Congressional demands, cost overruns, and design failures were serious challenges for a new generation of fast response cutters (FRCs) for the U.S. Coast Guard.

FRCs are intended to perform a wide range of future Coast Guard missions and are the centerpiece of the service’s modernization program. The cost of the program that includes new ships, small boats, planes and helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles had ballooned from $17 billion to over $24 billion.

The Senate subcommittee overseeing the Coast Guard demanded a comprehensive fix before proceeding further.

More direct input was needed from the actual end-users. Project team leaders needed a way to rapidly assess views on existing capabilities and vulnerabilities from those who would be sailing and maintaining the FRC. Specific feedback was sought on weapons systems, logistics, aviation, intelligence capabilities, and other areas.

A 3-day conference of 75 end users was planned to assess what was working well, what could be modified and where redesign was necessary.

A unique interactive methodology and a team of professional facilitators was proposed to improve the effectiveness of gathering team feedback and prioritization.

A cross-functional team that included Commanders, Chiefs and front-line officers from across North America was invited. 6 subteams were assigned to evaluate perceptions and beliefs of operational capabilities in each functional area.

A process facilitator and Operation Test Director/Test Team Member were assigned to each team. Each facilitator managed the process and technology and captured key discussion themes. Each OTD provided background information and coordinated external information requests.

Each subteam was assigned a list of functional areas for review. Using networked PCs, participant examined a pre-loaded list of FRC capabilities, commented on them and rated their level of agreement they could be fulfilled. Where more than 3 reviewers expressed disagreement about a capability, reviewers were asked to expand on the “whys” of their position for further clarification.

The process enabled all reviewers to comment simultaneously, so areas of consensus were quickly identified without anyone knowing where the comments originated. This encouraged a freer exchange of ideas. Team ranking of alternatives provided a clearer picture of strengths and weaknesses of the existing capabilities statements. All comments and ratings were captured automatically.

This process had several significant advantages:

Anonymous input meant it was impossible to “play to the gallery” telling superior officers what team members might perceive they wanted to hear. Full and free exploration of issues resulted.

There was no need to wait in line to make comments. Topics could be fully explored in a fraction of the normal time normally needed without any risk of missing an important angle.

Team polling enabled rapid ranking of related items. The anonymity of this process fostered a less filtered evaluation of issue strengths and weaknesses. In certain cases, re-framing assumptions and clarification was necessary. With the software, re-polling was a trivial matter taking only a few extra minutes.

Reports were generated from each session immediately upon session conclusion. Comparisons of group ratings were being made literally minutes after the subteams adjourned.

The Results: Feedback on the process

“This is an outstanding way to solve problems and should be employed at the start of the project not when there is a ship in the water.”

“I thought the mix of people in the aviation group was just about perfect. We had a great mix of backgrounds, skill sets and rank level to provide sufficient expertise in almost all the subjects discussed. Everyone contributed to the product and all views were valued. The software made the process of expressing our points very easy.”

“We actually had the time to discuss areas as needed. We weren’t pushed along merely to get the process accomplished.”

“The overall process to bring about diverse SME’s to provide a third party assessment of the NSC problem statement was extremely beneficial. This type of SME working group should be used for all major USCG acquisitions.”

The software and administrator for the software were very valuable.

I want to thank you for allowing me to participate in provide input to the future of the NSC. The use of the software was a first for me and I found it extremely beneficial towards capturing and directing the efforts of the SMEs. Additionally, the diverse backgrounds of the SME’s proved invaluable in this venture. This marked one of the few times (with the exception of Cutter CO Conferences), where Cutterman took ownership and worked toward strengthening the Cutter Community.

This conference has a great deal of potential to alleviate some very significant concerns from the aviation and cutterman communities.