Iron Dome innovation lessons


The old ditty ‘when Mother Nature gives you lemons you make lemonade’ tells us a lot about about being creative, particularly when innovation is critical to your corporate strategy — and survival. In the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, the lemons in questions are the hundreds of rockets being fired into Israel on a daily basis. Israel’s ‘lemonade’ was the development of the Iron Dome anti-missile system, which has quickly become one of the most impressive weapon-defence systems of the past 20 years. What lessons can businesses glean from the development of this world-class technology?

The Iron Dome was developed by Israeli defence contractor Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Its development from ideation to deployment took about seven years, hundreds of workers, dozens of suppliers and more than $200M in investment (much of it supplied by the U.S.). The Dome’s purpose is straightforward and exceedingly difficult; the system is designed to track and intercept incoming short-range missiles with its own missiles before the attacking missiles strike their targets. Missiles that would have hit an unpopulated area are ignored, in order not to waste munitions. To date, the system has been very successful, intercepting approximately of 90% of the threats it faces. Rafael is currently looking to sell the system to a variety of countries.

Aside from its military success, the Iron Dome is a model of innovation commercialization under tight constraints. Below are seven lessons gleaned from a variety of public sources. The quotes below are from project team members and were anonymously cited (for security reasons) in the Times of Israel newspaper.

1. Create urgency

Contributing to the protection of your nation can be motivating. However, Rafael’s leaders put wood behind the arrow by making the Dome a strategic priority. The project’s constraints — tight timelines, technical challenges, and cost limitations — were clearly articulated so there were no role misalignments or executional misunderstandings.

2. Assemble the best people

Having the right mix of capable people is vital. Rafeal’s management assembled a technical dream team. According to one engineer, “The best people in the field came together for this project.” Patriotism was not the only motivator: “Many engineers were inspired by the technological challenges and … fought to participate in the project.” As it turned out, much of the team was, through design or chance, made up of very curious and creative individuals able to sustain a high workload and quickly solve problems.

3. Optimize the team size

Given the constraints, management decided that using a “lean, mean” team of motivated experts was the right tack. The modestly sized core development team — numbering in the dozens — was much smaller than what you would typically see on major initiatives in bigger organizations. The payoff was faster project speed, less politicking and reduced management complexity.

4. Quickly evaluate issues

One pressing issue was how to collate and evaluate the numerous conceptual and technical ideas, and technology fixes. The team developed excellent screening tools to help analyze options and decide when to let go of an idea and move on. These methodologies avoided analysis paralysis, and accelerated the pace of experimentation and prototype development.

5. Experiment regularly

A culture of risk taking and continuous learning permeated the project team. Part of this culture involved running many experiments to test ideas and technology. Successful experiments were studied to distill technical shortcuts and share best practices. Failures were also systematically analyzed to avoid repetition. These practices minimized technical risk, avoided duplication and maximized speed.

6. Collaborate closely

The Iron Dome was developed in close collaboration with the users and other stakeholders to reflect real-world needs. One team member said, “Our relationship with the people in the field was unprecedented; this was essential for adapting the system to all the constraints in the field.” Given the need to quickly deploy the system, the Dome was designed with simplicity in mind so as to improve manufacturability and ease of transport.

7. Be entrepreneurial

For a prolonged period, the Iron Dome faced criticism from many circles — vested institutional interests, the media and military experts — around cost, potential effectiveness etc. The team used these concerns as a personal challenge, and to further refine their plans. According to one engineer, “Maybe we should thank the media, because when you read a cynical article, you say to yourself, ‘Let’s show them’ and you tackle the project, invigorated.” Another said, “In retrospect, it was the constraints, which seemed almost insurmountable, that led us to develop creative and successful solutions,” including engineering lower-cost parts from scratch and using components that were discovered in a toy car sold at Toys ‘R’ Us.

The development and effectiveness of the Iron Dome teaches companies that innovation success can be more about attitude, common sense and collaboration — the intangibles — than investment and size of R&D teams. Managers would be wise to consider these lessons.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

Advertisements

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: