Status Report

NASA Langley Research Center Response to the Agency Safety and Mission Success Week November 17-21, 2003 (part 2)

By SpaceRef Editor
December 20, 2003
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Part 1|2

Organizational Structure

Many employees expressed concern about Langley’s matrix organization, which is seen as “complex organizational structures that create opportunities for conflicting direction which can compromise safety and mission success.” Our organizational structure is described as “confusing” by those who must function within it. This confusion leads to complicated and difficult communications, both within and outside of the Center. The “lack of integrated management” within our organizational structure confuses employees’ understanding of roles, accountability, and chain of command. This sometimes leads to inconsistent or conflicting management decisions that are not in the best interests of our Center. It also creates unhealthy internal competition for resources between programs and competencies. “The same problem is seen as plaguing the Agency.”

Finally, some employees indicated that the problematic organizational structure may contribute to individuals and organizations operating outside the established Langley Management System and the creating “informal chains of command” that “break organizational processes” and lead to increased operational risks.

Employee recommendations to improve organizational structure at Agency, Enterprise and Center levels include:

  • Clarify organizational roles and responsibilities;
  • Align resource management to the organization with technical responsibility to perform the action;
  • Redesign the organization to reduce overhead rates; and
  • Promote full and complete understanding of all Centers’ capabilities.

At the Center level, employees recommended that Langley management should:

  • Ensure we are all working to the same programmatic and technical objectives; and
  • Simplify our organizational structure consistent with the direction of the Center.

Organizational Culture

We received many comments about our organizational culture. A common theme reflected in the feedback is the difficulty of planning activities with adequate schedule, budget, and human resources to achieve the required performance. Failure to properly plan and manage our activities creates pressures that have consequences, including failure to achieve the mission, increased costs and schedule slips, and loss of key personnel.

Many employees perceive that requirements are not controlled adequately, and that the desires of certain individuals are allowed to influence the direction and productivity of the effort without due regard for the engineers’ inputs. In an environment where both internal and contracted requirements are not firmly established and maintained, employees come to feel that “nothing is mandatory; everything is negotiable.” This apparent lack of accountability and compliance to rules and procedures can create “dangerous situations” with “disastrous results.”

As in the CAIB report, Langley employees expressed concern over our “can do” attitude, which “goes too far and becomes arrogance, leaving us blind to external information.” It tempts us to accept greater risk than may be reasonable or responsible. The pressure of “can do” affects our ability to effectively and efficiently decide among conflicting priorities and establish the appropriate roles and responsibilities. This can lead to compromises in performance, safety, schedule, and budget.

Employees also noted that the Agency practice of competing programs and studies among centers directly conflicts with the principles of One NASA and promotes an “us against them” mentality that will hinder the Agency’s attempts at cultural change. Without some change in our Agency policies on competition, employees feel that we will not succeed in fully adopting a “One NASA” culture.

Some employees perceived a lack of respect for differing classes of employees. Competencies do not feel valued by the Program Offices and vice versa; non-technical employees do not feel as significant to the Center activities as technical employees; working personnel feel they are not respected by management. This perception is detrimental to effective team operations and communications as well as employee morale.

Employee recommendations to improve organizational culture conditions at Agency, Enterprise and Center levels include:

  • Establishing a decision-making process by which team/meeting participants are required to express affirmation, objections, or any other response to ensure all concerns are captured and resolved;
  • Developing decision-making skills;
  • Emphasizing accountability with rewards and penalties as appropriate;
  • Reinforcing rule compliance;
  • Adapting of a reward system to steer behavior towards achievement of the Agency/Center vision. The system should reward rigor and completeness and discourage process shortcuts and informal chains of command. Independent assessments should be alert for normalization of deviance in processes and organizations and consequences of schedule pressures on technical decisions affecting safety or mission success;
  • Realistic planning for schedule, budget, and workforce requirements, including better planning to identify initial work requirement;
  • Developing a transition plan to move to full cost;
  • Adjusting our definition of success to avoid risky “can do” behaviors;
  • Identifying and eliminating excessive bureaucracy through Freedom to Manage initiative;
  • Supporting and implementing One NASA; and
  • Consider doing fewer programs and doing a better job.

Langley unique recommendations to improve organizational culture include:

  • Advocate “Desirable Organizational Characteristics” re-assess Aerodynamics, Aerothermodynamics and Acoustics management specific objectives and metrics; and
  • Advocate and support development of a Center-wide technician policy.

Human Resources

Our workforce is deeply concerned that the technical staff does not have the proper skill mix or expertise to execute projects and programs that fully satisfy technical performance, safety, cost, and schedule goals. They view themselves as doing “too much with too little” and being “oversubscribed.” They fear the loss of in-house technical skill and expertise, including the contracting out of the technician workforce. They are concerned that work that is contracted out can not be performed without sacrifice of safety, even allowing for “commensurate government oversight.” They believe that the limited outside hiring in the last decade has deprived us of “fresh eyes and fresh ears.” This, in turn, limits our ability to perform up to standards of technical excellence and to recognize problems in time to avert serious consequences. They are confused by what they see as a conflict between the recognition that the eroding NASA technical base contributed to the Columbia accident and current Agency policies that will exacerbate the problem.

Some employees do perceive our environment as “breeding normalization of deviance,'” a contributing accident factor cited in the CAIB report. This stems from projects accepting greater levels of mission risk, including delivering systems that do not meet their original performance goals. Under the pressure of circumstances, people come to accept “good enough” instead of specified performance.

Many thought the lack of diversity of experience as a whole will have the most negative impact on the future of the Agency. Diversity is currently defined as gender or race; experience should be included. Without a wide range of experience inside organizations, minority opinions will not be freely explored and organizations will be limited to “we’ve always done it this way before.”

Employees would like to see better use of human resources tools to objectively recognize and reward superior efforts in order to give employees an incentive to work to their fullest potential.

Employee recommendations to improve human resource conditions at Agency, Enterprise and Center levels include:

  • Developing and implementing a long-range plan to remedy operational deficiencies by hiring or retaining needed skills;
  • Committing adequate human and financial resources on work;
  • Developing a structured method to retain and capture knowledge;
  • Conducting independent reviews through non-NASA parties;
  • Involving the Office of Equal Opportunity in all workforce strategies and initiatives;
  • Implementing a long-range Agency plan to address critical skill hiring and create tailored disciplined training programs to address technical and operational deficiencies;
  • Defining characteristics of a successful leader and incorporate into MAST and other training. Incorporate the desired behaviors into performance criteria that are utilized to reinforce behavior and mentor leaders;
  • Defining the parameters for an agency-knowledge management system; Identifying requirements for input to system (video, written input, etc.) and link subject matter in captured knowledge system to competencies in the agency-wide; competency management system; Developing and supporting an automated system for storing, updating, and retrieving the information across Centers; and
  • Providing assistance for managing stress in the workplace.

Additionally, at Langley, recommendations for improving human resource conditions include:

  • Developing a well-thought out policy towards the technician workforce; and
  • Valuing and inciting Source Evaluation Board participation, or incorporating SEB participation as a developmental program.

Tools & Business Practices

Many employees challenged the value of business tools and practices. The primary areas of concern center around Financial Management, the Langley Management System (LMS), general documentation requirements, and Contracts.

Financial management is of concern in two cited areas: full cost accounting and management, and the Integrated Financial Management Program (IFMP). Feedback indicates “we are not close to full cost management.” Employees are concerned about our financial competitiveness and the ability of our managers to understand, manage, and make appropriate decisions in a full cost environment. The new financial management “is absorbing a lot of time and we are not getting any benefit from the system.” Employee think that the system, as currently configured, requires a lot of time to input or access data, and that support services do not meet their needs.

The feedback indicates that employees do not understand Agency funding processes and procedures and are frustrated by them. They would like more information about what incentives might be available for the centers to save money and would like to be reassured that there are “adequate reserves at HQ for modest cost growth.” They are also frustrated by the excessive amounts of time it takes to receive funding from Agency sources.

The Langley Management System (LMS) was highly criticized by employees. The LMS search engine is described as “inadequate and cumbersome,” unable to guide them to the appropriate documents and procedures for specific tasks. Instead they are forced to “rely on informal lines of communication” and thus often deviate from approved processes. In addition, they do not see any mechanism to formally assess the effectiveness of policies, although they do see mechanisms to enforce adherence to policy. Employees have no incentive to dedicate their limited time to improving the system in ways that would make it more valuable to the Center.

Several comments criticized the documentation requirements for programs and projects as being variable and inconsistent, and sometimes inadequate as work records. “In many cases, technical details of tests, analyses, results and conclusions are not documented in a formal report, leading to reinventing the wheel and wasting resources.”

Employees expressed concern that the Agency goal of 80% performance-based contracts “does not make sense.” In their view, many technical support activities at Langley are not appropriate for performance-based contracts. They criticized a number of internal procedural issues, including the bid and proposal receipt process and what they view as improper use of the confidential business information clause, as well as other “wrong” clauses.

Employee recommendations to Tools and Business Practice at Agency, Enterprise and Center levels include:

  • Better education for employees on the funding, financial management, and full cost processes.
  • Better tools for project managers to adequately plan and track full cost of projects.

Employees recommend that Langley Tools and Business Practices should:

  • Distinguish LMS procedures for operational and research activities.
  • Develop consistent baseline for engineering task order services issues under contracts.
  • Institute a requirements team to review all Statements of Work over certain dollar thresholds.
  • Include a technical specialist in the Office of Procurement.


The CAIB Report states that “communication did not flow effectively up to or down.” This finding is reflected in many comments about Langley communications. Respondents cited many different causes for poor communication, such as:

  • “Organizational structure extremely complex, creating unclear lines of responsibility, accountability and authority”;
  • “Too much secrecy across the whole management chain”;
  • Failure to document what we’re doing and who’s doing it;
  • Lack of accountability;
  • Management is too busy with meetings;
  • Information flow is slow and lost in the filters;
  • Lack of forum through which minority opinions can be expressed and heard;
  • Lack of trust;
  • Fear of retaliation;
  • Feeling insignificant;
  • Lack of “exchange program with competency, program office and branch to improve communication and understanding”;
  • Unequal “status” between “business persons” and higher-level engineers;
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities;
  • Midstream management changes; and
  • Different or incompatible management philosophies.

Communication affects all other categories and is critical to successful Center and Agency operations and achievement of mission objectives.

Employee recommendations to improve Communications at the Agency, Enterprise and Center levels include the following:

  • Assume that communication is not occurring effectively; develop strategies to ensure what is said or written is in fact what is received;
  • Every individual needs to take responsibility for ensuring that “proper things are being done for the right reasons. When they are not, we need to speak up;” and
  • Revisit how ombudsman role is being implemented.


Few issues relevant to the week’s activities were identified in the Measurement Element. One comment observed that “of the 18 Center Metrics that we track, only a few drive management/employee behavior or lead to continuous improvement.” Another observed that “the average employee doesn’t know that the list of 18 core metrics exists, much less what they mean.” Measurement is perceived as “metrics that drive too many things and interfere with getting the work done.”

A recommendation for improvement of Measurement, applicable to the Agency, Enterprise and Center levels, is to “spend the difficult time and energy developing metrics that will drive management/employee behavior and lead to continuous improvement. Delete any metrics that are only there because they are easy to measure.”


Employees expressed a number of safety concerns and noted conflict and confusion in the roles of the safety organization, individual safety personnel, and the priority assigned to safety in our organizational activities. They perceive that “management is more schedule-driven than safety-driven,” and that “leadership, communication, and organizational issues, create situations that drive program solutions toward less safety and mission success.” Employees expressed concern that “excessive workload will lead to stress and inattention to safety issues,” that our process-driven environment causes “decreased personal accountability.” They are concerned that the management focus on Center safety metrics may cause some people to withhold reports of incidents in order to avoid organizational embarrassment.

Some employees suspect that Langley’s safety organization is technically weak and lacks resources to be effective. Its roles, responsibilities, and authority in programs and projects are not understood. Employees perceive conflicts between program and safety objectives. They do not consider safety to be “well integrated into program development and planning;” rather, safety personnel are seen as “cops to be avoided rather than supporting members of the team.” A number of comments reflected the view that “technical excellence should be our #1 value” because “technical excellence, through understanding, will go the furthest in ensuring safety and mission success.”

Employee recommendations for improvement of safety at the Agency, Enterprise and Center levels:

  • Consider safety when establishing and adjusting budgets and schedules.
  • Better communicate safety issues to the project managers.
  • Make sure the infrastructure is sized so that it can be well maintained and operated safely.
  • Don’t confuse taking technical risk with being safe.
  • Clarify and strengthen the Center’s Office of Safety & Mission Assurance role, responsibility, and authority in programs and projects throughout the program/project cycle.
  • Decrease the influx of “the latest Code Q SMA fad” to allow us to concentrate more on the fundamental job.
  • Create a more cooperative environment between Programs and that acknowledges we are continually evaluating and assessing risk.

Langley-specific recommendations for improvement of safety include:

  • Improving the connection between Facility Safety Heads and the Safety Office;
  • Creating a “no fault” safety inspection;
  • Increasing resources to perform the present workload or decrease workload; particularly new unfunded mandates, to match the resources;
  • Eliminating the emphasis on the metrics;
  • Taking organization names out of Safety Highlights;
  • Sharing information about actions taken in response to safety issues; and
  • When an individual identifies an unsafe condition, the manager acknowledging that her or she heard what was said.


Echoing the CAIB report, many employees expressed their concern that managers make engineering and safety compromises to achieve schedule, budget, or other programmatic goals throughout all aspects of our activities. “Cost and schedule pressures have surpassed technical quality as the drivers for decision making on projects.”

Most employees understand that change is a normal part of program evolution and that some compromise in technical requirements is inevitable; however, many expressed concern that requirements change for reasons that are not technically or programmatically sound, decrease product quality, undermine confidence in management, and reduce mission success and effectiveness. A recommendation applicable to all levels of the Agency was to not “ask people to continue to do more with less.”

SpaceRef staff editor.