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Houston, we've had a problem

What businesses can learn from the Apollo 13 mission challenges

Executive Architect, IBM

Understanding a problem before beginning to solve it is highly important. Consider the Apollo 13 mission. The astronauts on Apollo 13 were following their prescribed daily routines, and one of those routine tasks was turning on hydrogen and oxygen stirring fans to destratify the cryogenic contents, allowing a more accurate measurement of their quantity readings. After completing this particular task one evening during the mission, the astronauts heard a loud bang and reported, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Within minutes the astronauts noticed a temporary loss of voltage in a main electrical circuit and a gas venting from the command module into space. They soon verified that an oxygen tank was leaking and approximately two hours later it was completely empty. This situation compromised the safe return of the astronauts to earth, but the smart Apollo 13 crew and NASA engineers managed to work together to find a solution.

Rising to the challenge

Astronauts and the history of Apollo 13 are interesting, but what do they have to do with business problems? The root cause for the problem on the Apollo 13 mission was not immediately understood at first, but its impact was—and had to be—quickly understood. Imperative action had to be taken quickly within the constraints of available resources. And the problem on the Apollo 13 flight offers a valuable opportunity for businesses to learn from this example.

Business professionals need to carefully define their business problem before they can solve it, understand what constraints exist and implement the solution quickly before the problem creates major issues. Every one of these steps requires an evaluation of the data to be used to solve the problem. And each requires the availability of the data needed and how to guarantee the data produced is of high quality and useful for solving the immediate business problem.

Meeting a mandate

Many business problems begin as a way to solve a strategic issue the company has identified. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had a strategy and a mandate to put an American on the moon. That was a strategy, and its first problem was how to build a rocket big enough to get to the moon, and the next problem was whether the right sponsorship was in place to make it happen. NASA was fortunate to have both the president and Congress in agreement with the mandate. NASA then needed to assess its capability to deliver on the promise and if it had the right organization in place to manage the strategy.

Many businesses have strategies that are similar to the need to be customer-centric. A business strategy needs to be treated more like a roadmap, which obtains funding as significant milestones are achieved.

Planning before liftoff

NASA had many ways possible to put someone on the moon. An initial decision that was foundational for achieving that goal was vital. A business that implements a customer-centric strategy needs to decide how to build the initial foundation that will lead it to a successful outcome.

A good strategy is to break projects that can be constrained by the amount of resources available into much smaller projects. Those small projects need to clearly articulate the business problem, the constraints that exist in solving the problem and the benefits of solving the problem.

NASA did have a strategy to put a person on the moon. One of their first steps was building a rocket that could get into orbit around the moon. Next, they needed a command module for the astronauts to ride in. They also needed a lunar module to land on the moon and return to the command module. NASA used a roadmap for this plan to get the astronauts from the earth to the moon and back again.

A similar process needs to exist for a customer-centric strategy in business. Define small projects that fit within the overall customer-centric strategy. One example is the capability to provide the next best product offer to a customer in real time. The next best offer or action algorithm can be optimized by knowing in real time what products the customer already has purchased from your business. You need to have a 360-degree view of the customer established for all real-time interactions with the customer to maximize the impact of this algorithm. A strategy provides a roadmap, and a roadmap helps you navigate to a business outcome and deliver value along the way.

Landing safely

The Apollo 13 mission returned to earth 17 April 1970. The safe landing was a result of being very focused on an immediate problem that absolutely had to be solved. The foundation for successfully overcoming the unique challenges of the Apollo 13 mission was laid in 1958 when NASA was formed. NASA had a clear strategy, sponsorship, organizational blueprint and well-defined mature processes.

Businesses need to have the same foundation as NASA. The good news is that the tool sets and processes that exist for building that foundation do not need to be built from the ground up. They have been built and are available for delivery in your business, on the cloud or in a hybrid manner. You can land all your business problems safely with a solid and extensible information governance foundation. Learn how IBM’s Information Integration and Governance solutions can help you reach the moon and back, safely.