Rockets and optimization – new perspectives on releasing potential

CEEC's team is always on the look out for insight into ways accelerate the adoption of new technology, new  flow sheets and improved results. the following article by Kay Sever resonated strongly: does it apply in your work place?

Early rockets were designed with two stages - one with the power to "lift off" and the other to boost the rocket high enough so that it could orbit the Earth several times before being pulled back by gravity. Two stages were adequate for the mission UNTIL we decided to go to the moon. That's when the Saturn V rocket was developed, the first rocket to have 3 stages. The 3rd stage had an engine that was powerful enough to escape the Earth’s gravity, which is what allowed the Apollo astronauts to reach the moon. Without it, none of the Apollo missions would have occurred and Neil Armstrong would never have been the first man to walk on the moon.

 How does this relate to change and optimization? For decades, mines, plants and suppliers have sought to improve performance within their own production processes or between customers and suppliers. Some companies have made the decision to move past what we call “improvement” and shoot for “optimization”. Let’s explore what that decision means if we look at optimization as a journey, similar to the journey to the moon…

 The Saturn V rocket had 3 stages and the 3rd stage is what made it possible to reach the destination. Did you know that there are three stages in the journey to optimization? The first stage in optimization is a focus on getting better by incorporating TQM, Six Sigma, Lean, etc. All of these initiatives are process-focused and strive for improvements in process design and execution. The processes within the scope of work almost always include production and may include administrative functions that support production activities, including customer service and supply chain processes. All of this work is very important to the journey to optimization. However, the ROI on Stage 1 activities does not always meet expectations, the reasons for the shortfalls are often misunderstood or hidden, and change may not be sustainable.

 When a company makes a conscious decision to strive for optimization, they move to Stage 2, where the focus is mostly on upgrading equipment and systems involved in the production process. Millions of dollars may be approved to procure the best technology available. At this point in the change process, companies assume that they have done everything required to optimize performance. Expectations of value delivered by suppliers reach new highs. Many promises are made about equipment performance and systems that provide data to employees. The expected ROI on Stage 2 investments includes more profit, less process variation, maximum predictability and often fewer people. The board of directors and senior management team who approved those investments wait anxiously to report higher earnings to their shareholders. However, the return on equipment and systems does not always meet expectations and the reasons for the shortfalls are not fully understood (again).


Why are Stages 1 and 2 insufficient to achieve and sustain optimization? Because the culture was not prepared for optimization. Optimization requires more than equipment and systems - it also requires a different way of thinking and measuring. It involves moving a culture from a “Can we meet budget?” to a “How good can we be?” mindset. Many of you believe that your people already do this. Did you know that they may have this mindset individually but cannot act collectively with this intent because barriers in the culture and management system prevent them from doing so. Optimization also requires aligning the management system with the intent to optimize performance. Management systems do not come with this alignment – it must be done intentionally.

 Why are these things important? When a culture is not prepared for optimization and when the management system has not been aligned, barriers form that act like an “invisible lid” on a jar, trapping old mindsets and growth potential inside and preventing new mindsets capable of releasing potential from getting in. These barriers steal millions of dollars in profit, prevent optimization and trap growth potential.

 Stage 3 on the Saturn V rocket was required to get to the moon. Likewise, Stage 3 optimization work is required to “remove the lid”, tap all of your upside potential for improvement and complete your optimization journey.


This article is written by Kay Sever, an industry leader in performance optimization and change acceleration. She partners with management teams to bring about the kind of lasting change. See for details on her services, contact information and products.

Reproduced with the generous permission of the author.