The Pursuit of Images of Colombia
NASA’s Organizational Culture
From the case study, it is clear that NASA’s organizational culture contributed significantly to the Colombia accident. One main problem with the organizational culture is the fact that it was constantly pursuing lower costs and meeting the deadline rather than focusing on the safety of the missions and associated crewmembers. NASA administration, the White House, and Congress were viewing the organization as an operational vehicle. They forgot one fundamental aspect about space exploration: space cannot be explored on a fixed cost basis.
NASA’s organizational culture also failed to maintain a sense of vulnerability. The fact that catastrophic events rarely happened for NASA created a sense of false security in the company. Operational diligence and effective management are significantly hampered by this false sense of security. The result is a significant lapse in diligent catastrophe prevention systems.
It is also evident that there was a culture of constantly ignoring operational constraints and engineering basics. The engineers and top management noticed that the insulating foam had ripped off from the orbiter and had struck the left wing within two days of the launch. Engineering tenets demand that such incidents are thoroughly investigated even if there is little evidence that such happenings can have detrimental effects on the orbiter.
However, NASA officials refused to follow engineering and operational guidelines even when the ripping of the insulating foam was brought to their attention. Their culture predicated that if the hazards of an incident were not extensive then there was no point of investigating the matter further. The officials would only investigate incidents that had the potential to cause catastrophic damage to the orbiters.
It is clear from the case study that NASA is more concerned about meeting mission deadlines and reducing costs. The result of this over-emphasis on the completion of missions and meeting of deadlines is a complete shift of focus from the safety of the mission. Critical input is often ignored as homogeneity of thought on the meeting of deadlines sets in. Valid safety concerns such as the detached foam are ignored putting the lives of the crew-members and the safety of the mission in jeopardy.
Effective decision-making seems hard to come by in NASA owing to the lack of a complete understanding of the risks, their sources and how to mitigate them. Independent and thorough risk assessment tests were not a major priority for NASA before this latest incident. Refusing to actively engage in risk assessment tests and ignoring the results of the tests that are actually carried out seems to have become part of the norm in NASA.
There is a clear lack of strong communication channels in NASA’s organizational culture. This could be attributed to the strong bureaucratic and secretive nature of the organization. Bureaucracy and secrecy have been known to hamper honest communication where individuals are scared to tell the top management about problems within the organization. The channels of communication in NASA had been severely depleted because of its dysfunctional bureaucratic culture. Despite appearances to the contrary, there seemed to be no honest communication in the organization. This is probably the reason that Roch was unable to convince top management to ask for images of the orbiter soon after lift-off.
Advantages and Disadvantages of NASA’s Culture
One major advantage of NASA’s culture is the bureaucracy of the system. Bureaucracy ensures that decision-making is only left in the hands of a few personnel. Thus, decisions can be made quickly as a lot of time is not spent arguing amongst many parties about the direction of the space flight program. Time and resources are better well spent when they are no quarrels over the direction that should be taken by the organization.
Another advantage of NASA’s culture is the dedication to completing missions within the stipulated time limits. Time is a major constraint for the human space flight program and it has to constantly ensure that it manages to meet the time demands set by the public and the government. Ensuring timely missions lowers the cost of the mission and guarantees that the government continues to budget the organization.
However, there is a lack of critical input from subordinate employees in the decision-making process. Lower-ranked employees are completely shut off from contributing to the decision-making process. They are also scared of speaking up because of fear of repercussions from the top management. The lack of critical input from subordinate staff can be hazardous to the program, as the management may not have sufficient information to make effective decision.
The lack of a comprehensive communication channel within NASA’s organizational structure also compromises the employees’ commitment to the organization. Employees work best when they feel that especially the senior managers appreciate their contribution. When they begin to feel unappreciated or afraid of repercussions when they speak up then their commitment and loyalty to the organization is diminished. They will not take their work seriously and they may compromise the safety of the missions due to negligence.
Drafting the E-mail
Rodney Rocha should have ensured that the e-mail had a sense of urgency so that the readers would take it more seriously. The wording of the e-mail should clearly outline the hazards or the consequences of not having clearer images and inform his superiors that time is of the essence in recovering the images as the crew and the mission’s safety was in jeopardy.
There are several instances when e-mails are not the appropriate form of communication. When the subject matter is urgent, requires immediate action, or discussion then it is imperative that face-to-face discussions are held rather than communicating via e-mail. In this instance, the subject matter was urgent and needed to be addressed in the shortest time possible. Thus, Rocha should have sought a face-to-face meeting with his superiors instead of sending the e-mail hoping for it to be replied within the shortest time possible. E-mails are the best tool for communication when the subject matter is not time-sensitive. This is when the writer is not expecting an instantaneous response from the recipient of the e-mail.
Going Up the Chain of Command
Rocha should have communicated more aggressively and more persistently with senior management. He should have pushed for a face-to-face meeting with his superiors. Due to the sensitive nature of the safety of the crewmembers, he should have jumped the chains of command and pleaded his case with individuals who are higher than his immediate boss is. Overstepping one’s authority is justified when the matter at hand is too dire to leave it in the hands of a bureaucratic system.
Achieving a Learning Organizational Culture
NASA does not have a strong learning organizational culture. If it did, then the Colombia accident would have never happened. The underlying premise of a learning organizational culture is that once a mistake is committed in the organization, it should never be repeated. This is because the company’s culture insists on learning from previous mistakes. Once a mistake is made, the company looks for ways to avert similar circumstances.
Sadly, NASA did not learn from its earlier mistake with the Challenger catastrophe that had occurred nearly 17 years earlier. The orbiter Challenger broke apart within 73 seconds of launch killing seven members of the crew. It seems that the cultural patterns that were present during the Challenger incident had persisted almost twenty years later. NASA still had not learned from its past and failed to restructure its organizational culture.
An essential way that the organization can achieve a learning organizational culture is to maintain a sense of vulnerability within its systems. The NASA members of staff have to be constantly reminded about the vulnerability of the orbiters and the precarious nature of their occupations (Bauer & Erdogan, 2012). Constant reminders will guarantee that the employees develop a culture of constantly monitoring the orbiters, detecting the slightest errors, alerting top management of any discrepancies and taking quick action when a discrepancy is identified. Thus, employees will always be on high alert ensuring that no serious incidents actually occur.
A learning organizational culture insists that the employees follow all the basic guidelines and adheres to the operational constraints present. Thus, NASA should develop an atmosphere where the basic tenets of engineering are adhered to strictly regardless of whether the perceived risk is low or high (Bauer & Erdogan, 2012). Even when there are no potential negative consequences, the officials need to constantly pour through the technical evidence and use operational history as a guide every time an incident, regardless of how miniscule, occurs.
NASA also needs to prioritize safety over achieving its goals of exploring space. Prioritizing safety will ensure that NASA officials never take for granted the safety of their counterparts in the space shuttles. The officials need to guarantee the safety of the orbiters before the allowing passengers into them even if it means postponing the official launch into space. Independent and strong sanity checks need to be carried out to guarantee that safety of the mission is never compromised.
Regular and timely risk assessment is crucial in an organization that is always willing to learn from past mistakes. Understanding the risks ensures that decision-making is more effective and targeted towards solving the right concrete problems (Bauer & Erdogan, 2012). NASA should adopt the culture of constantly carrying out risk assessments and basing its decisions on the recommendations of such tests. Such a culture will ensure that risks are identified earlier on before it is too late or too costly to mitigate them.
From the onset, it is clear that NASA lacks a clear communication structure that encourages open and honest dialogue amongst all members of staff regardless of rank and post. The organization needs to develop a culture that fosters open communication between the subordinates and the superiors. This will only be achieved through refurbished and established procedures, protocol, and norms that determine how the lower rank members communicate with the top management. The established rules will also dictate how the management responds to the information provided to them by the subordinate. Barriers to lateral communications that often impede the free flow of critical information should also be eradicated through a restructuring of the organization.
Finally, the organization needs to internalize all the lessons gained from the past mistakes otherwise its performance will decline. Having safety as a prerogative will require that the NASA officials develop a strong curiosity and determination for having the safest working environment ever.
From the case study, communication and safety are imperative for the success of NASA and for any organization in fact. NASA needs to focus more on safety than completing the missions before time elapses. Furthermore, communication is essential for the proper functioning of the organization. NASA needs to restructure its organizational culture if future incidents should be averted.
Bauer, T., & Erdogan, B. (2012). An Introduction to Organizational Behavior.