by Martha Heller

Spirit AeroSystems CIO: Simplicity key to speedy IT

Jun 15, 2016
Agile DevelopmentCareersCIO

Rich Richardson, CIO of Spirit AeroSystems, discusses how he strategically drives complexity out of IT.

richardson cio spirit aerosystems Spirit AeroSystems

Rich Richardson, CIO of Spirit AeroSystems

How do you get your IT organization to deliver faster? You can introduce agile development, create a DevOps function, reorganize for better alignment with the business, and much more. However, while you are hard at work doing all of that, it pays to remember the one solid key to IT speed is simplicity.

When Rich Richardson became vice president and CIO of Spirit AeroSystems in July 2014, he inherited an IT organization composed of committed professionals who were struggling with a history of bureaucracy. “We had a culture that got so bogged down in guidelines like ITIL and CMMI [capability maturity model integration] that we had trouble getting anything done,” Richardson says. “Rather than using those frameworks as tools to accomplish quality goals, we used them as the reasons why things take a long time. We were thinking about compliance but not thinking about what we were actually trying to get done.”

Richardson recalls a time when the IT team was moving from an IBM AIX platform to Linux. They spent so much time following ITIL’s rules on the design, configuration and build of the Linux OS that they addressed basic technology management like “effective monitoring.” As a result, they experienced outages that could have been avoided. 

“We had our heads so buried in controls [ITIL/CMMI] that we never just asked, ‘What are the critical elements to getting this system in quickly with security and reliability?'” Richardson says. “ITIL is a great tool for providing standards on configuration, performance management and capacity planning, but when you get too focused on one area, you don’t address the critical path to successful outcomes.”  

Richardson sees CMMI as another doubled-edged sword. “We were working on a specific fix for a system that had five users, but my team wanted to go through the entire CMMI process and every sub-step instead of focusing on the five key fundamentals: define, design, build, deploy and maintain,” says Richardson. “It wound up taking three months to fix this process, when it should have been a quick installation. We went through all of this rigor and documentation and made a simple one-off project much more complicated and with no significant quality or functionality improvement. Funny thing is the team is the one that suggested changing and needed my help to allow them to do it.”

In order to speed up delivery, Richardson spends a lot of time coaching his team to understand what standards and controls are needed and that “every action does not require the same level of detail.”

Technologists are complex thinkers

Richardson understands the reasons for his team’s attraction to complexity. As software has become more complex and multifunctional, the IT professionals responsible for delivering that software have become complex thinkers. “Our IT teams (and the industry) have grown up in an environment of complexity,” he says. “We can see 75 different ways that new technology can fail, so we try to document ourselves out of failure. We are generally a complex, risk-averse people who spend too much time on documentation and not enough time on outcomes.”

To change the risk-averse, documentation-heavy culture in IT, Richardson encourages his team to focus on business solutions and not just detailed requirements collection. “I’ve been asking the team to build tools that they know our company could use, and go show our business partners capability way before they get to documentation,” Richardson says. “I have found our business partners significantly appreciate a visual discussion on how things work (even white-boarding processes) rather than paperwork discussions.”

For example, the IT group at Spirit AeroSystems was working on a project to improve its facilities repair process. Traditionally, the maintenance crew would go into the office to pick up the next maintenance task in the queue. Richardson asked his team to build a simple mobile application that enables the crews to see, acknowledge and detail work on the floor. “At first, my team said. ‘Let’s go ask the business want they want,'” says Richardson. “But I said, ‘Why don’t you create a quick web app and show it to them first, then build from there?’ Ultimately this helps IT develop some on-the-ground awareness of how the business operates. They need to know this to create the ‘basic concept.'”

Build something, show something

Richardson believes that for the past 30 years, IT has not for the most part brought concepts to the business, it brought documentation. “Bringing them ideas means taking on risk, because IT will spend time and money on a project that may not get off the ground,” he says. “But that’s fine if it creates the right conversation.”

When Richardson’s team expresses resistance to the concept of “build something, and show something,” he points out that that’s what IT vendors have been doing for years. “Vendor sales people have built an industry out of presenting us with solutions that we didn’t ask for,” Richardson says. “That’s the mentality we need to adopt in our own IT organizations.”

Richardson looks to the evolution of IT from single-tool to multi-functional apps, and back to single again, as another path toward speed and simplicity. “Way back when, we had single-function tools: a tool for email, a tool for accounting,” he says. “But with ERP, email, PLM, [and] MES … we started working with multi-functional tools. “Now, mobility has brought us back to single-task apps.”

IT has an opportunity to mirror that evolution in how it conceptualizes business solutions. “We need our IT workforce to scope back down to single function apps,” Richardson says. “They are quicker to deliver, and they keep our IT and business partners focused on simplifying tasks. Mobile apps allow IT and the business to stop trying to solve every problem all at once. We need our IT methodologies to align with the changing mode of technology consumption.”

CIOs focused on speeding up delivery face a cultural wall of complexity and risk-aversion that has been building for at least 30 years. Seeking out opportunities to remove complexity may be the best way to tear down that wall.

About Rich Richardson

Prior to his current role with Spirit AeroSystems, Richardson was principle and owner of UnRavel-IT, a consulting company, and he also previously served as vice president and CIO of Kiewit for five years. He had a successful 12-year career at GE across two different industry segments. Richardson received a Bachelor of Science in computer science, computational math and statistics from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, and he is active with the United Way and Habitat for Humanity.