I got to meet an astronaut.
Growing up in the 60s, I was a child of the space race. I watched the grainy, black and white lift offs, spacewalks, and splash downs. I saw Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. I idolized the things that were being done and I was proud of what we were accomplishing. While I didn’t see Walter Cronkite nearly break down when we actually landed on the moon, my family gathered around the television to watch the one small step. With all that, I, like many others, have lost track of where our space program is. I cannot name all the shuttles, and I would have trouble naming, except for those original heroes, even one of the over 500 people that have now been in space.
At the IIA International Conference gala, three of us were standing at a table talking. A gentleman walked up and asked us how we were enjoying the conference. A very typical question; we didn’t think much about it. We engaged in conversation on that subject. After some discussion, the gentleman indicated that he had just arrived at the conference. Since there was only one more day of conference – two more general sessions - we were a little surprised. Upon further discussion we learned he was the speaker for the first session.
I felt somewhat chagrined because I could not remember who that first speaker was going to be. However, I showed off just how great my memory was by saying that I remembered he worked at Raytheon. He acknowledged that was true, and mentioned he lived in Tucson. We began chatting about Arizona. Eventually it came out that he worked for NASA. More discussion. Then, approximately 20 minutes into the conversation, he casually mentioned that he was a shuttle astronaut. We were talking to shuttle commander Donald McMonagle.
I will give our little group credit, not one of us geeked out in front of him. (Now, when he walked away…well, that is another story. More than once we each said, “I got to shake hands with an astronaut” and gave a little giggle. A twenty minute conversation before he casually lets it be known that he has been in outer space three times. We all agreed that, if it was us, that would be our conversation lead. “Hi. I’m Mike Jacka. I’m an astronaut.”)
Our conversation with him took quite the turn (as you can expect.) One of his roles was identifying root causes for “near misses” in shuttle flights. He also discussed what he felt to be one of the great strengths of NASA – that it had a culture that supported the elevation of potential issues. If it was a big deal, they would act on it and thank the individual. If it was not a big deal, they would take no specific action, but keep track of the situation, and thank the individual. In all situations, paramount was the willingness to listen to people express concerns and act on those concerns.
Later, I was discussing report writing with one of my friends. The discussion turned to root cause analysis. She was describing a situation where she spent quite a bit of time working with the auditor to determine exactly why a certain situation was happening. Finally, they realized the root cause was that the employees were too intimidated to raise significant issues to the VP. Yes, it was the true root cause. No, it was not easy to report such a situation.
I’ll be honest – I’m not sure, depending on where I found the problem, I could find a way to craft a report to deliver that message. This is the kind of message that results in shot messengers, departments burnt to the ground, and salt sowed into the cubicles so nothing will ever grow again.
I am afraid it is the exception to work in a situation where even the worst messages are welcomed and the messenger is thanked. And the fact that NASA, with the risks and ramifications inherent in their operations, has such a culture makes me feel good.
Now, if we could just get all organizations to understand how important it is to allow people to be truthful about the problems they may be facing.