‘People is Hard’: NASA Seeks To Fix Itself

By Keith Cowing
April 14, 2004
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‘People is Hard’: NASA Seeks To Fix Itself

On Monday NASA released a report it had commissioned which sought to examine the oft-mentioned ‘culture’ issues that arose during the activities of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB).

Now NASA seeks to fix that within its culture which is broken.

In its report, the CAIB made note of a variety of cultural behaviors that contributed in various ways to the Columbia accident. Of all the behaviors that characterize this ‘culture’ the reluctance the part of NASA employees to speak out and express their views was perhaps the most damming. The reciprocal of an unwillingness to speak out is the perceived fear that doing so will have repercussions.

Not only did the CAIB report that they found evidence that such behaviors existed at the time of the accident, the noted that they had seen these behaviors themselves as it conducted its investigations

NASA Looks at Itself

NASA initially followed up the CAIB report with “Renewed Commitment to Excellence” aka the Diaz Report which was released in February 2004. This report was derived from a week long, agency-wide review of the CAIB report by NASA employees.

This is how the Diaz report saw the challenge (pathway) ahead:

“For NASA to embark on the new pathway, some fundamental For NASA to embark on the new pathway, some fundamental reforms must be instituted. These are encompassed by the 40 reforms must be instituted. These are encompassed by the 40 Diaz Team actions and seven goals identified in the Report. The Diaz Team actions and seven goals identified in the Report. The essence of these can be captured in three overarching reforms:”

  • NASA must assure that appropriate checks and balances are in place to develop and operate its missions safely, and must undertake the organizational changes necessary to make this happen.
  • NASA must enhance communications at all levels with a focus on fostering diversity of viewpoints and eliminating fear of retribution.
  • NASA must focus on the ways it is managing risk. Safety, mission success and program performance must not be the product of schedule and budget pressures alone.”
  • While this report did get into great detail about the various recommendations and what some NASA employees had said, it was still a self-assessment. Self-assessments are, by definition, incomplete products since an organization is evaluating itself. Indeed, the report was, in essence, a detailed confirmation that a lot of employees had read the report and could repeat back what the CAIB report had said with some personal introspection as to how it affected them in the way they conducted their responsibilities.

    NASA Seeks Outside Help

    NASA sought to go beyond the internal review and sought out the services of Behavioral Science Technology, Inc. (BST) a respected leader in the field of understanding how large corporate and governmental organizations operate and how they go through change.

    At the core of the process was an agency-wide online survey followed up by focus groups which sought to characterize the strengths and weaknesses present in the current NASA workforce.

    The results of this survey and other assessment activities is contained in the recently released report “Assessment and Plan for Organizational Culture Change at NASA“. In addition, BST also suggested a plan of action wherein all employees – starting with O’Keefe – will be coached on ways to improve the way they do their job so as to ameliorate the concerns raised in the report.

    In summarizing the outcome of this study BST said:

    Despite these positive attributes, there are some important needs for improvement. The present NASA culture does not yet fully reflect the Agency’s espoused core values of Safety, People, Excellence, and Integrity. The culture reflects an organization in transition, with many ongoing initiatives and lack of a clear sense at working levels of “how it all fits together”.

  • Safety is something to which NASA personnel are strongly committed in concept, but NASA has not yet created a culture that is fully supportive of safety. Open communication is not yet the norm and people do not fell fully comfortable raising safety concerns to management.
  • People do not feel respected or appreciated by the organization. As a result, the strong commitment people feel to their technical work does not transfer to a strong commitment to the organization.
  • Excellence is a treasured value when it comes to technical work, but is not seen by many NASA personnel as an imperative for other aspects of the organization’s functioning (such as management skills, supporting administrative functions, and creating an environment that encourages excellence in communications.)
  • Integrity is generally understood and manifested in people’s work. However, there appear to be pockets where the management chain has (possibly unintentionally) sent signals that the raising of issues is not welcome. This is inconsistent with an organization that truly values integrity.
  • Clearly there are resonating echoes between this externally generated survey – and that generated from within NASA itself.

    So, what to do about it? A glance at the statistics shows similar results to previous employee surveys from the 1990s which, in a nutshell, said that people were afraid to raise issues for fear of adverse (but never fully defined) consequences.

    O’Keefe Meets the Press

    NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe held a televised meeting with NASA employees yesterday to discuss the report. He met with reporters immediately afterwards [verbatim transcript]. Joining him were Jim Jennings, Associate Deputy Administrator for Institutions and Asset Management at NASA HQ and Jim Wetherbee, astronaut and Technical Assistant to the Director, Safety and Mission Assurance Directorate, at NASA JSC.

    Before diving into the topic du jour O’Keefe sought to place the actions of all NASA employees into the context of the next generation of citizens who’d benefit – and participate in what NASA does. He made specific note of NASA’s Explorer School Program.

    O’Keefe summarized the program and noted: “… And what I didn’t expect to come out of it was, I think, the renewing kind of experience that all of us have had in doing this of why this stuff really matters, why people really care about this, and the enthusiasm has just been something I never imagined. I couldn’t gather the depth of that enthusiasm for it.”

    I saw this for myself last month on a trip with O’Keefe to Ohio – and to visit Lorain Middle School [see “A Day in the Life of NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe“]. Jim Jennings was along on the trip as well.

    What the BST Survey Means for NASA

    O’Keefe said “I think a lot of it, what our colleagues at BST have reminded us, are the kinds of things that come out of this survey and say here are the kind of things you need to do and respond to that. In addition to that, I think we also need to … focus on, again, the facilitation that the firm is providing for us to help open up the communication loop in a much wider open array and doing things in a more proactive way that really encourages folks to create a climate in which this kind of constructive communication and dialogue is exchanged.”

    When asked how all of what NASA has been doing compares with what happens in the private sector O’Keefe said, referring to an event that followed the press briefing:

    “We are here [at the following event] to recognize that we are the best agency in the Federal Government on human capital strategic planning and how we treat, how we look to move ahead on the workforce. We have got the highest rating of the entire Federal Government on this. The surveys that came out, conducted by others than us, suggest this is the most desirable agency to work for in the Federal Government. That is the American University survey that was released last fall or whatever.”

    O’Keefe added “In the Workforce Flexibility Act that the Congress just enacted 6 weeks ago (testimony) that we have been working for over a year to have enacted, and the President signed it, incorporates the best practices of every agency out there. I am eternally grateful to Kay Coles James because she worked with us to develop a piece of legislation that would take every pilot program, every test program, every approach that has been done at every other agency and look at the full range of all of them and which ones that would have greatest likelihood, suitability, and advantage to this agency. We package them all up based on that Federal-wide bench mark, best practices experience, put it altogether, and put it together as the NASA Workforce Flexibilities Act, and the Congress finally enacted it.”

    Practicing What One Preaches

    At one point Jim Wetherbee said: “The first thing that I think we should do is to find out why people are reluctant to speak up, and there are various reasons. … In large part, it is not because they are afraid of being fired. In very large part, they are afraid of becoming rendered ineffective and being moved to a different job, which to somebody at NASA, it is the equivalent of being fired. There is something always falling down the process, always speaking up, “I don’t get listened to anymore.” So that is a great fear that people have to render it ineffective.”

    He continued “It stems from the can-do spirit, the culture. Our pervasive culture for the last 45 years has been one of mission accomplishment, and we really get things done. If there is someone who is slowing down the process, it is only the managers that are feeling pressure to not speak up, but sometimes it is even the peers. So you really have to understand all the various different reasons why people are reluctant to speak up, and I acknowledge that there are very many people that will not speak up.”

    A few minutes later, after O’Keefe left the room to attend a subsequent event, Weatherbee was asked: “Do you have a communications problem in the astronaut office?”. Curiously, Wetherbee had that “deer caught in the headlights” look on his face for the next 20 seconds or so as he very carefully considered his words. He replied, not answering the question, saying: “I think there are communications problems all throughout NASA, and again, what we need to do is identify those areas and find out why there are communications problems and take appropriate measures and create the conditions that allow people to speak up without fear of retribution.”

    It was rather curious that a NASA senior manager was unwilling to even discuss the possibility that problems that are quite obviously manifest throughout the agency would not also be found within the Astronaut Corps – or, for that matter, take the opportunity deny that there was a problem. He simply punted instead. This is more than the Right Stuff in action. Rather, it is additional evidence that even as the agency discusses its problems and possible solutions, it encounters these very same problems in the process of making those explanations -an eerie echo of what the CAIB observed.

    George Abbey’s Long Shadow

    Later, Jim Wetherbee was asked “[Former JSC Center Director] George Abbey was the stuff of legends, and I am wondering if you are doing some soul-searching now. Do you find yourself bumping up against kind of the tenor that he had set, this idea that there could be serious repercussions on your career, that you might never fly if [you] step out of line?”

    Wetherbee (appointed by Abbey to a number of positions including the position as Abbey’s Deputy between 1995-2000) replied quickly “No. I don’t think so at all, and I think George Abbey was widely misunderstood by external folks outside the organization. He is a man who very much cared about the people. He especially cared about people who were doing the job correctly and doing it right and doing it with interest of the mission and NASA and the agency and safety and on and on.”

    Abbey’s retribution-laden managerial style is legendary and was widely known across JSC -and the agency. Abbey has left the agency, but people are still reluctant to say anything but positive things about him. Recall what Wetherbee said just a few minutes earlier: “… you really have to understand all the various different reasons why people are reluctant to speak up, and I acknowledge that there are very many people that will not speak up.”

    Encouraging Dissent

    NASA is not the only high tech operational agency to face these problems. Often quick to cite the Navy’s experience in such matters, O’Keefe said “There is one real specific manifestation in what Jim has talked about that is pretty powerful. It is one we really thrashed around with and are looking to make as a kind of standard way of doing business that is an element of the way the Naval reactors community does business, which is to always, always, always solicit minority opinion.”

    He continued: “If everybody sits there and says, “Yep, we are all in agreement on this,” you have got to worry. If there isn’t a minority view that is expressed, then go out and find one. What is the opposition position to what it is you are proceeding with? So at least you can reconcile it and understand what it is. It is the very best the way that the peer review system works, and it has the effect in the Naval reactors community, interestingly, of then prompting others to look at that opposing position and say, “You know, there is something to that. Maybe I am not as solid about my position as I thought I was because I am just now hearing something different.” So, as a consequence, it helps moderate stridency, if you will, of those who believe with great conviction of where they are going.”

    OK, So What if People Won’t Listen?

    Jim Jennings was asked how you get at the issue of people who won’t “get with the program”. Civil servants are notoriously hard to fire – and many managers and fellow employees often give up when a fellow employee simply won’t modify their way of doing business to facilitate the work of others and just work around them.

    Jennings said “What we need to do, we need to start from the top and start creating an environment, and leadership has to start being accountable. So, when we find people that are not willing to go along with the behaviors and traits that we want in the agency, that we actually put that in our performance plan and judge them accordingly and eventually move them out of the system, and that is part of being accountable as leaders. And that is one of the things that have been missing.”

    Starting from the top

    Jim Jennings said “we know that we cannot take on the entire agency at once.” The management therapy process will indeed begin at the top. On Wednesday a senior BST representative will meet with Sean O’Keefe for the first of a number of sessions to examine how he does things and to begin a program (where necessary) of working to adjust behaviors.

    The process will begin to be implemented among a dozen or so managers at NASA HQ, as well as within selected areas across the agency: the Engineering Directorate and MOD at NASA JSC, all of NASA GRC and NASA SSC, and at the S&MA offices at NASA JKSC and NASA GSFC.

    Here we go again

    NASA has a long term fascination with management fads. ISO 9000, TQM – even the Franklin Planner cult. Mix that in with Red Team/Blue Team, Zero Base Review, Downsizing, and Buyouts; add in some programmatic fiascos such as X-33, some Mars crashes, an aging workforce and a Shuttle accident and the agency has had its share of chaos over the past decade. Somewhere in the midst of this are people making mistakes and getting burnt out. At the same time the agency is hot rodding across the surface of Mars, barnstorming comets, and looking back at the birth of the universe with Hubble.

    And oh yes, now NASA wants to go back to the moon.

    This is all being done by an agency that hasn’t had a chance to get back on its feet for a very long time. Will this latest catharsis and the associated introspection lead to the software upgrades that the agency’s most important resource- its people – need?

    One thing is certain, if people don’t try to fix things, these changes certainly won’t happen. Only so much can flow down from the top.

    As Sean O’Keefe is fond of quoting a former co-worker on the topic of human resource management: “People is hard.”

    SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.