Apollo Guidance Computer Activities

AGC Conference 3 - Organizational Aspects of the AGC Manufacturing Efforts

Apollo Guidance Computer History Project

Third conference

November 30, 2001

From left: Ed Duggan and Cline Frasier.

Organizational Aspects of the AGC Manufacturing Effort.

CLINE FRASIER: Well, I was going to say if I switch gears a minute from the purely technical. The technical stuff was really important and it was important to have really excellent technical people. So from a far distant view, one of the absolute essential things was that there were checks and balances in the program, both technically and organizationally. Most things that were done got outside review of some kind of another. And like we heard last time on the software, NASA had people that were going over the software. The software was being checked at North American and Grumman in a way, and lots of mistakes were found that way with that oversight.

Some believed there was a certain amount of tension between the Instrumentation Lab and Raytheon and AC Electronics and among all those with the spacecraft contracts. And those tensions brought out things that you never would have found any other way. My experience since then has been seeing that where there aren’t those checks and balances, how long things get hidden.

JACK POUNDSTONE: You mean because there was not one prime contractor?

CLINE FRASIER: Well, though, it’s not because there was not one prime contractor but because there was no way of checking and balancing. Engineers, especially, if they had trouble, they’d say, "We don’t have any trouble." They figured if they cover it up long enough they’ll fix it so nobody will find out. A lot of things, you don’t get fixed. Because there were all these checks and balances, these things got found much sooner, and we had more time to get them fixed than they would have in almost any other program.

ED BLONDIN: Case in point, security at Logan Airport. No checks and balances, right?

CLINE FRASIER: Well, one of the other things I think was key to getting there on time was that managers who didn’t fit, for whatever reason, or didn’t perform, got changed. And they got changed faster than they do in many of the organizations I've worked with since, both government and industrial. And in addition to technology, having good management is absolutely key because on a program like this, just having good technical people won’t make it work. And so you look at the number of changes that went on at AC and there were changes that went on in NASA, and the number of changes that went on at Raytheon, there were, I think, a few changes even at the instrumentation lab. People don’t always fit in particular jobs.

DAVID MINDELL: Why did it happen on this program? Doesn’t happen in many programs.

CLINE FRASIER: Well, I think first of all, there was so much visibility about things. The program had an absolute date and a strong commitment from everyone. Nobody wanted to fail, and they weren't going to allow themselves to fail because somebody else wasn’t doing a good job.

ED BLONDIN: You had the ultimate time constraint. Kennedy had said, "We will get to the moon this decade." This program got more visibility than any other program. You could sweep a lot of things under the rug other places, and if you didn’t have one weapon system, you'd have another one. The thought of an astronaut perishing because something didn’t work properly, that was unthinkable. Then you had the more mundane things like incentive contracts so that you could work very hard and then the result of it would be up to you to say how much money you were going to get. It would be like the New England Patriots having their players play and then by the time 25 percent of the games had been played, then the coach decides how much he’s going to pay you. Well, anybody who’s getting in your way of your incentive pay, the fact that he’s a buddy, that doesn’t cut much. Get out of my way. Because the general manager would raise hell if you didn’t.

CLINE FRASIER: The incentive structure of the contract was really important. I got into the job I had, after that had been decided, so I had nothing to do with putting it in place and this was part of putting it all under AC Electronics. But the way it was set up, because of this incentive, this award fee part, one of the requirements was that you couldn’t just wait until the end of the program and then decide how much they were going to get. You had to get progress reports along the way.

And I initially thought, "Boy, what a pain in the neck, and you know, I don’t like doing this and all." But looking back, it made a real difference because it was initially monthly and then quarterly. We had to go up to AC Electronics top management, and then we had to go through the list of things that said, "Here’s what we agreed was important to get done the last time around. Here's what's been done. Here's the things that we think have done better than we expected and here’s the things that were done worse than we expected." And we had to be able to back every one of those up.

And so we went through this three-hour meeting periodically, and we’d have the AC Electronics program management and the senior functional managers there. And Paul Blessingame, a VP in charge of the whole plant, was also in on that. What happened in the meeting wasn’t the important thing. What the important thing was, was that there was a meeting and that we insisted that there weren’t going to be any surprises about what went on in the meeting. So he already knew what was going to be discussed. His people knew what was going to be discussed. And my people on our side, they insisted that nobody could just put something in because they were angry.

For an example, one of my guys put in something - AC hadn't done something he wanted them to do with regard to Raytheon and the computer. So my reaction was, "Okay, how did you tell them to do it?" "Well, there’s no paper. I called somebody." I said, "That doesn’t help." But it was a discipline of having to do the report so it led me to that kind of behavior, led to the learning of my guys. It really worked like a charm. Some of the work we’re doing is with EMC Corporation in Hopkinton where they have a sole source of supplier called Seagate, because they can’t get anybody else to make really good disk drives. There was a long period of time where that was a troubled relationship for one reason or another. So we took this model that seemed to work with AC and we modified it a little bit and put it in place there. That’s really been working for about five or six years now. So I think it was some of those management innovations that people put in place that really made a difference, too.

JACK POUNDSTONE: Let me expand on that a little. Cline’s point was the visibility provided good oversight and rapid feedback to get things correct. Although you’d deny it, I still think the fact that NASA did not have North American as a single contractor and everybody else was under them, gave you that whole visibility.

CLINE FRASIER: I didn’t mean to deny that.

JACK POUNDSTONE: That's the norm in the Air Force. I’ve worked on those Air Force programs where you’re a third-tier sub and the Air Force has no idea what you're doing. And people can bury things. The Air Force holds those wonderful meetings with 150 second lieutenants listening, but they don't accomplish anything.

CLINE FRASIER: Right. So I think that they change them over every year or so.

JACK POUNDSTONE: Yes, the contract structure that was set up with NASA gave you people that kind of visibility.

CLINE FRASIER: Oh, I agree completely.

ELDON HALL: You were getting some responsibility but in the Air Force situation, those Air Force guys don’t have any responsibility anyway, so they fell asleep in the meeting.

DAVE HANLEY: They sleep and they play cards.

ELDON HALL: At NASA, they had some responsibility, too.

JACK POUNDSTONE: That's for sure.

ED BLONDIN: A typical Air Force review would be a senior officer and a whole bunch of second lieutenants, a whole bunch of them. The meeting would open and these guys had everything to say. And it would drag on and on and on and it was a non-sequitur after non-sequitur.

The Navy, like NASA, would come in and there would be a top guy, a four-striper or on rare occasions an admiral. And if they had a lieutenant commander, it was to carry the captain’s briefcase. That was it. It was like the bridge of the ship. Captain’s on the bridge, everybody else shut up. I made a presentation one time to Admiral Julian Lake. Surrounded down in naval ACS and I wanted to prove to him that we, Raytheon, could handle the production of this jamming system as opposed to Hughes’ huge production facilities. And I went through a half-hour presentation with slides. If that was the Air Force, I’d have gotten through slide one when someone would have started raising a non-sequitur question. I went through the whole thing. Everybody at that table had their eye focused on Admiral Lake. Not me, and I was giving the presentation. It was all over and I said, "Any questions?" Admiral Julian Lake said, "I don’t have any. Anyone else?" Dead silence. If that had been the Air Force, I mean, you would have had a congressional debate. Why they did that, I don’t know. I guess it was the bridge of a ship versus fighter planes.

NASA was the same way. They’d send in their head honcho and you’d just wait, and listen to the arguments. Then you’d say, "I think you ought to do this," and that'd be it. Okay. Salute and execute. We were glad to get off the frying pan because none of those decisions were easy. You had to get to the Moon in the ‘60s or you were going to embarrass the country. The thing better work or you're going to fry an astronaut. And your corporation’s reputation was at stake. Every corporation had huge ads saying, "We were on Apollo." I used to shudder when I saw them. I’d say, "My God, this thing better work."

HUGH BLAIR-SMITH: Bill Tindall was always very good in that role. You’d get the NASA presence. And in terms of software reviews, he ran a little like that. And he followed everything, understood everything, and if there was anything fishy, he’d be letting you know in a second.

ED BLONDIN: It was a different group than the other NASA. An entirely different group. The kinds of guys they had in there, I ended up working for a couple of them like Joe Shea. They weren’t the old Foggy-Bottomed gas types, blind. They were guys who thought quickly, who could make decisions, they were bound and determined to get to the moon.

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