On April 14, 1970, Apollo 13 crew members Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell calmly reported a problem aboard their spacecraft as it was on its way to the moon. “Okay Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” This now famous statement set in motion the transformation of this routine mission into a problem-solving event that would capture the attention of the entire globe. The crew suddenly found themselves short of power, heat, and water, and the new focus became not a successful landing on the moon but the safe return of the crew. Improvisation quickly became the order of the day.
Flight Director Gene Kranz was faced with the monumental task of leading a team effort that would focus on bringing the astronauts safely home. In order to solve these problems, Kranz needed to pull together people with the necessary skills, experience, and knowledge and then provide them with clear goals and timelines. “Failure is not an option.” The goal was to work the problem as it lay before them. For Kranz, the tragic Apollo 1 fire had already led to the conclusion that guessing and intuition were unacceptable substitutes for logic and reason in any problem-solving process. Getting the right people on the bus for each individual problem was the order of the day. And there were lots of individual problems.
The problem-solving process starts with clearly defining the problem and identifying the desired outcomes. After analyzing the available information, an array of possible solutions is generated, possible consequences evaluated, and a course of action decided. A great team then focuses on planning and implementing that particular course of action no matter what their previous preferences might have been. They also recognize that every solution creates a new set of problems. They anticipate that unintended consequences will happen and then get on with monitoring the progress and preparing to adapt as necessary. “Stuff happens.” Eisenhower was quoted as saying “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”1
As an association, we have many issues that we face together with our pork supply-chain partners. Some of these issues are long-term challenges. Others may arise very quickly and just as quickly are resolved. As an organization, it is clear that we rely heavily on our AASV staff. In the face of an emerging problem, our staff will often set aside the day-to-day work of managing our organization and step into the fray of issues management. We can’t thank them enough for the excellent job that they do. The reality, however, is that at the end of the day, all of that management work still needs to done and we should ask ourselves how we might help.
One of the other great assets of our organization is the skills and knowledge of our membership. We struggle at times in finding effective ways of tapping into that great resource. This happens in part because we all empathize with just how busy our colleagues are in their day-to-day work, family, and community responsibilities. The formation of a committee without clear goals and timelines can therefore become a monumental commitment. Members voluntarily committing to a standing committee can start to feel like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Who needs that?
It is helpful to recognize that our members go through periods in their lives where their abilities to give of their time can change. That having been said, most members can provide input on problem solving on a short-term basis. This is especially true where there is a sunrise and sunset to the problem solution and where there is flexibility on scheduling the timing of their input. One of the major life-threatening issues of the Apollo 13 mission was the issue of the CO2 filters. As the CO2 levels reached dangerous levels, a team was formed to figure out how to use the resources at hand to “pound a round peg into a square hole.” This resulted in a wonderful outcome. Rest assured, however, that there was no standing CO2 scrubber committee left in place. Put the team together. Provide a working solution. Dissolve the team. Wonderful.
As we move forward, we need to connect the people with expertise and passion to a problem so that they are capable of inputting in whatever way that they can. This may be as simple as volunteering to review a draft document or providing some information or feedback to a committee. A very helpful process. Apollo 13 went down in history as being one of the most “successful failures” in space exploration, and an inspiration to future generations.
1. From a speech to the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in Washington, DC (November 14, 1957); in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957, National Archives and Records Service, Government Printing Office: 818.
George Charbonneau, DVM AASV President