Later this month NASA’s space shuttle program is scheduled to resume with the launch of shuttle Discovery, more than two years after shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry, taking the lives of all seven crew members and exposing the space agency’s ignored and neglected safety culture, according to investigators.

As the launch date nears stories are popping all over the Internet quoting ex-astronauts and unnamed employees that nothing has really changed. Deadline pressure still prevails over safety concerns. Safety people are bullied into silence.

“We’re operating the same way,” James Wetherbee, the first astronaut to command five shuttle missions, told USA Today. Wetherbee resigned from his job on the safety staff at the Johnson Space Center because he felt “ineffective on the inside.” Upper-level managers didn’t want to change, he charged.

John Young, who commanded Columbia on the first shuttle flight in 1981, told USA Today, “It’s an attitude thing. A lot of people around here think… you don’t need to do (safety upgrades) because nothing’s ever going to happen.” Young retired as an associate director at Johnson in 2004.

Neither former astronaut believes the Discovery flight is at risk, but both question if NASA’s highly-publicized culture change campaign — involving perception surveys, individual interviews, leadership coaching and employee training to promote candor and upward communication — will have a lasting effect.

A good start

Behavioral Science Technology, holding a multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract with NASA to facilitate culture improvements, claims reform efforts are off to a good start. “Solid, measurable progress has been made,” said BST President R. Scott Stricoff in a statement. Many NASA personnel say low-level staffers challenge safety decisions more regularly and managers are listening more closely, according to news reports.

The media’s appetite for NASA stories needs to be fed as launch day approaches — “As shuttle flight nears, safety again an issue” — was a headline in the New York Times. But truth be told, it’s awfully early in the culture change game to be making any kind of judgments.

Let’s put it in human terms. NASA was created in 1958. So say you’re a 47-year-old man or woman. You’ve spent your entire life raised within a macho, can-do “family.” There are codes of conduct, expectations, and you’re a team player. Successes have far outnumbered failures, you’ve been rewarded for risk-taking. You’re supremely confident.

Now you find yourself on the “coach’s couch.” You’re told your attitude, habits and beliefs must change. Heck, there are even observers monitoring your behavior in meetings.

How long would it take you to change, and change for good?

Multiply our little example by 10,000 (the number of employees at the Kennedy Space Center alone) and you get an idea of the challenge facing NASA — or any large organization attempting to change its culture.

“It takes five to seven years to change the culture,” Dr. Phil Meade, charged with cultural retraining at Kennedy, told a Florida TV station.

Compounding matters, if you’re a NASA employee being coached to change your ways, is that your boss — who happens to be the President of the United States — has set a goal of completing the International Space Station by 2010 and beginning human exploration of the moon and Mars. Time’s a wastin’. No wonder one NASA worker told the Associated Press, “I see a very confused NASA culture… We have been told to compete and cooperate in the same breath.”

The current rage

Let’s set aside NASA’s somewhat unique organizational safety issues and consider how all things cultural — leadership, world-class safety, good-to-great organizations — are the current rage in the safety and health profession. Take next month’s American Society of Safety Engineers’ annual meeting as a barometer. The opening keynote will describe how “the world’s greatest organizations” unleash human potential. Voluntary Protection Program leaders will define requirements for cultures of excellence. Dr. Tom Krause of BST will talk about the NASA “model” of safety leadership. Dr. Scott Geller will weigh in on “culture enrichment.” In all, at least ten sessions focus on culture, climate or leadership.

It all sounds inspiring and motivating. And to be sure, safety and health pros must aim high — what other goals or “visions” can there be but excellent, incident-free cultures when workers’ lives and limbs are at stake? But let’s not kid ourselves about the many barriers that can block culture change reforms. Plain old human nature packs a powerful counter-punch.

Formidable forces

Want to change your safety culture? Here are some of the institutional forces that could push back, culled from Dr. John Nirenberg’s article, “Overcoming Hammurabi’s Curse: The Realpolitik of Building New Organizations”:

  • Organizational change — especially for the purpose of making life within organizations better — is just not deemed a purpose of business.

  • The current way of doing things in organizations enjoys sheer legitimacy. Stockholders, consumers, the public back it.

  • Success comes from efficiency. Change will bring inefficiency — more time and misunderstandings will slow innovation, decision making and divert resources. Change looks like designed ineffectiveness.

  • Management starves change of attention. Organizations can’t give the same time and attention to ensure that social change will succeed that is given to R&D and marketing new products.

  • We expect immediate and flawless results.

  • To engage employees and encourage them to participate at an emotional level opens opportunities to grouse and play out personal agendas.

  • Real change requires a willingness to accept new responsibilities. People might feel the need for added compensation. Or fear for the future of their jobs. “Perhaps the new system won’t have a need for me.”

  • Change is simply to ask for even more uncertainty in an age of uncertainty. Better the devil I know than the devil I don’t.

  • Change appeals to those who have something to gain from the changes (management gurus, executive coaches, book publishers and safety managers marooned in silos perhaps). Those whose efforts will ultimately make or break the change just may not care. Others may find more to life than helping the organization or partaking in any change.

    Healing is hard

    Look over this list and it’s no wonder an ex-NASA mission control specialist wrote in a web posting that healing a sick culture is harder than fixing engineering, budget, and political problems — “and in fact might just be too hard.”

    Or why safety consultant Dan Petersen writes in this issue that the most popular approach to workplace safety today is still to “do what has always been done.” Or worse, do nothing — “also extremely popular and very easy to do,” he writes.

    “Do nothing” is not an option for any safety and health pro trained and dedicated to make a difference. But if you go for the gold (VPP for instance), want to go from “good to great,” or otherwise improve your safety culture, go for it with eyes open and hopefully some friends in high places.

    — Dave Johnson, Editor