In the first installment of this series, the initial assessment of NASA’s culture and safety climate was described and the agency-wide results presented (see ISHN May 2005). In general, the assessment found a strong culture present at NASA, although findings indicated that the agency had not yet achieved its stated values.

The information gained from the assessment was used to implement pilot culture-enhancement initiatives at three NASA Centers (Glenn Research Center, Stennis Space Center, and two directorates of Johnson Space Center). A six-month evaluation would take place in these locations to determine progress.

Foundational concepts

It was determined that the effort to enhance culture should build on the strengths shown in the survey. NASA employees generally worked well as teams and felt comfortable talking to peers. The following foundational concepts were used in developing the plan forward:

Organizational values must underlie the desired culture.

Values get to the essence of what helps an organization assure that objectives are reached. Values help inform everyone in the organization about the considerations that should be reflected in day-to-day actions and decisions.

Both climate and culture are important.

While identifying values is an important first step, building these values into the fabric of the agency requires transforming the culture. Organizational climate often changes very quickly after a significant incident, but the underlying organizational culture may not change sufficiently to prevent further incidents from occurring.

Leaders drive culture change (intentionally or unintentionally) through their behavior.

Leadership is the key to changing culture. Leaders influence safety through what they do and what they don’t do. Behavior, which is definable and measurable, is the most practical and effective way to transform culture.

There should be one culture change initiative.

NASA was in a period of change, with many active teams and task forces. For culture change at NASA to be successful, there needed to be a consistent culture-change initiative that incorporated all of NASA’s culture-related issues.

Figure 1

Components of the initiative

Changing the culture involves two thrusts. The first (on which this initial phase is focused) engages leadership and individual contributors in changing the current cultural environment; the second assures that the culture is sustained by grooming future leaders who can support the desired culture.

At the outset, NASA senior leadership re-examined and re-affirmed the core values to which the agency aspires. To support these values, a large set of behaviors, including both leadership and individual contributor behaviors, were identified from sources including the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, the BST Safety Climate and Culture Assessment, and others.

Critical behaviors for NASA at this time related to communication, consideration for individuals, management consistency (credibility), and decision-making. All of these behaviors were targeted to affect organizational characteristics known to be predictive of outcomes (see Figure 1).

To enable and reinforce these critical behaviors, a multi-pronged approach of specific activities was designed involving the following components:

Coaching — Beginning at the top of the agency and extending down through the management chain to the senior-most levels of the three centers, the coaching process began with a detailed individual assessment including a 360 survey. Also, a series of assessment interviews was done with subordinates, peers, and managers of the person being coached. The coach reviewed the feedback report with the leader and then they developed a coaching action plan.

Behavioral observation and feedback — Leaders received regular, structured feedback on their use of critical behaviors and guidance feedback on missed opportunities. Local implementation teams used the anonymous data gathered to track progress in promoting critical behaviors and to analyze the reasons for behaviors not being performed, designing corrective action as appropriate.

Multi-rater feedback — Adoption and use of the leadership behaviors was also assisted by providing each leader with individual multi-rater 360 survey feedback to help the leader understand their existing strengths and where to focus improvement efforts. Leaders also attended a workshop to review and discuss the results and to develop individual action plans.

Skills training — With the objective of improving skills to allow leaders to perform critical behaviors and support the desired culture, managers received two days of training that covered cognitive bias awareness, feedback skills, and influential leadership skills such as building trust, valuing minority opinion, and influencing skills.

Communications — At the individual centers where culture change activities were occurring, it was important that there be communication explaining these efforts as well as indications of results.

Looking forward

In September 2004 the BST Safety Climate and Culture survey was re-administered in the pilot centers to gage progress after six months of effort. The last installment of this series will review the findings and outline the initiative that is now expanding throughout the agency.