Sharpen Your

Two lumberjacks were chopping wood. The first was a burly bear of a man with thick forearms. The second was a wiry, thin man. They were each cutting several cords of firewood for the winter.

The big man wielded his axe with powerful blows. He kept swinging with unrelenting determination and barely took time to wipe the sweat from his brow. The wiry man was also cutting very quickly but would stop every once in a while and leave.

The big man wondered where he went but didn't let this distraction slow him down. He wasn't a quitter.

The wiry man would come back and resume chopping with great gusto. Sometimes their blows on the wood would fall into synchrony. Then they'd chop faster—as if they were in a race. After a few hours the wiry man announced that he was finished. He had completed his task.

The burly man said, "How the hell is that possible? I'm only half done—and you've been taking all those breaks!"

The wiry man said, "I haven't been taking any breaks—I've been sharpening my axe."

The lesson is obvious. When you tackle a difficult problem, make sure you not only start with the best tools but also keep improving your tools as you go along.

Rocket scientists depend on computer tools to solve the problems of spacecraft guidance and control. Very often the managers of these rocket scientists push them to work long hours to finish a task. A contract has come in, a new spacecraft problem has been discovered, a question from upper management has been asked. The question is not a request, it is an order: an action item has been issued and answers are needed in a hurry. "We need the answer yesterday!"

In this kind of environment (which is unfortunately pervasive), there is no time for software improvements. Old programming codes written decades ago (in the not quite dead language of Fortran) are used to solve the new problems—even problems that the programs were not originally designed to solve.

Rocket scientists and anyone who works on difficult problems need time to develop the right tools for the right problem. They need time to think about what they are doing and how to do it best.

If significant blocks of time were allocated to tool development and improvement, the aerospace industry would become more efficient. A great deal of money could be saved and better products could be produced. Our commercial aviation, our military, and our space programs would all benefit.

Rocket scientists need time to sharpen their axes. So do you.

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