Why Skunkworks Fail

Author – Tim Smith

There is a good article in Forbes online magazine by Steve Blank called “Why Corporate Skunk Works need to die” where he discusses a classic skunk work project vs the new norm of the 21st century. Steve’s candid look at such projects is sobering for the most part but it misses an overlooked aspect of such initiatives;

“Non-core” skunk works fail. In his article Steve refers to Lockheed Martin, 3M and other notables who used a “skunk Works” approach to create disruptive change in their core competencies. Such innovation as described works when points made by Steve are brought into play. However, as Forbes journalist Bernard Marr describes in his article “Are These The 7 Reasons why Tech Projects Fail?” a skunkworks approach fail almost 100% of the time to deliver what was intended when employed in “non-core” applications. When engineering groups or IT teams are tasked to build the next “technology mouse trap” under the radar to leverage Industry 4.0 or IIoT applications the project is positioned for failure. As Bernard Marr points out in his article there are at least 7 failure points to such projects.

There is no comparison when a small development group, or worse, a person with some development experience is asked to build an application onto which a manufacturer will hang it’s ability to successfully employ technology.

There is no argument that Digital manufacturing, Data-Driven Manufacturing, MTConnect, Industry 4.0 and IIoT are here to stay and is mature enough to be considered beyond the early adopter phase, yet companies of all sizes are still treating the adoption of these technologies as the wild west. Technology partners like MEMEX Inc., leaders in Data-Driven Manufacturing for the last decade, have invested over 40,000 development hours and millions of dollars to build a platform (MERLIN) and a manufacturing operations management system (Tempus) to drive continuous improvement through autonomous and interactive information generating 18 leading metrics including OEE.

Due diligence in assessing an approach to employing and applying disruptive technologies is essential before committing a company to a direction. MEMEX is known for it’s breadth of information and makes visiting their site a good place to start the journey. No one wants a failed project. There are several large companies presently stuck in implementation quagmires where they banked on a “Build this yourself and you can own it” technologies and are presently considering engaging experts such as MEMEX to reboot their projects. Even if a company does complete a project internally they have no ability to maintain, manage and adapt what is built into the foreseeable future. They have spent their money and management considers the project finished. An operations technology application is NOT OFFICE 365 which is complete and definitely not evolutionary nor revolutionary. A skunkwork project by it’s very nature is myopic  with a set of fixed deliverables. When considering “build vs buy” investigate illuminating opinions from fellow C-Level managers like Chris Doig in his article in CIO magazine. Be aware that some “Buy” options like ptc still require a huge amount of work to implement or real deep pockets for “paid services”. Look toward more productized solutions that also have scalability.

Applications like Tempus are designed to adapt to different manufacturing types, scale to support multi-site implementations, expand features, functions, KPIs, metrics, reporting, alerting and more.

Do yourself a favor and explore the possibilities before you commit to a direction, but don’t settle for a light version or limited feature-set. Such products will only get you so far and no more. Make sure what you are researching will grow with you and can adapt to yet unforeseen manufacturing challenges. While you are looking check out the leader in Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM is a subset of MES), MERLIN Tempus

The writer, Tim Smith has a decade of shop experience at Firestone and over 30 years experience in technology and IT solutions. He is a subject matter expert in manufacturing applied technologies and presently holds the position of Director of Technology Adoption and MEMEX Inc.