This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
- Business Lessons
by Ike Sweesy
“Houston, we have a Problem”. Astronaut Jim Lovell’s words began a living drama and a critical problem solution methodology that is used today in business as it is in space. On April 11, 1970, a roar of smoke & fire marked the blast off toward the Moon of three Astronauts aboard their Apollo 13 spacecraft. Two days later, a crippling explosion left them in a life or death situation. How would the NASA astronauts and engineers fix their craft that was 250,000 miles into space before the power ran out and the astronauts froze to death? The world held its breath. The 1995 Hollywood film “Apollo 13” graphically recounted the space mission that became “a case study in problem-solving, a drama of solution-finding played out with limited resources against unknown odds, using the wits of two teams: the three-man flight crew in open space and the computer operators on earth.”1 Though not an Astronaut, I was a fighter pilot and test pilot in the US Air Force, and we also employed that effective Problem Analysis & Solution Methodology in systems development & for airborne emergencies. I continue to use this same methodology in businesses. One evening after I retired, I was watching the “Apollo 13” film with my kids, and part way into the film I leaped out my chair and grabbed a clipboard. We restarted the movie, and I began scribbling furiously, and explaining to my kids just what we were seeing. I’ve summarized below those Apollo 13 problem solution principles as the mnemonic: “A P O L L O P R O B L E M” to help you remember them.
The Problem Solving Method
ASSIGN talented, capable, experienced, and effective people to Leadership,
You must have trained and responsible people, or you will jeopardize any endeavor – in business or space. NASA had the ‘brightest & best’.
Tasks & Projects.
PREPARE for the inevitiable problems that will occur with your equipment
and with processes, and oh yes, even with people. After all, we know that … “Stuff Happens”. And whether flying through outer space or office space, every endeavor will experience two Classes of Problems to prepare for: • normal, ANTICIPATED problems due to the ordinary expected situations, or the systems which have failed in the past. You should have already developed, documented & trained with specific procedures and solutions. But there is also a second kind, • 2) new, UN-ANTICIPATED situations or system failures which have never come up before, and for which there is no specific solution prepared … yet. Apollo 13 experienced one.
But, even the ‘unknown problems’ can still be prepared for with capable people, extensive system knowledge, and the proper problem solving methodology.
OUTCOME. When any problem comes up, you must define the desired final outcome, "If you don't know where you are going, you
might wind up someplace else." - Yogi Berra There are Three Outcomes to Problems: 1) Business as usual by following a documented standard procedural solution to the problem. This reflects an efficient, successful business. Or, 2) A new or adapted mission outcome. The 1st-ever explosion of the Apollo 13 Oxygen tank was completely unforeseen. At that point, the original mission to the Moon was scrubbed, and a NEW, revised Outcome was to just return the 3-man crew safely to Earth. And then afterwards,
3) Corrections or ‘Re-engineering’ (a “feedback loop”). When problems are solved, re-engineer or proceduralize the solution to prevent or minimize future problems.
Previous failures and known weaknesses are very valuable. They help develop more effective processes & identify resources to prevent or handle re-occurrences. • A feedback loop is essential to continually adjust and improve equipment & procedures. After Apollo 13, subsequent space missions didn’t have that Oxygen tank problem. • Lessons Learned also include ‘Best Practices’ from Industry-wide situations. Adapt them to documented processes with the specific experiences (lessons) in your own company. • Though not directly responsible for the Apollo 13 failure, ‘Error-prone Processes’ cause the most trouble. Identify them by the common mistakes, and correct the process. • One of the basics with the space program was that everyone performing (and managing) the tasks must have comprehensive knowledge & training in Systems & Standard Operating Procedures. “SOP’s” are essential for smoothly running businesses also. And to ignore weaknesses or problems and to just ‘hope’ that things turn out alright is “Business by Wishful Thinking”, and the business landscape is littered with the resulting failures.
LIMITATIONS. To be able to solve problems, you must know the existing
systems, but also the limitations of those systems. • On Apollo 13, the limitations were Air to breathe, Battery power, and Time. All of the ‘Metrics’ had to be measured and closely monitored; and they were the driving force in the solution to bring home the Astronauts. • For Business, these limitations may be financial such as Cash Flow or Capital; or time frames, or manpower, and any equipment or software limitations. These will determine the Parameters that your solution must meet.
Once a problem comes up, Don’t Act - Stop and Pay Attention! The details are very important. Sherlock Holmes never developed ‘theories’ until he had investigated all of the data. Neither did NASA. That careful observation kept them from false lines of reasoning. • Accurate, detailed & complete Observation is one of the most important aspects of the problem solving method - and the one most ignored. Many people will jump to conclusions from limited, incidental, or misleading data, and this leads to wrong actions. But the NASA Flight Director warned, “Let’s not make it any worse by Guessing.” • You must observe all Symptoms & ultimate Consequences of the Failed systems, but also the Good systems that are remaining. This eliminates false trails. “Let's look at this from the standpoint of 'Status'," said Gene Kranz, the Flight Director. You mustn’t focus on just the problem, since you’ll also need to maximize the good systems for the Solution.
PROCESS the Data of all that you’ve observed against your extensive
knowledge of the systems. Pump your brain & your Team using creative thinking processes. Brainstorm. OK, it’s easy to say “analyze the problem”, but How? • The NASA team needed to create a replacement CO2 filter for the space module, and they handled everything on the table. By using the techniques below, they processed the problem “outside the box”, and found an imaginative solution from the parts available on the spacecraft. • Flight Director Gene Kranz employed several aspects of the ‘SolutionProcess’ including: “Put your hands on it”. Write it all up on the board. Discuss it. And also make non-standard uses of items or processes. “Dump it all on the table”, Kranz said. • Other solution process techniques include Visualization, worked out Sequences, and even ‘Trial & Error’. Gene Kranz used a black board to draw diagrams and flight sequences, and to make lists; Ken Mattingly spent hours in the Simulator developing the minimum electrical usage scheme; and the entire team put sequences together for every aspect of
the problem. Crime mysteries like Sherlock Holmes demonstrate the same techniques. • With the use of these techniques, and today’s computer aids, we create the solutions through our human Imagination.
REVIEW ALL ASSUMPTIONS. e.g. the weight of Apollo 13 - they
initially overlooked that there were no moon rocks on board! You don’t always recognize your ‘assumptions, however your business ‘metrics’ will reveal that something is wrong. Just maybe your assumptions aren’t valid, and must be challenged and corrected. As the ground crew evaluated the shallow flight trajectory of Apollo 13, they questioned their assumptions. Then they realized that the actual module weight was lower than ‘assumed’ due to the missing Moon rocks. This ‘metric’ was critical, since the spacecraft would “skip off the atmosphere”. Disaster.
ONE BEST SOLUTION.
Or even a workable solution from all of the
information at hand. Using “Observation” and techniques of “Processing the Data” above, develop the Solution that works for your situation in the time frame that you have available. • And a successful solution must account for every ‘piece of the puzzle’. The “exception” DOES NOT prove the rule, and if any aspect of the solution contradicts the data or the situation then it must be accounted for. • But the Solution is hard work even for the imaginative; and it is arrived at by observed details, excellent knowledge, flexibility to new perspectives, and most of all – methodology.
BLUEPRINT. Now write down in sequence all of the required
Every step of the solution must be documented so that you won’t forget a critical element. Both the NASA ground crew and the astronauts wrote down the new Procedures and steps. Don’t “Wing It”.
Actions for the solution.
LEADERSHIP is essential in all “Project Management” problems.
Discouragement saps energy and hinders creativity, and a leader must show confidence that his team will develop a solution using all of the resources that are available. The leader’s own attitudes & actions will rub off on the entire team to bring about success. Even when others began to doubt because of the complexities & difficulties, Gene Kranz, the Flight Director, was unswerving in his confidence that his talented NASA team would return the Astronauts safely to Earth – “this will be our finest hour.”
EXECUTION of the Solution.
• • Having developed and documented the One Best Solution, the whole Apollo 13 team began to implement that complex solution Step-by-Step. But also, even in the midst of putting your solution into effect, you must be attentive and responsive to follow-on problems, or even errors or inaccuracies in execution. The final rocket motor burn wasn’t precise, but they kept correcting the trajectory all through the burn, and it was good enough.
The whole flight & ground crew showed their Perseverance, Determination, and Confidence - Regardless of the difficulties. … Don't EVER give up. Don't EVER lose hope. “Failure, my friends, is not an option.”
Astronauts and Business Professionals all encounter important & complex problems requiring imaginative solutions and effective implementation. That’s why it’s important to have the proper people assigned, to know how to analyze problems, and to find & implement effective solutions. So even for business, use the ‘space-proven’ APOLLO PROBLEM Methodology. Sometimes the life of astronauts is at stake; sometimes the life of your company is at stake. _________________________________________
1.“Failure is Not an Option:
Apollo 13 Creativity”, Margaret J. King, Ph.D., #236 from R&D Innovator Volume
5, Number 9, September 1996. http://www.winstonbrill.com/bril001/html/article_index/articles/201-
*by Ike Sweesy, Ike@Company-V.Com. www.Company-V.Com, www.FighterPilots.Net