Howard E. Chambers

Vice President, General Manager, Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems

Howard Chambers came to oversee Boeing’s Space and Intelligence Systems division in September 2005 with the mission of righting the ship. The company was struggling with space programs including the Future Imagery Architecture, GPS 2F, Wideband Gapfiller and the Space Based Space Surveillance System.

Prior to taking the space job, Chambers had handled a review of Boeing’s defense work, including its satellite efforts, that was intended to improve the company’s program management.

While his career at that point had focused on aircraft like the C-17 and B-1 rather than satellites, Chambers view is that solid program management is largely the same in both arenas.

“The work still breaks down into requirements packages and design activity, supplier relationships and teaming relationships, and subcontractors,” Chambers said. “You have to constantly ask yourself, do you have the right team members, the right engineers, the right program managers? Do they have a clear understanding of what can be done? Do they have the processes to make it happen?”

Chambers believes Boeing now has a solid foundation for program management as it competes for new contracts to build military systems like GPS 3 and the Transformation Satellite (T-Sat) Communications System, civil systems like the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites R, and commercial efforts, which today make up about 35 percent of his sector’s business.

He spoke about these issues during a recent interview with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.

What are you doing organizationally to address the problems with the Future Imagery Architecture?

Speaking broadly, not specifically about the Future Imagery Architecture, when you get into an organization, you don’t start out making massive structural changes. You don’t start out trying to get rid of all the people — the leaders. You try to find out what’s required of the contract and the customer, and what you are doing.

Then you start assessing how well you are doing it. The questions you ask are: ‘Do we have the right kind of processes? Do we have the right kind of relationships? Do we have the right people with the right attitude and knowledge?’

When you find issues with any of those things, you have to start making changes. Sometimes change is just putting a priority on things. I put a high priority on the relationship with the customer — open communication, frequent involvement.

You really want program teams to be talking to the customer every day. I put a high priority internally on communications. There should be daily meetings, weekly program reviews, monthly engagements with the customer and quarterly corporate business reviews, so you get some rhythm on what’s going on.

We’ve had issues with commercial programs, some of our government programs and some of our classified programs. And on some of them, we’ve gone so far as to change much of the management team.

Did you do that on the Future Imagery Architecture?

I can’t say. But I can tell you though that GPS is an example. We looked at that program, and it was not performing. The customer was not happy. We took a serious look at it from a programmatic point of view, sat down with the customer and restructured the baseline, changed the schedule, changed the cost — we changed essentially the complete management team. We also changed the location of some of the work, putting more of the work in El Segundo where we have a dedicated, competent satellite team. Work was being done before at Huntington Beach.

How are things going now on the GPS 2F program?

GPS is going well. With the new management team, we’re on track. We just reviewed the program with Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, and his team last week, and received good marks. There has been a series of government audits on the program. As you would expect, they found things that were going well and they also found some things that we need to add more emphasis to. Any audit will do that.

I’m a big believer in external reviews. You need programmatic reviews; you need schedule reviews; you need funding reviews and you need technical reviews. The more you have and the more people you have look at you, the better off you’ll be.

A lot of people talk about audits interfering with their work — is that not the case in your view?

Reviews take time. But if they’re done with a purpose, like examining our engineering processes, how can that not be good for us? I’ve had people complain that we’re doing too many audits. But I can tell you one of the things that happens: Once you have been audited and you’re performing, and the outbrief is a good outbrief, people don’t mind it as much.

The Air Force is talking about trying to accelerate the first launch of the GPS 3 satellites by two years. Do you think you can make it?

Yes. It depends on when you start. We’re in the middle of trying to build the 2F satellites. We’ve had problems with that program, and straightened them out. We’ll start delivering satellites in 2008.

The Air Force is going to come out with a request for proposals for the GPS 3 program in the next year, and they’ll make a selection to build X number of GPS 3As with the enhanced capabilities to them. I don’t think we’ll have an issue with trying to meeting the objectives of the schedule. But if there is a delay in awarding the contract, things are going to slip to the right.

Do you have any concern that the problems that you have had on GPS 2F will count against you on GPS 3?

Yes I do. In fact, we’ve talked with the Air Force about that. The Air Force has been very open to our concerns, and I have a firm belief that our destiny is in our own hands. Our performance on 2F will dictate what our opportunities and chances are on GPS 3A.

Given that Boeing has been on the hook for the cost overruns on Wideband Gapfiller because it was structured as a fixed price contract
, are you reluctant to bid another fixed price deal?

I can tell you that it has cost us money on Wideband Gapfiller. I’m personally not hesitant with fixed price at all, but it is difficult. It’s difficult for the customer to finalize requirements at the beginning of a contract. It’s difficult for the contractor to finalize the cost, because the requirements are maybe still changing. Philosophically, there are times when a fixed price works very well.

What’s your outlook on the years ahead, given that the defense budget appears to be flattening?

Well, I think that all of us who have been in the defense business for a number of years know that there are cycles, and we’re at the peak at this point in time. We’re all wondering if the peak will rise, or flatten out for a while, or is it going to dip over? So for the next three to five years, I think we’re all going to see a change, at least a flattening activity, which means that our business, as soon as it starts flattening, will have to be readjusted.

What might that entail?

Programs might get stretched. If it’s done carefully enough, and the programs stretch, then maybe we can take care of the manpower by just attrition and retirement. But if it declines significantly — 3, 4, 5 percent –then there is a retrenchment activity, which would demand that we restructure our business, and the downside of restructuring always involves the longevity of employees. That’s the most difficult thing to deal with in this business — having to lay people off. You destroy individual careers, and you impact families dramatically.

What kind of role can your division play in space-based missile defense?

I’ve been in this business for a year, and my objective for the year was to understand the problems that I have, and how to go about correcting those problems. I haven’t looked at space-based missile defense. Not because we’re not interested and not because it might not be there, but because of the issues I have in front of me that I have to resolve, for the sake of the business, and the sake of the customers that I currently have.