KISS – keep it simple stupid – was drilled into us in the military and it’s hard to unlearn some things (which is why I make my bed each morning – even in hotels – and always tuck in my shirt) but KISS is more than a tired old army saying. The more I look around and think about it, the more keeping things simple seems to be the key to success. Importantly, the more complex and consequential something is, the more important it is to keep things simple.
Enter exhibit #A19670174000.
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington is an amazing collection of treasures so big that it has to be split into two parts: one building in the center of DC has the smaller exhibits (where they can ‘only’ manage the smaller rockets) whereas the annex near Dulles Airport has all kinds of aircraft, rockets and even a space shuttle. It’s amazing.
But one of my favorite exhibits is also one of the smallest. Inventory number A19670174000 is a small three ring binder called ‘Flight Operations Manual, Freedom 7’.
(Image, Smithsonian Institute https://airandspace.si.edu/node/34263)
“This small manual contained checklists for both normal and emergency flight operations for the flight of Alan Shepard, the First American astronaut to reach space. His suborbital Mercury flight occurred on May 5, 1961, aboard the “Freedom 7″ spacecraft.”
From the official description of the manual
This is rocket science yet this small manual contains checklists for “both normal and emergency flight operations”. That amazes me every time I look at it. But it also gets me thinking about how simple we can make things. This is an extreme example of simplicity in a complex environment but certainly not the only one.
Atul Gawande wrote The Checklist Manifesto following his observations about how, in the extremely complex world of modern surgery, applying checklists could make a dramatic difference. In one example, a simple five step checklist “had prevented forty-three infections and eight deaths, and saved two million dollars in costs” in one hospital over a two year period.
But this is surgery so we would assume that these five steps would be pretty complex. Not so.
Some of the steps in this particular checklist are as simple as ‘wash hands with soap’; ‘wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves’; ‘apply a dressing’.
See ‘The Checklist’, Atul Gawande in the The New Yorker, Dec 2017
This is a classic case of the 80 / 20 rule or Pareto Principle where 80% of effects come from 20% of causes – good or bad. So while there are countless other things that might go wrong in spaceflight or surgery, focussing on the 20% that produce the maximum effect will give you the best bang for your buck.
This sounds like a great way to keep things simple.
However, just before you rush off to delete the majority of your plans, remember that simply having the Freedom 7 manual or a surgeon’s checklist would not prepare any of us to pilot a spaceship or perform brain surgery. (Sadly, I know this to be true: despite my extensive study of my ‘Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual’ as a child, I am still waiting for NASA to call*.) Training, expertise and knowledge remain key to the success of astronauts, surgeons and risk and crisis managers. So keeping the plan simple doesn’t mean you can do away with this foundation of skills and ability. However, a KISS approach does mean that this expertise can be applied to a complex situation in an environment that is as clean, simple and uncluttered as possible.
So keep it simple, embrace checklists and if you ever have the chance, stop by and take a look at Exhibit #A19670174000. If KISS is good enough for NASA, it’s good enough for the rest of us.
*If anyone wants to get in touch, especially anyone from NASA, click here to send me an email.