The Power of Vision

In the last post I brought up the advantage of having a long range plan vs. quarter-to-quarter thinking. I’d like to explore the concept a little more by way of an analogy.

Put yourself in the spring of 1961.
The USSR, by all demonstrative measures, is ahead of the USA in human space flight, and seems to be increasing that lead. On April 12, Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth. On May 5, Alan Shepard went up, and came down on a 15 minute trajectory.

At the time, there were important geo-political reasons for establishing a public perception of technological leadership, and space exploration seemed to be the place to do it.

On May 25, President Kennedy made a public commitment to regain, and maintain, that leadership. He could have done it with corporate-speak:

This nation will become the world leader in space exploration.

But he didn’t. He said:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself, to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Only the second statement is actionable. Only the second statement carries the possibility of failure. And only the second statement galvanizes action. In pursuing that goal with that degree of commitment, it achieved the first – to demonstrate world leadership in space exploration, not with words, but with action.

Of course the first statement carries no risk, since there is no actual performance requirement. Perhaps that is why corporate-speak carries that kind of language today. The shareholders can’t fire the board for not achieving something that was never articulated. The statement leaves open the capability to re-define the goal so that it matches what was actually done – something that happens all too often in today’s world.

So when one company says “We are going to sell more products next year.” and another says “We are on year 2 of our 10 year plan to be #1 in sales with 15% market share.” which one do you think can align actions of the people in the company?

To continue, when Kennedy made that speech:

  • The United States had a human space flight experience totaling 15 minutes.
  • The world had human space flight experience totaling under 2 hours.

Nobody actually knew, for sure, what the moon was made of.

To be sure, the visionaries within NASA had been thinking about sending someone to the moon for a long time. And in May, 1961 there were competing strategies in play at NASA for getting it done. They either involved an unimaginably HUGE rocket (think twice the size of the one that actually did it), or two or three Saturn class rockets to launch and assemble the lunar spacecraft in orbit. But when faced with a deadline of “before this decade is out,” the challenges were immense. Another strategy, considered a bit crackpot at the time, was named “lunar orbit rendezvous.” It involved a smaller (but still huge) rocket to send a throw-away lander on the moon along with a re-entry capsule. The capsule remains in lunar orbit, the lander lands, takes off, docks with the capsule. The crew transfers to the capsule, and they head home. As each piece fulfilled its intended purpose, it would be discarded.

It became increasingly clear, in the months that followed the speech, that neither of the “mainstream” approaches would get the job done with the time and resources available.

During the summer, consensus formed around the lunar orbit rendezvous scenario.
Key Point: Once they decided to pursue that option all further pursuit of the others was stopped. They committed. They did not have the resources to do otherwise.

In the corporate world, how often does that happen? Once a project, or even an idea, has any kind of resourcing or momentum behind it, stopping it is incredibly difficult. More things to do get added, but it seems that nothing gets taken off. This is equally true of “improvement schemes.” I recall a company that had active people in various improvement initiatives. There was the “Workout” group. There were the TQM people. There were the Six Sigma folks. (It took me a while to realize that the TQM and Sigma people considered each other competitors, where I had initially lumped them in together.) Then there were the “Lean guys” who had just come in. There were also pockets of Theory of Constraints believers, the agile guys, everyone saying they had “the answer.”

Back to NASA.

Landing a person on the moon by the end of the decade was a clearly articulated vision for accomplishing the high level mission of becoming “the world leader in space exploration.” That was the hoshin.

After a round of “catchball” a strategy was selected from the options available. Note that the catchball didn’t negotiate the goal. That was stated. The question was not whether to do it, but how to do it. The strategy was Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). They committed to the strategy and ceased all distracting activity to focus 100% of their energy on getting it done.

To make LOR work, they had to learn three things:

  1. Can people stay and work together in space for the 10-14 days required for the trip?
  2. Can people work outside the spacecraft in protective suits?
  3. Can one space vehicle locate and dock with another?

We do these things routinely today, but in 1961 nobody knew the answers.

These three things were the ONLY major objectives of Project Gemini.

The fourth big task was to develop the Saturn V as well as the facility to assemble and launch the rockets.

This goal is very sticky.
Any time one of the hundreds of thousands of Team Members working at NASA and in the contractors had a decision to make, the criteria was simple: “Will this action help the effort to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade?” If the answer was “No” then don’t do it. Great idea. But don’t do it. We don’t have the time or energy for the distraction.

The second thing it did, and this is even more important, is in the face of major setback – the Apollo 1 fire in January 1967, the organization was able to recover, regroup and stay on course because they had a sense of destiny. There was a clear goal, and they were working to meet it. It provided a compass that pointed the way when all other navigational references were blacked out.

Contrast this with the way NASA has been run during the Shuttle era. The massive amounts of energy involved in space travel mean this is, and is likely to remain, a risky business. But in the shuttle era, the tragedies seem to have created doubt and loss of confidence. There is no higher purpose other than space flight for its own sake. They are running it like a business.

“But we ARE a business! you may say. Sure you are. But the truly excellent businesses, those with the ability to adapt to changing situations quickly and recover are the ones whose sense of “self” transcends quarterly profits and financials. They are successful because they stand for something more.

A few years ago I remember standing outside in the Seattle area during an earthquake that lasted close to a minute. It was an unsettling experience because the ground itself was moving. Leadership’s job is largely providing a sense of solid ground so everyone else can operate without feeling off balance. This is done with very clear goals that are

  • Simple to understand.
  • Unexpected – they compel attention
  • Concrete – they can be seen, touched, felt.
  • Credible – they make sense in the larger context.
  • Emotional – they appeal to people’s feelings and
  • have Stories – they can be communicated in a way people can visualize.

Kitchen sink “KPI” lists don’t do this.

2 Replies to “The Power of Vision”

  1. Very good read.

    I’m going to try and remember your point here when I do my Kaizen events. For instance; I need to make sure that any action items or goals that we list are stated in a way that we can expect measurable results. Sometimes we say, “John will check the line every week for proper flow”. When we should be saying, “John will check the line every Wednesday at 10 am, measure takt time and report it to Bill.”

    Do you suppose any of the current presidential candidates would ever set a goal that is actionable? Or set a goal and/or make a statement that carries the risk of failure? Probably not….. Sad state of affairs.

  2. The last one who did started with the statement “Read my lips…” and ended up losing an election over it.

    On another related note, in some parallel universe somewhere, the motorcade passed through Dealy Plaza uneventfully, a speech was given, and Air Force 1 flew back to DC with everyone sitting and joking. I have to wonder, sometimes, what THAT time line looked like by 1968. Can’t say better or worse, but it certainly would have been different.

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