For those who have seen the movie or read the book, or both; “The Martian” is a tour-de-force for its aloof but very realistic style. Andy Wier’s research-laden and imaginative story does a phenomenal job of engaging the outsider in Mark Watneys step-by-step fight for survival against the insurmountable odds of being marooned alone on Mars.

As a lifelong manufacturer, I very much appreciated his approach to problem solving because it’s proven to be an essential career survival skill for me, due to the frequency of business critical issues. Of value to everyone are the lessons that Wier communicates through the eyes and mind of Watney. They are:

Maintain a sense of urgency, but keep it in check – You can get away with a little bit of panic, after all, it’s natural. But it can’t become pervasive and must be kept in check. In every instance your sense of urgency must elevate to match each challenge, but should not exceed it. Watney couldn’t sit on his hands, nor could he afford to get reckless. When he did panic, he was quick to step back and regain control, using it to dial in his focus.  Maintaining an appropriately urgent, but well controlled response to business issues is fundamental management wisdom.

Be aware of the clock – In “The Martian,” Watney adeptly cast lower priorities aside in order to deal with either those more pressing in terms of impact or which had a shorter clock, but always with the cognizance of when he had to get back to deal with them. In business, every problem has its own unique time clock. The operations challenge usually comes from the fact that most of us aren’t merely faced with one issue at a time. Keeping each issue on its own timetable, understanding its impact, and maintaining a stable sense of priority between all of those you’re facing will guarantee the greatest odds of success.

Do the Math – From calculating his food supply, to managing battery power, or when replenishing his gaseous supplies, Watneys mind was constantly calculating something. In reality, this math was comforting to him in that it gave him a realistic assessment of risk at all junctures, and helped him avert disaster. In manufacturing operations, this is the skill that is most often underutilized or avoided. The management of capacity allocation, resource requirements, response capabilities, even customer or market demand; are all math based and dynamic, but too often they are relegated to empirical measures or established habits, rather than being actively recalculated and managed to. DO THE MATH has long been one of my favorite guidance’s for young engineers and managers.

Experiment aggressively, but mitigate the risks – In his typically “toes in the water” approach, Watney was compelled to experiment because the risk of failure was usually fatal. Much of this was also because he had no one else to bail him out. Success or failure was all on his shoulders. Throughout the book he experiments to a timetable, always staying aware of the risks involved, challenging them when he had to, but always maintaining a backup plan. In Manufacturing, we must always take great care to evolve our processes in the direction of improvement. Uncontrolled experimentation may not only incur disaster, but it can erase your standards and drop you back below “square one.”

Solve Problems – Even with all of his care and planning, Watney couldn’t avoid additional disasters beyond the original one that stranded him. From an airlock explosion that damaged the HAB (his Mars domicile), to the rollover of the Rover (his Mars RV), each presented an unplanned challenge that he quickly attacked. The manufacturing lesson is similar; YOU have to solve your problems, because living with them really isn’t an option. I’ve seen many examples where high scrap or poor productivity were tolerated in order to fulfill customer obligations and justified as such. These kinds of problems were rarely taken to root cause though because no one would spare the time, resources or risk the output, and the erosive impact prevailed. Problems like this must be maintained as a priority, attacked, and solved. I always refer to them as “things that will eat you,” because they won’t kill you quickly enough to stay on the list.

Celebrate success – On those occasions when he hit a milestone, or achieved something he’d been skeptical of, Watney splurged on a full meal (instead of his usual ration), an episode from the crews archive of 70’s TV shows, or even a day off. Victory over the problems that assail you should be celebrated by you and your work teams. It’s important to maintain a positive outlook in order to fortify the notion that any problem can be beaten down. Celebration for honest achievements large and small can help to break up the pressure from the constant barrage of things that don’t quite go to plan and require a response. Celebrate today, because different problems will arise tomorrow and you’ll want to attack them with a fresh attitude!

Andy Wier’s “The Martian” is a great read and I highly recommend it for what it can teach you!

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