Roger M. Boisjoly, a retired engineer, is this week’s Guest Blogger. Lest readers think that our Lofty Ambitions’ spectacles became too rose colored during our recent visit to Kennedy Space Center (see our “Countdown to the Cape” series October 27-November 7), we turn to Boisjoly for an examination of the NASA culture. Even Christopher Cowen, our first Guest Blogger (click here) and one of NASA’s biggest cheerleaders, admitted that he is compelled to point out when they make a mistake.
Roger Boisjoly worked at Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the Space Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, when Challenger began its doomed STS-51L mission. He warned his superiors of an O-ring problem the year before, in 1985. Cold weather made the problem worse, as the O-rings took longer to adjust and make the necessary seal in the joint of the solid rocket booster. On January 28, 1986, Boisjoly and some of his coworkers raised specific concerns about the near-freezing overnight temperatures at the launch pad and recommended delaying the mission. After phone calls between his superiors and NASA, Challenger launched anyway, and disintegrated less than a minute into the flight. (Click here for our previous post that describes the video record of those moments.) Boisjoly became a witness during the investigation by the Presidential Committee.
Roger Boisjoly continues to lecture on workplace ethics and organizational culture. This past spring, he donated his papers—boxes and boxes from his Morton Thiokol years—to Leatherby Libraries at Chapman University. We met Roger and, with him, held one of those O-rings in our fingers.
U. S. PRODUCTIVITY IN PRIVATE AND GOVERNMENT SECTORS
My engineering career will be characterized as vigorously intrusive, as I purposely tried to learn about the contributions of supporting disciplines to product development. I hoped this knowledge would result in better cooperation between disciplines, short circuit bureaucracy, and produce good products. This type of work ethic matters because it is becoming extinct today as most managers focus only on short-term profits by disregarding product compliance to specifications, quality, or safety. For example, three of the 14 organizations for which I worked had approximately 1000 employees, and they all produced exceptional products for both commercial and government use. This resulted from teamwork and information flow, coupled with positive perceptions from observations of daily operations performed within the organization that enhanced everybody’s ability to contribute their talents to make great products without oppressive short-term profit management.
In contrast, the remaining 11 organizations in which I worked varied in management style from mild to severely dysfunctional, primarily due to a short-term profit focus, at the expense of employee moral and product excellence. Observations of organizations that treated their subordinate employees as a renewable resource and also would not listen to subordinate input concerning problem resolution were found to have a condition called Malicious Obedience throughout their organizations. This condition resulted in a visible downward spiraling of teamwork and information flow coupled with poor products and loss of market share. Malicious Obedience is the practice of subordinate employees doing only what they are told to do, even when they know that the flawed instructions received will not produce the desired results. When management treated them like replaceable mindless machines, subordinate employees got even this way. As a result, 25% of employees produced 75% of the real productive output, while 75% of employees produced mediocre or less output and became a drain on resources. This exact ratio was presented to a chief engineer at one of these companies; he agreed with my assessment, but did nothing to correct it.
Today, most, if not all, government contractors and commercial corporations are saturated with Malicious Obedience organizations, and the percentage of productive employees is rapidly decreasing. Before anyone concludes that all managers are basically bad and that all other employees are basically good, but are simply misled, it must be stated that the overwhelming majority of employees in management and other positions would like to do the best possible job in making products for the government or anyone else. However, a few upper managers who have the authority and power to promote their own agenda generally control what I call Unethical Oppressive Dictatorship management techniques. This results in daily negative subordinate perceptions that lead to mistrust of management and colleagues. Subsequently, the behavior norm becomes fear of loss of current position; averting the loss becomes the priority for all subordinate daily work decisions.
Three mandatory organizational characteristics called Responsibility, Authority and Accoutability are required in any organization to promote ethical practices that produce good products. Responsibility to act within certain bounds must be clearly defined and must be given based upon a person’s ability and willingness to accept it. Once a person has accepted the responsibility for a work assignment, that person must be given the necessary Authority to carry out that work assignment. With Responsibility and Authority agreed upon, the purpose of Accountability must be clearly explained; one must expect to reap the benefits of positive accountability for doing a good job, as well as expecting to receive the blame or negative accountability for doing a poor job, especially for being involved in any type of cover-up of a faulty design or product. Some, and perhaps many, will say such a system cannot work because it is based upon simplistic and naïve principles. Perhaps, but having witnessed and participated in such an environment several times during my career, I know what creates success.
Perhaps many CEO’s in the private sector and administrators in the government sector will reject these and similar suggestions, but let’s ask them what, if anything, they have done in the way of leadership, increasing market share in a weak world economy, long-term stability for their organizations and employees, employee morale, increased productivity, etc. The silent answers to this would be very telling of the disregard for employee and customer welfare.
My points about Responsibility, Authority, and Accoutability are directly applicable to NASA and to other government agencies. Our government systems of procurement, bidding for contracts, contract specifications, financial contracts, oversight of contracts, and contractor accountability for a variety of misdeeds would be laughable, if it were not in such a mess. To name just a few specifics, all of the following have continued to be a financial disaster for the government for decades: lower-bidder contracting, cost-plus-incentive-fee contracting, combining the financial portion of a contract into the product specifications (thus preventing good oversight), lack of a financial contract consisting of not more than a dozen pages separate from specifications, and so on.
Our aerospace programs are in a shambles at NASA, for all the above reasons and others that have not been mentioned in this piece. NASA started as a non-political non-bureaucratic organization—as demonstrated by the success of Apollo—but it has degenerated into the highly bureaucratic organization that currently exists. For this reason, there is no reasonable connectivity from program to program. This lack of connectivity has damaged our space program to the extent that it may never recover and be able to return NASA’s to former glory days.