonstrate a new, improved lightweight palette and the deployment of non-kinetic effects and mixed load outs.

                                   What inspired us to submit the Rapid Dragon Program is that one advantage is that the system requires no special infrastructure on the ground, no modifications to the aircraft, and no special training of the flight and ground crew. So this means that any aircraft and crew qualified to execute a heavy equipment drop can be capable of executing this mission. And this becomes a game changer and force multiplier when you factor in the proliferation of C-130s around the world, and the opportunities for our allies to expand the utility of their transport fleets and bring this capability to bear with us.

                                   Another thing that inspired us was we love a good challenge. When some folks heard we wanted to execute a live fire test with a new weapon system 16 months from our proposal submission, they said, “No way, it can’t be done.” But our team rose to the challenge, and we said, “Challenge accepted, and we’re going to do this and hold to that commit.”

The Rapid Dragon Program streamlined processes. We adopted new ways of doing business. We use new digital engineering tools and proactively managed risk and opportunity, and we brought the best practices of leadership to drive innovation and discipline and excellence into every aspect of program execution. And that took passion, it took partnership, it took grit, it took sacrifice and commitment of a community. And if I could pick one phrase that we live by, it was always; How can we get to yes?

We were always all in and all in together, and that is a fighting spirit that we need in our industry base today and we need it in our government and military ranks. We need that to win together.

Mike McClary:               Nice. Marlene, what advice would you have for someone who might be unsure about whether or not to submit a nomination, as they’re working on their program? What would they be thinking about that maybe this should be submitted or not?

Marlene Sharkey:          Yeah, I think really is it something that the entire industry would find value in? And if that is the case, I would definitely start capturing information that you think the industry needs to understand. So, as you start getting those wins, as you start seeing the success from it, start capturing that, so you can articulate that in the submission.

Mike McClary:               Great. And Dee, what about you? What advice would you have for someone who’s considering a program for submissions for Program Excellence?

Dee Hidalgo:                 So, across industry, we’re being asked to do more and with greater agility and affordability. And this requires us to transform our workforces, our cultures, how we do business, and how we partner with each other and our customers. If you’re unsure about submitting a nomination for the award, I would ask yourself:

How are you and your teams experimenting with new ways of doing business and managing programs to meet aggressive timelines, or execute in resource constrained environments?

What are the complexities that you’re facing?

How are the teams implementing creative solutions to mitigate risk and realize those opportunities?

All of our programs have different challenges and opportunity spaces. There’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for excellence in an execution, but what we all can benefit from are the lessons learned and baring brilliance across organizational lines to elevate performance across programs across the industry and the government. So think about what lessons, legacy or inspiration you want to leave to the teams behind you and submit that unique success story.

Mike McClary:               That’s great. Here’s a similar question for you, Marlene, what would you recommend to a team, and you touched on this a little bit, that’s working on a program today that might not be ready to submit an award, maybe it’s a year or so away? What type of things should they be tracking, measuring, thinking about if they’re like, “Yeah, we’ll submit it next year, or the year after”?

Marlene Sharkey:          Yeah, I would definitely get the examples of past submissions which are out there on Aviation Week website, which is fantastic. Get those and see how people did track what kind of information they put forward, and then that will help you start to think about what you want to have ready for it. Because the questions in the submission are pretty challenging, because it’s like, “Hey, how have you impacted your team? How have you impacted your organization? How have you done better for the common good right across the world?” kind of thing.

And so it really gets you elevating your thinking beyond just; how did it help today in my organization? So definitely recommend getting those past submissions, so you can start thinking about that and really start thinking about the value that it’s bringing to those different components that I talked about, your organization and the greater good as well.

Mike McClary:               Dee, anything you’d add to that?

Dee Hidalgo:                 So, if you’re in the middle of execution and you’re in a program that’s about a year away from submitting, first, I would say thank you, thank you to you and your teams. Your programs are probably addressing a critical need and are pushing the art of the possible in aerospace and defense. So thank you.

Other pieces of advice; celebrate the wins and capture them, all of them, every little voice and success matters. I would make note of challenges and the uncertainty and the context and the stories behind overcoming these potential derailers, those are important and unique.

And for the unwritten part of the story, are there opportunities to experiment with or revisit how you optimize for success? Can you capture those metrics along the way and find a way to quantify the gains with each iteration or experiment?

                                   And then the last thought, and this is just a challenge to you all out there, why wait to share your story a year? Are there any opportunities to share lessons learned and inspirations now, maybe even within your organizations or smaller circles, so others can benefit from your journey sooner? Knowledge transfer events that highlight the team’s discipline, their focus and fast-paced execution, they serve to inspire the next generation. So why wait? Do it now.

Mike McClary:               Okay. All right, finally, Marlene, what did it mean for you and your team to be recognized as a finalist in 2023?

Marlene Sharkey:          For Honeywell and for the hardware industry to call out Agile as something very important that did get to the point of being a finalist was huge. It was significant. And like I said, within Honeywell, Agile has definitely been a challenge, and to have this kind of success and have it recognized in the industry was huge. Our president of Engine and Power Systems was very excited, excited to get the award. The award is excellent. It’s super, we can put it in our award area. So it meant a lot from that standpoint.

                                   For me, personally, I’m new to the aerospace industry and government run activities and programs, and so just to get to Aviation Week and to that conference was amazing. And I do want to call that out, because again, being new, being able to be around people like Dee and Brian and all of you, Mike, with the experience in the industry was significant. And I want to mention, for those of you who have been in it, maybe for your whole career, just the value you bring to others. So, really appreciated Aviation Week, the conference, the process.

Mike, it was amazing working with you and your team throughout the whole process. So, it meant a lot for me personally and definitely to Honeywell. So thank you.

Mike McClary:               Great. How about you Dee? You were the Top Overall Program, so I think that took you by surprise, pleasantly. Tell us about your experience last year.

Dee Hidalgo:                 It’s truly an honor to be recognized among such high performing programs and industry peers who are also delivering innovation to our customers. We’re excited to learn we were a finalist and over the moon when we received the top award during this year’s award ceremony.

Programs like the ones nominated for the Aviation Week Excellence Award are successful, because of the people and partnerships behind them. That’s the heart and soul of the industry. The Rapid Dragon team could not have set such an accelerated development and demonstration pace without our community of DoD and industry partners that enabled our successes.

                                   As with all aspects of Rapid Dragon, we’re committed to win together and we did things together. This is why the program was nominated as a joint government and industry submission, to highlight that strong partnership between our Air Force Program Manager, Dean Evans, and our DoD stakeholder community. The largely unclassified nature of Rapid Dragon allowed our teams to share best practices and lessons learned, to encourage growth mindset thinking and enable Agile program execution across the Lockheed enterprise, industry and the U.S. Government. The unclassified nature of the program also allowed our families, friends and teammates and our partners and our children to celebrate with us. And this is not always the case, because our successes were also enabled by their unwavering support. And again, stories and programs like these, they inspire and encourage us to find new and creative ways to address our customer’s most challenging and time sensitive security challenges.

Mike McClary:               All right, well thanks, Marlene and Dee, and again, congratulations on being recognized as a finalist and Top Overall Winner last year.

Now let’s turn to Brian Burton. Brian, you’re a Program Excellence veteran, as I understand it. You served as a judge last year. Why don’t you tell us about your experience with Program Excellence over the last few years? And then we can talk about what it’s like to be a judge.

Brian Burton:                Yeah, sure. As you said, I’m the Executive Director for Raytheon’s Precision Fires and Maneuvers business area, which includes a number of programs, the most familiar probably being TOW, Javelin and Excalibur. And I have been involved with Program Excellence awards for a number of years, both as a judge or an evaluator, and in helping our teams with their nominations. And so, I’m really excited to take a few minutes today and talk about the program, because I really have seen firsthand the impact it has on our employees to be recognized for exceptional team execution, not only by leaders across the industry, but also endorsed by their customer, which really adds to the recognition. It really is a great program, and as you’ve heard earlier today in this discussion, just how impactful it is for the employees that are recognized.

Mike McClary:               All right, so, Brian, tell us what is your approach when you’re evaluating a nomination? Tell us a little bit how that looks from how many people are involved in that and how the mechanics behind reviewing the award nominations that come in.

Brian Burton:                Sure. And I’m sure it varies across the industry and in different companies and how they approach it, so just some of the things that we’ve done, I’ll say for me personally, I really strive to be objective and use the scoring criteria. And for me, it’s really worth the time upfront to review what the categories are, review the scoring criteria, and then to schedule time or to really focus on the nominations.

And I’ll say for me, when I’m doing it, I’m trying to spread them out a little bit and look at a few at a time. And as you can imagine, Mike, busy schedules do help us spread those out a little bit over time and not do them all at once. But I really do think it’s important to keep a fresh perspective as you’re looking at them, because there are a lot of nominations coming in. These are really great nominations. Every one of them are the best for their company. And so, it really is important to set time aside. We do often involve senior leaders from across our company to help with the nominations and then to come together and just get alignment on those scoring for those criteria. So, I’d say that’s the approach that I take and that we’ve used here at Raytheon.

Mike McClary:               Well, as someone who collects the nominations as they come in, I can tell you, they’re about 12 pages and they’re pretty dense with a lot of great information, so let’s just take one for example. How much time would you say, to give a thorough review of a nomination, how much time are you dedicating to say a single nomination?

Brian Burton:                Yeah, as you pointed out, there’s a lot to it and there’s a lot of information there to take in. So it does really depend, because some of the nominations have a lot more details and some of them less so. And it is really important just to give each nomination a thorough review.

As I said before, these are the best of the best from each company that are coming in. I would say, even though it does vary, I try to set aside at least a 30-minute window to look at it. Even though knowing some of them are going to take less time, some of them are going to take more, but I try to establish about a 30 minute per nomination, knowing that there’s going to be plus and minuses on it. But that’s what I try to set aside.

Mike McClary:               That sounds good. All right. So in your experience, what would you say makes a submission stand out from others?

Brian Burton:                Yeah, for me, my two things come to mind: specifics and complexity. Being specific can be a challenge sometimes, because the nominations are being evaluated by a lot of outside companies. And so, the write-ups need to be sanitized, but the nominations that can really talk to the management tools, the data analytics being done without including, let’s say, the proprietary information, those really stand out to me as an evaluator.

And the other piece of it is complexity, and complexity comes in a lot of different flavors. It could be a new technology, it could be a very short and critical deadline for an urgent operational need. It could be maybe a complex environment, like having a missile intercept in space, or overcoming obstacles in a pandemic, or even a hybrid work environment in today’s workforce. So, all of those things really help me or help a nomination stand out to me.

Mike McClary:               Excellent. Well, I asked this of Marlene and Dee, so I’ll ask you. What advice, based on what you just said, would you have for someone who’s submitting a nomination in terms of things to be sure to include or things to avoid when putting together an award submission?

Brian Burton:                Yeah, I would say two thoughts here as well. First is use the award criteria, pay attention to the point values.

When you see areas where there’s more points, it’s probably good to spend the extra time there and focus on those that you can put the details in there that really help it stand out. Because, as judges, we’re using that evaluation criteria to be objective across all of the nominations that come in. So, I’d really pay attention to that piece of it. I love the advice that was given earlier; look at the other successful nominations. Those are really good guideposts for the kind of details that have been included in the past. Maybe even a unique approach for, “Oh, I can see how I can get all of the specifics of the tool and the best practice that we used without giving the proprietary information for what the program specifically did.” So I would certainly say use those criteria, use the point values, and use examples from the past.

                                   The other thing I would say is look for completed milestones or projects that are really impactful, and I say impactful from the customer’s perspective. I’ve read nominations, as an evaluator, where it’s clear they’re using some really great best practices, but it is a little bit early in the process to really know that this is accomplishing the event that the customer would really value. So I would say when you have an opportunity to celebrate that milestone that’s significant to the customer, to celebrate the completion of it, when you can add those two pieces together where you both have the success of the project, but also the execution tools and best practices, having those come together at the same time is really impactful to me as an evaluator.

                                   And then the final thing I would just say is the customer is such an important part of this, and it’s really, in my opinion, what makes this award so meaningful for the teams at Raytheon, because the customer, it really is our focus is the customer, and having their endorsement is the real icing on the cake and being recognized for exceptional program performance by your industry peers, but that endorsement by the customer really brings it home.

Mike McClary:               That’s great advice, Brian. I appreciate you sharing that, and I’m sure that’ll be helpful for folks looking to submit for this year.

I think that’s a great place to end this edition of Check 6. Our thanks to Marlene, Dee and Brian for joining us today.

As a reminder, nominations for this year’s Program Excellence Awards are now open through March 30. To find out more, use the link in the show notes.

You can also visit the Program Excellence website at programexcellence.aviationweek.com to learn more, to submit a nomination and to see all the submissions from 2023.

And join us again next week for another episode of Check 6. Until then, have a great week and stay safe.