Using Elon Musk's "First Principles" to Achieve a 10-fold Increase in Corporate R&D Efficiency | IDCF


Ordinary people use analogy thinking, Musk uses "first principles"

Elon Musk, our kind like aliens, has a different thinking than ordinary people.

What he does always seems to make people feel crazy. He builds the coolest electric car Tesla, and studies the plan of human migration to Mars, studies the brain-computer interface, studies the 5000 km/h high-speed rail, any one Everything sounds crazy, but he always spares no effort to advance. Musk said he used first principles to think and solve problems.


The so-called first principles, for Newton, the first driving force of the universe, F=MA is the ultimate principle. In his later years, Einstein devoted himself to the study of the "Grand Unified Field Theory", and also hoped to find the "first principles" that govern all laws of physics.

Dating back to ancient Greece, Thales’ "All things are water", Heraclitus’s "All things are fire", Pythagoras’s everything is "number", Plato’s "Theory of phase", Aristotle’s "Metaphysics" is trying to solve "first principles".

For Musk, his underlying thinking is physics thinking. It can be said that physics thinking is Musk's first principles.

First principles are a method of action

Although Musk's first principle is not so ultimate, it is indeed a method that can be effectively acted upon. He said:

No matter which field it is in, the most basic truth must be determined, and there must be a very high degree of certainty. Before you make a conclusion, you must draw a conclusion on the authenticity of these most original sources. Therefore, the physical way of thinking is a very good framework. Including our energy consumption, products, etc., which all involve the application of the first law...Analogous thinking is to follow the trend.

The so-called analogy is to look at how others are doing, and then through their own efforts to achieve a relative advantage and win in the competition. This is a universal way of thinking of mankind.

Michael Porter once said that the advantage of Japanese companies is often "operational effectiveness." Lean based on imitation and improvement is not a strategy. AlphaGo (AlphaGo) defeats human chess players in this way, and Alpha Zero (Alpha Zero) easily defeats AlphaDog, using the so-called "first principles".

Musk's so-called "analogous thinking is to follow the trend" means that people's common way of thinking is to compare each other, and their own existence needs to be defined by their peers, so that they can only improve or fall into imitation, and it is difficult to produce revolutionary creation. The best condition is almost natural growth, and such improvement is very limited.

Use first principles to achieve 10 times better

Musk's plans and thinking will always make more crazy, bolder, more incredible and more radical goals. If the average person's goal is to improve by 10% on the current basis, Musk's goal is to achieve 10 times on the existing basis.

Jack Stewart of Wired magazine discovered: In Musk's world, if one thing takes 1 year to complete, it will take 7 to 8 years in the world of others.

Musk believes that everything develops faster than most people expected, so in his world, all goal plans are beyond ordinary people.

He followed a very popular notion in Silicon Valley: It is much easier to do one thing 10 times better than to do 10%. Astro Taylor, who is in charge of Google X in Google Labs, is also a believer in this 10-fold thinking.

Taylor said: "Trying to make a new thing is nothing more than two styles. One is a small change, such as changing the production model. At this time, you often get a 10% improvement, but if you want to get a really great innovation, generally So you have to start again, try another way or many ways, you have to break some basic assumptions."

Step-by-step progress depends on hard work, more resources and more effort, while 10 times progress is based on courage and creativity, which is clever work. In other words, the goal of 10 times forces you to take the smart shortcut of more efficient innovation.
Ten times the speed of growth, you may find it incredible, but some people are doing all the hard work. In fact, it is not absolutely impossible to really think about it this way.

It sounds abstract, let's take a look at how Musk does it?

Wonderful case sharing 1: The cost of dismantling the battery.

Musk wanted to get a Tesla electric car. He found that the photovoltaic battery cost 50,000 US dollars, which is too expensive.

Later, what did Elon Musk do? He ran to buy a battery with good performance, and then removed the battery. After the battery is removed, see what's inside. There is lead, copper, tin, wiring, etc., isn't it just these things? In the market, these things are not worth much, about 13.7% of the total cost of the battery.

In other words, the direct reason for the high cost of batteries is not the raw materials, but the combination of raw materials. As a result, Musk immediately decided to find a new program to recombine the battery. To this end, he reached a cooperation with Panasonic, adopted the battery management program of Panasonic 18650 lithium cobalt oxide battery, reorganized the battery of Tesla electric car, and achieved great success. In one fell swoop, the price of the battery was drastically reduced and became the cheapest in the world. Effective and good battery.

Musk’s logic here is, “I don’t care how expensive the battery is now, I’ll just go back to the essence and ask a question, what is the hard cost of a battery? What is the cost that cannot be reduced anyway? It’s nothing but iron. With the exception of metals such as nickel and aluminum, the cost of buying these metals cannot be lowered. The remaining costs are all produced in the process of human collaboration, so there is room for optimization."

Wonderful case sharing 2: Musk dismantled the super tunnel

In December 2016, there was a big traffic jam in Los Angeles. Musk also suffered from it. He complained on Twitter that "I was going to be driven crazy by the traffic in Los Angeles." He also said, "I have to do something. I want to start a company called "boring" (boring also means drilling).

In order to reduce costs, Musk dismantled the cost elements of the underground tunnel from four levels.

  • First, reduce the tunnel diameter by more than half, which means that the actual excavation area is 1/4 of the subway tunnel;
  • Second, allow the machine to reinforce the surrounding walls while digging the tunnel. In this way, the efficiency of the whole process will be doubled;
  • Third, to increase the power of the excavator by two times, that is, to reduce the cost in half again;
  • Fourth, the excavated waste soil is made into bricks for sale, and the benefits created are used to reduce costs.

The four-pronged approach took only two years, and this great idea became a reality! On December 18, 2018, the tunnel was completed, with a total length of 1.83 kilometers. The estimated cost of excavating according to the original subway method is 1.1 billion US dollars, while the actual construction cost is only 10 million US dollars, which is "10 times better". The goal!

Wonderful case sharing 3: Musk dismantled Martian immigrants

Musk's ultimate dream is to allow humans to move to Mars one day, and he himself can "retire on Mars." To this end, he founded the American Space Exploration Technology Company (SpaceX), and set a seemingly crazy goal: It is estimated that one million humans will immigrate to Mars in 100 years.

Exaggeration in the eyes of others, in Musk's view, only two things can be achieved.

  • The first is to have extraordinary will, and according to Musk’s biographer Ashlee Vance (Ashlee Vance) in the book "Silicon Valley Iron Man: Elon Musk's Adventure Life": "Ma No one can match Sk's will."
  • The second is to use appropriate methods to reduce costs. But if you want to emigrate to Mars, the standard of "10 times better" or "100 times better" is definitely far from enough. Musk has proposed a new goal-25,000 times better. According to the aviation plan of the Bush era, if technical support is provided, it would cost a person a trip to Mars (round trip) at least 10 billion U.S. dollars, while in SpaceX's Mars plan, a single-person one-way trip to Mars would cost only 20. Around ten thousand dollars. After careful analysis, he believes that the biggest bottleneck in sending people to Mars is not technology, but cost. The first thing about Martian immigration is cost.

From 10 billion to 200,000, the cost has been reduced by 25,000 times. What did Musk do?

Musk believes that this problem is essentially a mathematical problem, so he disassembled the number 200,000: 200000=20*1000*10

What does Musk's dismantling mean? He actually thought from many levels:

  • First, according to the current space travel plan, only 4-5 space passengers can be sent to Mars at a time, and Musk’s plan is to develop a Mars migration transport aircraft that can accommodate 100 people at the same time, which can greatly reduce the cost. Increased by 20 times in one fell swoop;
  • Second, before the founding of SpaceX, all the launch vehicles in the world were one-way. After launching, they disintegrated on their own and cannot be recycled. The "Falcon" series of rockets developed by SpaceX can be reused about 1,000 times;
  • Third, Musk plans to build spacecraft gas stations near the space orbit to improve the endurance of the Martian immigration transport aircraft;
  • Fourth, make the return fuel of the spacecraft in the Mars base, and reduce the fuel load of the rocket when it is launched to 1/2;
  • Fifth, use efficient and portable new fuel...Through the dismantling of the third, fourth, and fifth above, Musk feels that the cost can be reduced by another 10 times.

With the hard work of his scientific research team, they solved one technical problem after another. On August 14, 2017, SpaceX's "Falcon 9" rocket carried the "Dragon" spacecraft into space from the Kennedy Space Center and was successfully recovered! At this moment, it is worth being recorded in the annals of human civilization! This means that Musk's dream of Mars immigration is getting closer!

Use Musk's method of dismantling basic elements to achieve a 10-fold increase in R&D efficiency

The first step is to disassemble and analyze the company's R&D value flow

Generally speaking, it can be broken down into these steps:


The second step is to measure the key elements of each step and then disassemble


For example, as shown in the figure above, we can list three key indicators:

  • Processing time (PT): the actual value-added time of the work
  • Lead time (LT): The time from the work available after the previous step to the completion of the next step, including waiting time and processing time
  • Complete & accurate percentage (%C&A): the percentage of work that can be processed in the next step

The data of these three key indicators are calculated for each step, as shown in the following figure:


The third step is to summarize the three key indicators

The total processing time PT is 31 hours.

The total LT time is 75 hours, and the total waiting time is 44 hours.

The rolling C&A% is only 33.7%

The average time to complete a Feature should be 75 * (1+0.7) = 128 hours

The fourth step is to improve the key elements separately

If the overall processing time (PT) is shortened by 10%, that is 31 —> 28 hours

The overall waiting time is reduced by 50%, because most of the time wasted in waiting and handover, that is, 44—> 22 hours;

Then the overall lead time LT can be shortened to 22+28= 50 hours

Suppose we double the overall completion & accuracy percentage (%C&A), that is, to 68%

Then 50 * (1+0.32) = 66 hours.

The completion time of a single Feature has been reduced from 128 hours to 66 hours, is it doubled?

Generally, a team can complete 10 features in one month, and the corresponding research and development efficiency is increased by 10 times!

Is it awesome? This is actually just our first basic preparation for the improvement of corporate R&D efficiency! Where did it come from? This is the first key tool for large-scale agile DevOps professional certification (SDP): the 9-squares canvas for DevOps transformation.


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