Moonshots, Rocket Science and Taking Small Steps

This week we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing by the Apollo 11 mission. After a sleepy half-century in which space exploration has been largely unmanned, interest in sending humans further out in space is growing at last from both commercial and government space programs. From a continuous improvement perspective, a negative view on this is that we have failed to sustain or build on the gains made in 1969. A more positive view is that we have spent the past fifty years directly observing, gathering data and understanding the current condition of the solar system, the galaxy, the universe.

There are a several parallels we can draw between the Apollo 11 mission and the pursuit of continuous improvement.

Lean is not rocket science but may seem like it at first. The expression “it’s not rocket science” means that the subject is not difficult to understand or do. At the end of WWII, rocket science was a new field. There was a very small number of people with any expertise in it. The leading rocket scientists were German military technologists. They were brought to the USA to contribute to the space program. When the expression was coined, rocket science was new, appeared complicated, and relied on foreign expertise. Today, rocket science is a well-established field, not particularly hard to learn if one has the will and dedication to study and apply oneself. We can say exactly the same things about Lean management.

Lean transformation is a series of moonshots. The Apollo 11 mission to land humans on the moon was the first and literal moonshot. It gave us that expression, which is synonymous in business today with an extremely ambitious, impressive or innovative project. Moonshots are grand visions that bring people together, stretch our thinking and inspire us to strive for greater things. Likewise in Lean thinking we envision the ideal process or condition, define the necessary technologies, identify obstacles and face the limits of our knowledge. We study, practice, adapt and sometimes invent methods to help us achieve our ideal condition.

One small step, and then another. When Neil Armstrong stepped off of the Lunar Module onto the moon, he said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong’s next actions on the moon were to hop around in one-sixth gravity, gaze at our blue planet and collect a few rocks. Armstrong’s statement was aspirational, containing the hope that humanity would build on the moon landing to send people to Mars and beyond. Continuous improvement is a series of small, deliberate steps. After repeated steps, sometimes a particular small step is a breakthrough moment when years of effort come together to achieve a grand goal.

The Apollo 11 moonshot was not valuable because of what happened at their destination. The value to humanity was in showing us that through teamwork and the focused development of specific technologies, we could achieve amazing things.  The space program developed scientific capabilities that have benefited humanity in the medical, computer science, transportation, environmental, industrial and other fields. Seeing our blue planet set against a black background gave us perspective to appreciate our home. Like the continuous improvement journey, the rewards are not from arriving at the waypoints and destinations but in what we learn about ourselves and our world along the way.