ASK OCE — August 4, 2006 — Vol. 1 Issue 11
Message from the Chief Engineer
By Chris Scolese
A hallmark of great organizations is effective internal communication. At the dawn of the Information Age, when command-and-control structures were the norm for businesses and government agencies, communication usually flowed in one direction: down from the top. This is still important in any large organization; leadership has to be able to establish and disseminate priorities. At NASA today, however, communication moves up, down, and across the organization on a constant basis. This is a core part of our culture as an engineering organization where people work collaboratively on highly complex systems.
Since the 2003 Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report, a great deal of attention has been paid to how NASA handles dissenting opinions. In its analysis of the organizational causes of the Columbia accident, CAIB noted that, “Cultural traits and organizational practices detrimental to safety and reliability were allowed to develop, including...organizational barriers which prevented effective communication of critical safety information and stifled professional differences of opinion.”
NASA has taken many steps to break down the organizational barriers cited in the CAIB. Most notably, there is now a process in place to air all points of view when critical decisions need to be made. In the case of launch decisions, these culminate in a final Flight Readiness Review at which all stakeholders are asked to state their opinions and rationales. The discussions are highly technical and invariably focus on differing interpretations of data. NASA is fortunate at this time to have a senior leadership team that can engage at the level of technical detail necessary to make tough decisions. There are always disagreements in these forums, but all opinions receive a hearing. When a decision is appealed to the Administrator, he explicitly recaps all the points of view that have been presented before announcing his decision and rationale based on the information presented. This process is the most democratic and open that I have known in my career at NASA.
Once a final decision has been reached, there are no recriminations or second-guesses. We leave our differences in the room and move on. This requires trust, a respect for both the process and one’s colleagues, and a commitment to NASA's larger mission that transcends any single decision. The commitment that our people bring to the mission is one of the most gratifying aspects of working for NASA.
In short, the process is thorough, inclusive, fact-based, and respectful. The issues that rise to this level are never straightforward; there are inevitably varying interpretations of the available data. That is the essence of engineering. The way that we handle these differences demonstrates that NASA operates in a manner consistent with the trust that the President, the Congress, and the public has placed in us.