Creating a Skunk Works

Of course, Steve wasn’t the first person in business ever to conceive of a work group that would operate under different principles than the rest of the company. If Steve had needed a model, he could have found it in what came to be called the Skunk Works at Lockheed Aircraft. The head of that unit was Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, who had originally been hired as a tool designer. Kelly started off by advising the company’s chief engineer that the design for the new Model 10 Electra aircraft was so flawed that the plane would be unstable in flight. Instead of firing him, the chief engineer allowed the youngster to do some wind tunnel tests. When the tests showed Kelly was right, he was pulled off tool design and given the job of redesigning the aircraft. He was reassigned as one of Lockheed’s five aeronautical engineers.

In World War II, when the U.S. military grew alarmed that the new generation of German jet fighters would be far superior to anything we had, Kelly said he could develop a new fighter in six months. He was allowed to handpick the Lockheed engineers he wanted, setting them up in a makeshift but secret work area under a rented circus tent situated close to a smelly plastics factory. One of the design engineers answered his phone one day; because of the smell, he jokingly identified the location with the term from a popular comic strip: the Skonk Works. The label stuck, with Skonk becoming the more familiar Skunk.

The team, incredibly, created the ...

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