Weight Watchers

How a team of engineers and a crash diet saved the Joint Strike Fighter.

The X-35A, built to validate propulsion and flying qualities for the Joint Strike Fighter, takes flight in October 2000. (Lockheed Martin)
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“You’re not supposed to come in with a white coat on,” says Sheridan, and suddenly his face and voice become stern, presenting the manner he used to get the job done. “You’re supposed to come in with a way to make it happen.”

An important attitude change was realizing that all weight savings—a pound here or a dozen pounds there—were vital. According to the database of incorporated SWAT changes, the average recommendation averaged only six pounds. But by taking “only” out of engineers’ mindsets, more and more ideas were considered.

Lockheed engineers like Santi Bulnes, of F-35 Mission Systems and a SWAT team leader, were given a free hand to redesign. “They said, ‘Forget what equipment is in the way. Draw it like you want it,’ ” he recalls.

The process also required a change in parochial attitudes and a willingness to put a finished design up for review, SWAT participants say. No one likes his work questioned, but no one wants a redesigned part to fail, possibly costing lives. Due to the interconnected nature of the airplane’s interior, some new designs required changing perfectly sound ones.

“People are proud of their designs. There is not too much interest in other people’s problems,” says Sheridan, flanked by SWAT team leaders in a Lockheed conference room. Each of the engineers—including Sheridan—had original designs abandoned during the redesign. “It’s a transformation from feeling good about protecting yourself to the exhilaration of pushing that margin out,” he says.

If “exhilaration” seems like a strong word to describe the process, it helps to understand the engineer’s mindset. A radical redesign under extreme time constraints is as challenging as the field gets. “It’s not often you get to spend your days with that talent pool and work problems like that,” says Bulnes. “We probably won’t see it again in our careers.”

Joe LeCompte was a 24-year-old rookie electrical power system engineer on Stand Down Day. His job at Lockheed was his first after graduating from Louisiana State University.

The meetings began only after employees were given some time to think. From the first order— “Everyone go to your cube [to brainstorm] and don’t bother anyone”—he felt grateful to be included in the rescue. “I felt really informed,” LeCompte says. “They had charts showing where the program needed to be. It wasn’t like smoke and mirrors.”

Managers that day announced the financial rewards to be paid when weight-loss ideas were accepted: $50 an idea and an equal amount for every pound the idea removed. The bounty was later increased to $100 an idea and $500 per pound.

The mix of candor, pressure, and incentives paid off: Something “did occur to me on Stand Down Day,” LeCompte grins. What occurred to him was to remove a power panel from the right-hand weapons bay by modifying another to handle the work. If realized, the modification could reduce overall weight by more than 20 pounds.

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