Dispatches from the Boston Front No. 6 - Outer Space; Inner Strength

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.

Posted on Jul 12, 2012 by Mike Jacka

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  1. Mike, thanks for taking the time to write about the Boston conference.  I enjoyed your story on Don McMonagle & the modesty he displayed.  However, it got me thinking about NASA & McMonagle's rosy picture of NASA's current environment vs. the Challenger explosion of 1986.  The incident was later used as a case study to demonstrate the nefarious effects of Group Think.  NASA decided to launch despite the warnings of several Morton Thiokol engineers that the o rings might fail at very cold temperatures.  The training video on Group Think that I saw talked about all the causes that went into the tragic decision including a sense of complacency based on past successes; huge pressures to launch due to past delays; and the need for addtional PR to support Nasa's budget.  So I guess from your discussion with McMonagle the inference is Nasa's cleaned up its act.  Yet it makes me wonder what the role of Audit can be in discovering Group Think tendencies that may lead to tragic consequences.  What processes can we use as auditors to assess the probabilty of Group Think rearing its ugly head before it happens?  Interview decision-makers on senior executive committees & see if they express frustration that their views are being ignored due to Group Think - like pressures to conform?  Other? 

  1. Rick,

    It's interesting that you bring up the subject of group think, particularly in regards to the Shuttle disaster.  We actually got into this discussion by me asking, in a roundabout away, about what his roles were in NASA when the Challenger and Columbia disasters occurred.  He was a crew member when Challenger happened, and he mentioned how the press kept focusing on the danger and whether the crew members were more fearful.  He just kind of laughed.

    But I brought up the investigation.  (In particular, I love the role Richard Feynman played in determining the true cause.  If you haven't read any of Feynman's non-scientific writing, it is worth finding; including his description of his role on the Challenger disaster in the book What Do You Care What Other People Think.)  It was when I brought up this investigation that Mr.McMonagle provided his insights on the current state.  It is a good question, but I can only take him on his word that NASA has learned from it's mistakes.

    But you follow this with an excellent question and point.  Do internal auditors do a good enough job of identifying group think and reporting on it.  And, how often do we succumb to it - joining in the group think to become a part of it.  An excellent point, and if anyone is still tuning in, I'd be interested if anyone else has come accross this or (more courageously) reported on it.

    Rick, great comments

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