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Set Cost Reduction Goals to Move Years Ahead of Competitors by Seeking Worldwide Expertise

Feb 27, 2008
A good way to accelerate improving competitive position is to set progress goals to move years ahead of what anyone else has been delivering. An even better idea is to set goals that represent astonishing and important breakthroughs. Such a goal might mean shooting for a 10,000 percent solution in cost reductions while employing minimal resources.

What's the benefit? Higher goals force you to consider new ways to accomplish tasks. You may even discover that lower cost choices exist that you didn't know about.

Here's a space exploration example that shows how seemingly impossible goals can lead to creating stellar performance . . . on a tight budget. This example demonstrates that playing safe may be the most dangerous thing you can do. Instead, shoot for perfection on a slightly increased budget and you may exceed previous accomplishments by hundreds of times.

Ever since people began looking at Mars through telescopes, observers have seen areas that appeared to be canals and bodies of water. That appearance led generations of science fiction authors to create stories about life on Mars.

With better telescopes, it soon became apparent that there were no canals and bodies of water. Instead, there are places on Mars that look like rivers, lakes, and seas might have been present at some time in the past. In addition, there are two non-aqueous polar ice caps that increase and decrease in size with the seasons.

When Mariner 9 successfully reached Mars orbit in 1972, river and channel-like features were confirmed. Viking spacecraft landed on Mars in 1976 and made it even clearer that there might have been water on Mars at one time.

That event was important for another reason: An undergraduate at Cornell, Steve Squyres, was hooked on the question of whether there had been water on Mars after seeing vivid Viking I and II orbiter images that looked like dry river beds. He wanted to find out about when and how much water might have existed earlier.

That fascination led him into a career in science at Cornell. Not satisfied to read the results from others' experiments, he began assembling teams to propose Mars missions that would answer his questions.

Until 1999, Professor Squyres didn't get anywhere. NASA had been pursuing the least expensive ways to explore Mars. Those methods didn't allow for the kind of science experiments the professor and his colleagues wanted to pursue.

But in the face of double disasters for its bargain-basement experiments in 1999, NASA decided to go for the more expensive option: Launch a breakthrough attempt in 2004 to explore for water on Mars and gather other valuable information. Because of its improved understanding of how risky Mars missions are, NASA asked the Squyres team to send two identical rover vehicles and instruments in separate spacecraft to attempt landings in different Mars locations. Hopefully, at least one rover would arrive and function properly.

There were several problems in pursuing NASA's vision. Little time remained to create even one instrument package and there was very little budget.

Looking around, the team soon realized that it could do better with a worldwide team rather than a solely U.S.-based effort. For instance, combining resources with others would allow the mission to fly a Mossbauer spectrometer that had already been developed with German funds. The team also reused engineering solutions from the Viking landers.

Before long, engineering problems started to creep into the project. There was no time to test the landing system in the surefire way of having a dummy payload drop from a high altitude to Earth.

Instead, the team found a wind tunnel in California where the parachutes could be tested for how well they deployed. This step saved months of testing and millions of dollars. Without this cheaper, faster way of testing, the mission would probably have been scrubbed.

Still, the team was falling further and further behind schedule. The vehicle assembly operations rethought the way that mission packages are prepared and found ways of assembling the two vehicles that cut the elapsed time for both.

This approach meant, for example, assembling the vehicles in different sequences to allow for testing different things at the same time. This novel approach speeded assembly and discovery of design faults.

As problems were uncovered, the Mars Exploration Rover mission team was firm in its desire to accomplish more scientific investigation than ever before. As an example, NASA's minimum standards for the mission called for the rovers to remain powered up and operating for just a few weeks.

Knowing that dust from storms on Mars could easily cover the solar panels that would provide new energy for the rovers, the team pushed for a way to add many more panels within a tiny space and limited weight allowance. While many just smiled at this seemingly impossible request, other engineers found it to be a remarkable challenge.

Through a combination of a novel design and adding more weight to the payload, the higher energy potential objective was met. That one decision turned out to be an important line in the sand in creating breakthrough potential.

Having pushed for maximum science and trying to ensure minimum results with as much redundancy as possible, the team could only wait after the two successful launches. Once on Mars, who knew what might happen?

The story has an astonishing ending. Both rovers landed safely on Mars and operated well past their minimum lives. The solar-panel decision turned out to be decisive in enabling this longevity.

As a result, these missions were able to make enormous numbers of investigations, measurements, and images. At this writing, both rovers continue to operate successfully with in-service periods more than 25 times their designed lives and even more impressive increases in mileage covered. It's as though the new vehicle you just bought turns out to run just fine without maintenance for 15 million miles.

As this remarkable accomplishment continues, NASA is likely to reach the point where it will have accomplished 100 times the usual amount of science from the mission it set out to pursue. The result has been to reduce the cost of this kind of exploration by over 99 percent while avoiding the risk of failure that dogged earlier low-cost efforts. The combination is essentially an infinite increase in scientific information.

And what about water on Mars? Both rovers hit the jackpot. Definitive evidence of water having been present was found at both exploration sites. One of the sites probably deserves additional exploration with a more advanced set of instruments since it appears to have had a past with the kind of wet environment that could have led to life beginning.

What's the lesson? Another team with more modest goals would probably have spent almost the same amount of money and would have accomplished much less. The high goals pushed the team to find low-cost, rapid solutions that were possible, but didn't seem plausible.

If you would like to read the fascinating story of how this achievement occurred, see Roving Mars (Hyperion 2005) by Steven W. Squyres. If you are curious about Mars, then visit NASA's online site to see the latest research from the mission.
About the Author
Donald Mitchell is an author of seven books including Adventures of an Optimist, The 2,000 Percent Squared Solution, The 2,000 Percent Solution, The 2,000 Percent Solution Workbook, The Irresistible Growth Enterprise, and The Ultimate Competitive Advantage. Read about creating breakthroughs through 2,000 percent solutions and receive tips by e-mail by registering for free at

http://www.2000percentsolution.com .
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