First, understand the problem

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. -- Over the years, the nature of our launch responsibilities in the 45th Space Wing has transformed. In the past, government personnel actually processed and launched missions. Now, we oversee contractors performing these functions. When problems arise, we look to the contractor base to solve them. However, the contractors may not always know when a problem exists. It is our responsibility, our duty, to completely understand the problem well enough to identify areas that the contractor may miss.

So what does "completely understanding the problem" mean? It means knowing more than how to run a checklist. It means understanding every part of your system and what its functions are. It means understanding the processes we use, and why we use them. It means knowing how the system is supposed to operate so well that you can sense when something is wrong. It means understanding how other systems and processes interact with the ones you control. It means knowing all of the people that you work with and what their roles are. It means understanding all of the laws and regulations that apply. It means understanding the difference between fact, theory, and assumption, which ones are valid, and which ones are not. And last but not least, it means understanding the consequences of what you do and fail to do.

An 80 percent solution may be sufficient, but an 80 percent understanding isn't. You need a 100 percent understanding of the problem to know which 20 percent of the solution you can throw out and still safely accomplish the mission. And trust me, no matter how smart you are, you will never get the 100 percent solution.

Fully understanding the problem is tough. You certainly won't walk into your job knowing everything you need to, and formal training may be inadequate. It is up to you to be proactive to fill the gaps in your knowledge. Ask questions. Do your own analyses or thought exercises. Rehearse what you need to do. Get out in the field and actually do the mission. These are the activities that will fill in the gaps in your knowledge that training can't provide.

The best processes in the world are still imperfect. There is no substitute for (you, the person) knowing what you're doing. Remember, even the smartest person in the world has no hope of solving the problem if they don't know what the problem is.