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Focus on diagnosis before attempting to Cure
posted by admin on 29/08/06

Diagnosing issues, precisely articulating real problems, must always precede any attempt to find solutions

Avoiding snap judgments grows increasingly difficult as pressures mount for quick solutions; yet, as Gandhi proved, pressure signals sharp minds to think with as much deliberation as the situation permits. For Gene Korans, that signals came through loud and clear on the evening of April 13, 1970 when Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert radioed: “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” Moments before, a thumping shudder had alerted Swigert and his fellow astronauts to a possible problem. Although it sounded like a sticky valve popping open, all three men instinctively sensed the possibility of something far more threatening.

At Mission Control, Engineer George Bliss looked at his monitors and punctuated Swigert’s radio message: “ We’ve got more than a problem!” Ground readouts from oxygen tank two, which held half the mission’s oxygen supply, indicated flat zero. As pressure readings from the spacecraft’s three power-supplying fuel cells plummeted toward zero, the reading for the only remaining cell edged in the same direction, and Apollo 13 teetered at the precipice of catastrophe.

NASA flight Director Gene Kranz found himself facing one of the most complicated and urgent situations in history. During four long days, he stood in the global spotlight, making one crucial choice after another. His minute-by-minute thinking became a matter of intense interest to people watching live television and listening to radio broadcasts around the world, as the lives of three American astronauts rested on his every thought.

After quickly gathering preliminary information, Kranz ruled out any possibility of faulty data or malfunctioning indicator lights. He briefly considered the possibility of a stray meteor strike on the spacecraft, but ruled that out, too.

The situation became increasingly grave as minutes passed. Oxygen hissed out of the only remaining main tank; the electrical busses controlling all power faded like flashlights slowly dimming on run-down batteries. Apollo 13’s mission, and the lives of the three men on board, would end tragically if the cause of the sudden troubles continued to evade Kranz and his Houston team.

Under mounting pressure, Kranz privately gathered his team in a closed, windowless room and urged everyone to “keep cool.” Knowing that any mistake could prove fatal, he cautioned the group not to base their thinking on surmise: “Let’s solve the problem, but let’s not make it any worse by guessing.” Despite the gravity of the situation, he refused to allow himself or his team to rush to judgment, and admonished everyone to concentrate on diagnosing the problem before attempting any cure. “Let’s try to see if we can’t figure out just what went wrong with this spacecraft in the first place,” he said. “For the next few days we’ve never tried before. I want to make sure we know that we’re doing.”

Rapid loss of oxygen and electrical power posed the first problem: How to save enough oxygen and power in the Command Module for use days later during Earth reentry. Without immediate action, lack of vital resources would soon transform the Module into a freezing death chamber. With this in mind, Kranz now exercised his best judgment: He directed the astronauts to turn off oxygen and power in the Command Module, move into the tiny attached Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), and seal the hatch between the two vehicles.

With the transfer completed, diagnosis resumed as Kranz confronted a new set of problems created by his initial decision. The LEM’s limited onboard oxygen and electrical power supplies were designed to last only about two days and support only two astronauts. Now the cramped LEM carried three men who needed to survive four long days before returning to Earth.

Once he understood this new set of issues, Kranz focused his team on finding ways to stretch the LEM’s resources beyond all design specifications and to select an optimal flight path to bring Apollo 13 home before the LEM quit functioning. Kranz ultimately directed the astronauts to power down the LEM to a level never before attempted. In the absence of electrical power, the inside temperature of the LEM dropped to near freezing, and the astronauts struggled to remain alert in the spine-shivering cold. Knowing he could not help the astronauts stay warm, Kranz left them to cope with the problem as best they could.

Next, Kranz concentrated on finding the best flight path, the shortest and safest route back to Earth. He first considered a risky “direct abort,” a maneuver that involved firing the main rocket motor attached to the Command Module for five shuddering minutes, slowing the spacecraft on its way to the Moon from 25,000 miles per hour to a dead stop, and then propelling it back toward Earth. If successful, the radical maneuver could return Apollo 13 before the remaining supply of electricity bottomed out, but it involved an enormous risk. Vibrations from firing the rocket motor in this way could tear the craft to pieces.

After weighing risks against benefits, Kranz eliminated the direct abort option. Instead, he settled on a maneuver that used the Moon’s gravity to sling the spacecraft back home, a tactic that would send Apollo 13 even farther away from Earth as it circled once behind the Moon and then swung back on a flight path home. This approach, while physically less risky, left the astronauts facing the very real possibility of running short of electrical power before reaching Earth. Still, Kranz considered this their best hope. In the following days, the loop maneuver succeeded and Apollo 13 headed home. The astronauts eventually reentered the Command Module, turned on its dangerously low oxygen and power, separated the Module from the LEM, and prepared to enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

Kranz, for his part, continued diagnosing problems to the very end. His last gut-wrenching decision occurred when it appeared Apollo 13 was approaching Earth on an inexact trajectory. Reentering the atmosphere too steeply would incinerate the space-craft in a ball of fire. If Apollo 13 entered on too shallow a course, it would bounce off Earth’s atmosphere and careen into deep space. Lacking sufficient information and any means to fashion a better solution, Kranz made his last carefully deliberated judgment. He ordered his flight controllers not to inform the astronauts of the danger and held his breath as Apollo 13 plunged into Earth’s atmosphere. Radio communications with the Command Module shut down during the perilous reentry, and Kranz could only wait to hear if the astronauts survived.

When on Friday, April 17, Apollo 13 splashed down safely into the Pacific Ocean within sight of its recovery ship, the aircraft carrier USS Iwo Jima, mission commander Jim Lovell turned to his fellow astronauts, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, and said, “Fellows, we’re home.” Gene Kranz, on the other hand, lighted a large cigar in mission control and smiled with a joy known only to those who accept the full responsibility of life-and-death decisions. His insistence on concentrating first on diagnosis before attempting cures left no doubt that Gene Kranz indeed “Knew what he was doing.”

Yes, sharp thinking requires concentration, but concentration on what? Concentrating on the wrong information, or indeed on the right information at the wrong time, can cause as many problems as not concentrating at all. When looking back on some of our worst mistakes, asking, “Why didn’t I concentrate on that?” we can often see the “that” is “diagnoses” rather than “cure”. Anyone who has used a personal computer knows the sinking feeling you get when you have crashed the system blindly punching keys trying to cure an undiagnosed problem. One of my most vivid law school memories involved a similar experience in the days when lawyers performed legal research manually in libraries rather than electronically on computers.

On a hot Friday afternoon in August 1972, I walked into the Tarlton Law library at the University of Texas Law School to complete a first-year legal research assignment. I held in my hands a written problem that my instructor said would not take more than two hours to research.

As I wandered around the library, trying to find books that might lead me to an answer, I soon became thoroughly lost among the hundreds of thousands of volumes that make up one of the largest law libraries in the world. The smell of musty old books stacked on shelves hidden deep in the library remains an unforgettable memory even today. As I dove into my research, the windows soon turned dark and the library lights flickered on. Students gradually departed, and I eventually sat alone, surrounded by law books piled high on my reading desk. Realizing the project might require hours more to complete, I pulled myself away long enough to call my wife and tell her not to expect me home any time soon.

A janitor turned out the lights at midnight. I waited a few minutes in the darkness, then switched on a small reading lamp, hoping to avoid detection. Although law students were allowed after-hours privileges, I did not want to argue the point with a janitor who might see things differently. One hour led to the next, and, before I knew it, I had spent the entire night reading excerpts from dozens and dozens of books. The sun’s rays peeked through the tall windows at dawn and fell on a confused student sitting beneath the gold-framed portraits of some of the greatest lawyers in Texas history. Exhausted and nowhere close to a complete answer, I thought I might never become a lawyer, let alone a great one. Stuffing a pile of disorganized notes into my briefcase, I walked into the brisk morning air and collapsed on a park bench.

After indulging in a few moments of self-pity, and glancing one last time at the assignment sheet, I noticed at the bottom an instruction I had previously dismissed as unimportant. It said: “write a precise, one-sentence statement of the issue before starting your research.” By now I was desperate, willing to try anything. My allnighter in the library had been a complete waste of time. A few minutes more could not make matters worse. So, I swallowed my pride and tried writing out a sentence. The sentence made absolutely no sense. I tried again. The second effort proved even more obtuse. Was I too tired even to write a simple sentence? Unwilling to give up, I continued to draft and redraft until I finally wrote a sentence that satisfied me.

After coming up with a workable statement that seemed to express the issue coherently, I stumbled back into the library one last time to search for an answer. In less than 15 minutes, my tired eyes landed on a case that solved the problem.

That morning, I learned a lifelong lesson far more important than any answer to a legal question. Diagnosing issues, precisely articulating real problems, must always precede any attempt to find solutions. Albert Einstein once said, “The mere formulation of a problem is far more important than its solution.” When asked what he would do if he had only one hour to figure out how to save his own life from near certain death, Einstein said he would concentrate 55 minutes on diagnosing the problem and trust the solution to follow easily in the remaining 5 minutes. To find correct solutions, we must first ask the right questions, or answers will remain hidden in a sea of information.

Most people know diagnosis must precede cure, but impatient for a cure, they do not concentrate enough on diagnosis. While this quick-fix mentality may find remedies, it does not always supply the most effective and lasting ones. Superficial diagnosis allows us to remedy symptoms, but often leaves the underlying disease to fester.

By Charles W. Mc Coy, Jr. author of the book : "Why didn't I think of That?"

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