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Set Goals Beyond What Seems to Be the Theoretical Best Practice

Feb 27, 2008
Assuming that you've found an exciting element to optimize at reduced cost, what kind of a goal should you set? Most people can imagine creating some pretty astonishing performance with unlimited funds.

But that's not the real world. Even the U.S. space program has to economize these days.

With that restriction in mind, many people will set quite low performance targets. When you do that, all you accomplish is to put the same time and effort into creating a minimal solution that could probably instead have led to a maximum solution.

Lack of imagination is one of the biggest limits to cost-based progress. If you asked someone in the automobile industry in 1921 what a car could eventually do, their forecast would have fallen well below what we see the worst vehicles do today.

In 1921, car makers also felt little incentive to work on many of today's most important innovations. For instance, with gasoline selling for a few cents a gallon in the United States during the 1950s, auto makers emphasized big, heavy cars with powerful, fuel-guzzling engines. Much of the learning about fuel efficiency was delayed by this perception that the best practice was to deliver enhanced feelings of status and power.

In attempting to reach beyond the perceived theoretical best practice, one perspective is to look for ways to reach large multiples of that practice. Why? I have constantly been amazed to find out how pessimistic people are and how little they know about what's already being accomplished in related fields.

Ask a leader in a typical organization to set a standard to approach the theoretical best practice, and the new goal is likely to be something that most organizations exceeded in the 1950s. Yet the leaders usually feel great stress for having selected what seems to them to be a stretch goal. Overcome this self-limiting pessimism and you may glimpse possibilities so wonderful that your mind will conceive of unconventional ways for providing those benefits.

Driving on regular roads can be pretty, well, pedestrian as you creep along in traffic jams. On the one hand, that's good. It means that drivers are focused on a simple task and are less likely to make mistakes that cause injuries.

On the other hand, drivers also spend a lot of time being bored. As a result, you see more and more vehicles where the drivers and passengers are entertaining themselves with nonstop cell phone conversations, portable music players, satellite radio stations, videos, and electronic games.

The driving experience becomes more dangerous as drivers are lulled into forgetting that they are supposed to be paying attention to driving. At 10 m.p.h. that's no problem. At the increasingly rare higher speeds, the danger is palpable.

I have a suggestion that can create value for drivers while driving down the lifetime cost of accidents that harm vehicles and people: Create a more intense, yet safer, driving experience. This experience might be achieved by providing heads-up displays of the vehicle's instruments and the environment around the driver, warning sensors for dangerous conditions, and ways of monitoring the quality of one's driving. While those things may sound dull, imagine that the new displays look like those used by jet fighter pilots or that they feature images of family members and friends to draw attention to safety needs.

To keep things interesting, the displays could provide valuable information based on your actual driving experiences. Here's one for your new teenage driver who likes to tailgate: The display might update her or him continually on what her or his chances are of stopping in time if the car ahead of her brakes suddenly.

Pretty soon, driving is more interesting and safer, too! Parents could get a readout of the driving experience and review good and bad habits with their inexperienced offspring.

Let's explore another opportunity to extend your understanding of setting exciting goals that provide a multiple of the perceived theoretical best practice by turning our attention to space. One of the big costs involved in Mars exploration is carrying the payload in a large rocket to escape the Earth's gravity.

As a result of that high cost, there's only enough money to do one or two Mars missions about every two years when orbital interception opportunities are best. An advance beyond the theoretical best practice would be to conduct experiments on Mars as though Mars were in the neighborhood. How might that be done?

Thinking past today's perceptions of the theoretical best practice, our exploration planner might conceptualize a string of continual shuttles going back and forth between Earth and Mars. These shuttles would never land on either planet, but simply carry payloads to Mars.

If such shuttles were fueled with nuclear reactors, they would run for years without refueling. Because the shuttle vehicles wouldn't have to be lifted away from Earth's gravity each time, a large increase in the size of payloads could be sent to Mars.

Portions of the final payload could be brought up from Earth using conventional launch vehicles. Final assembly and loading could be conducted at the international space station or by docking with a shuttle from Earth.

If you can now send hundreds of times as much material to Mars on each mission, how might that circumstance change your view of how to conduct experiments? One possibility is that you could dispatch hundreds or even thousands of rovers from a single Mars shuttle.

Because you are producing so many, the cost of each rover would drop to being a tiny fraction of the cost of producing only one or two. Based on typical experience curve effects (a way of estimating how rapidly costs decline due to learning), the average cost of producing each of 4,000 rovers should be much less than 5 percent of the average cost of making two.

Using the latest intelligence about which sites on Mars are of interest for specific purposes, you would select sites to insert these rovers after you arrived in orbit. This situation would be a big improvement over relying on what you knew years before the launch. If atmospheric conditions were less than optimal when you arrived, you could also delay insertion until winds and atmospheric pressure were better for safe and precise landings.

Another possibility is that you might stockpile large quantities of redundant instruments, parts, and testing chemicals on Mars. Rovers might be designed so that they could be repaired and updated by using robotic repair kits that draw on the extra materials at their Mars base. You could also send robots that could be manipulated at a distance through radio signals to make fine-tuned repairs and adjustments to instruments.

What's the concept here? It's basically to set yourself up to explore Mars in the same way you might explore the Sahara desert on Earth if you had enough robot vehicles to do the job. Instead of having a two-year delay between choices for what research you do next, you would be able to adjust to explore new options every few days should that be appropriate. Imagine one of those warrior-droid-filled space ships from Star Wars as you think about this way of exploring.

Although it's not as good as H. G. Wells's time machine, this way of eliminating payload limitations can certainly shrink the time delays involved in taking the next steps in our investigations of Mars while minimizing the expense of gaining significant new information.

How can you make "impossible" cost reductions by considering totally different methods?
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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