Before heading Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, Tom Burbage led the company’s effort to develop the F-22 Raptor. By almost every measure, the F-22 is a standout program. But when Burbage reflects on his tenure, one event stands out: The F-22 team missed the critical first-flight date by four months. “There was hell to pay,” he recalls.

For Burbage and the JSF team, nothing is more sacred than a deadline. “If you can’t control your schedule, the implication is that you can’t control costs,” he says. “And if you can’t control costs, you won’t keep the services interested in funding your program.”

The critical deadline facing the JSF team is October 2005, when the Air Force expects to fly its JSF aircraft. To nail that date, the team must harness a program that encompasses 75 percent of the world’s fighter-development industrial base. In a paper titled “JSF Management Philosophy,” Burbage highlighted the biggest potential speed bumps: coordinating the efforts of numerous U.S. agencies and nearly an equal number of U.K. Ministry of Defense agencies; meeting the expectations of the U.S. armed services and the militaries of a growing number of allied air forces; and managing the collaborative efforts of U.S. and foreign subcontractors.

The team’s best hope for staying on schedule is to anticipate problems. To do that, managers from Lockheed and its partner companies, Northrop and BAE, undertook an ambitious postmortem: They compiled a database of setbacks and lessons learned on virtually all of the world’s modern tactical-aircraft development programs. Then they did a premortem: They plotted their lessons-learned analysis on a graph that runs from 2001 to 2011. The graph enabled them to identify 10 future inflection points — dates when risk of a setback runs high.

“The techniques allow us to measure our confidence in nailing these four- and five-year deadlines,” says Burbage. “If I really understand this program’s critical drivers, I can tell you today whether I’m confident that we’ll fly that plane in October 2005. Today, my confidence level is 50-50. We haven’t experienced any setbacks, but we haven’t submitted our detail plans to our suppliers yet. Six months from now, I’ll have a much better feel for our confidence factor. If it looks like we’re falling off the curve, I can take corrective action.” — B. Breen