Kelly Johnson In Skunk Works

I still have 80 pages to go on Skunk Works, but this book has been one of the best I’ve ever read.

The story revolves around an elite group within Lockheed Martin called Skunk Works, who worked on top secret projects and engineered some of the most famous aircraft in the history of aviation. The book was authored by Ben Rich, Skunk Works second director, and central to the story was Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson, the founder of Skunk Works who was a genius on both technical and management fronts.

There were many gems scattered throughout the pages, but my personal favourites were these words of wisdom during conversations between Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich.

The first one was when Ben told Kelly about his plan to attend a 13-week advance program at Harvard Business School, which was only available to 150 carefully selected executives. Kelly wrote Ben a glowing recommendation, but still insisted that it would be a complete waste of Ben’s time.

I’ll teach you all you need to know about running a company in one afternoon, and we’ll both go home early to boot. You don’t need Harvard to teach you that it’s more important to listen than to talk. You can get straight As from all your Harvard profs, but you’ll never make the grade unless you’re decisive: even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision. The final thing you need to know is don’t half-heartedly wound problems – kill them dead. That’s all there is to it. Now you can run this goddamn place. Now, go home and pour yourself a drink.

After Ben completed the program and returned to Skunk Works, Kelly asked him for his appraisal of the Harvard Business School. Ben wrote the equation: 2/3 of HBS = BS .

The second one was when Ben revealed that he had been approached by Northrop, a rival company, and was offered a significant salary raise along with the opportunity to build a Skunk Works-style group within Northrop. Here’s part of Kelly’s response…

Hell, in the main plant they give raises on the basis of the more people being supervised; I give raises to the guy who supervises least. That means he’s doing more and taking more responsibility. But most executives don’t think like that at all. Northrop’s senior guys are no different from all of the rest in this busines: they’re all empire builders, because that’s how they’ve been trained and conditioned. Those guys are all experts at covering their asses by taking votes on what to do next. They will never sit still for a secret operation that cuts them out entirely. Control is the name of the game, and if a Skunk Works really operates right, control is exactly what they won’t get.

And the most inspiring of them all was Kelly’s can-do attitude which he used to improve the people around him. Here’s what he said after Ben told him that there was no practical application to liquid hydrogen because it was so dangerous to store and handle, based on Mark’s Mechanical Engineering Handbook, the engineer’s bible…

Goddam it, Rich, I don’t care what in hell that book says what you happen to think. Liquid hydrogen is the same as steam. What is steam? Condensed water. Hydrogen plus oxygen produces water. That’s all that liquid hydrogen really is. Now, get out there and do the job for me.

A must read, even if you’re not an engineer, even if you’re not running a company, specially if you like pushing the limit of what’s possible in whatever field you’re doing.

6 thoughts on “Kelly Johnson In Skunk Works

  1. I am trying to find & verify this quote of Kelly Johnson’s, (date, time, to whom and location) which goes something like this: Kelly avoided committees. Asked about them and why, not likely the exact wording: “Working within the safety of committees you may avoid utter failure but you will also avoid utter success”.

    1. It does sound like something from Kelly, but it’s been a while since I read the book and I can’t recall whether Kelly said it.
      If you can’t find anything from Google, I guess your best bet is to get the e-book version and search for that line.

  2. I am looking for information about Kelly Johnson im doing a very important history project on him. I am desperately i need of sources and references I have found the names of documentaries yet i cannot find them anywhere at all on the internet apart from one source whom i cannot get to as i live on the other side of the world. Would there be anything you could give me or be able to point me in the right direction for sources. Really need all the help i an get.
    thanks eoghan.

    1. I haven’t seen any documentary on Kelly Johnson. I’ve read only the Skunk Works book and his wikipedia entry.

      I would be interested to know the title of that documentary though.
      Anyone else can help Eoghan?

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