Design Like a Fighter Pilot Part 2 – Identifying the Customer and Adding Value

During the early Operation Iraqi Freedom air campaign, the 524th Fighter Squadron “Hounds of Heaven” provided decisive airpower to Army and Marine Corps units that were advancing towards Baghdad.  The daily Air Tasking Order (ATO) called for a variety of missions including killbox interdiction, close air support and time sensitive targeting – all fairly standard missions for our Block 40 Vipers.  After a week or so, it became apparent that we were not likely to face a robust air threat – we had destroyed many Iraqi aircraft on the ground and the Iraqi Air Force opted to bury a few of their favorites to avoid a similar fate.  Our compatriots in the F-15 community had performed admirably in helping secure our air supremacy and, as a victim of their own success, were amongst the first combat units to head home.  As they departed, our unit was partially retasked to assist in the defensive counter-air (DCA) mission to protect high value air assets (HVAAs) such as the tankers and AWACS airborne control systems.  As these missions appeared on our daily ATO, we recognized an opportunity and requested that we be allowed to specify our munitions loadout.  Our request was granted, and our typical combat load for a DCA mission included not only air to air missiles, but also laser guided bombs and GPS guided munitions.  As a result, we were able to continue providing air support for the Army and Marines in addition to our air defense mission.

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Identify your Customer

In a conversation following the previous post in this series, Michael Pearson made an important observation about the beginning of any process – “Find out what the customer values.”  I would argue that it is important to take a further step back and determine who is the customer.  This may seem simplistic or even obvious, but, particularly in design, the answer is not always clear and may involve more than one customer with competing interests.  As licensed professionals, architects and engineers always have a higher responsibility to the public health, safety and welfare – customer #1.  From that point, the customer depends on the project type and relationship.  In a previous series, the President of Muhlenberg Greene Architects, Dennis Rex, outlined some of the differences and potential pitfalls of several different project relationships including traditional design-bid-build, design-build and multiple prime contracts.  Simply relying on a contractual relationship to define the “customer” is not a sound tactic however and will likely lead to endless headaches throughout the process.

Adding Value

A better approach is to identify the process stakeholders and understand what adds value for them.  The key to this process is, not surprisingly, communication.  Getting everyone together to discuss and understand their position and goals will go a long way towards a successful project.  Bill Horton pointed out the importance of education throughout the design process.  This is a two way communication – we must learn the customer’s needs (not necessarily wants) and in turn help them understand how we make that a reality.  That does not mean that they need to know every detail of our internal process, but there must be some level of common understanding before a discussion of value can take place.  Further, and probably more importantly, this is the time to lay the foundation for a continuous communication to address and resolve issues as they occur throughout the process.


When we were tasked to fly defensive counter-air missions, our primary “customer” was the high value air assets we were protecting.  Anything that we could do to allow them to perform their mission unmolested was clearly a value added (and necessary) activity.  Another “customer” was the Joint Forces Air Component Commander – understanding his mission of supporting the ground forces allowed us to suggest a value-added activity – carrying air to ground ordnance to support the troops.  This is in turn added a third “customer” – the ground forces – who still expected superior air support.  As in any situation involving multiple customers, it is important to establish priorities to help reconcile competing demands.   In our DCA role, it would have been unacceptable to fail in our mission to protect the HVAAs while providing air support to the ground units so it was understood that the value-added activity could only be executed in addition to performing our primary mission.

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Years of training and mission preparation and well established communication pathways allowed for this mission flexibility in what was a matter of hours.  Fortunately, design projects aren’t usually that fast paced and should probably not be approached as such.  Taking the time at the beginning of the project to fully understand needs will lay the groundwork for adding value – not taking the time will almost surely equate to missed opportunity.  In any discussion or consideration of value, it is important to keep this in mind – we must add value faster than we add cost.  Understanding your competencies and establishing expectations are vitally important – look for our next discussion – Defining Scope and Setting Goals.

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