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.
â€œWeâ€™re operating the same way,â€ 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 â€œineffective on the inside.â€ Upper-level managers didnâ€™t want to change, he charged.
John Young, who commanded Columbia on the first shuttle flight in 1981, told USA Today, â€œItâ€™s an attitude thing. A lot of people around here thinkâ€¦ you donâ€™t need to do (safety upgrades) because nothingâ€™s ever going to happen.â€ Young retired as an associate director at Johnson in 2004.
Neither former astronaut believes the Discovery flight is at risk, but both question if NASAâ€™s highly-publicized culture change campaign â€” involving perception surveys, individual interviews, leadership coaching and employee training to promote candor and upward communication â€” will have a lasting effect.
A good startBehavioral 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. â€œSolid, measurable progress has been made,â€ 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 mediaâ€™s appetite for NASA stories needs to be fed as launch day approaches â€” â€œAs shuttle flight nears, safety again an issueâ€ â€” was a headline in the New York Times. But truth be told, itâ€™s awfully early in the culture change game to be making any kind of judgments.
Letâ€™s put it in human terms. NASA was created in 1958. So say youâ€™re a 47-year-old man or woman. Youâ€™ve spent your entire life raised within a macho, can-do â€œfamily.â€ There are codes of conduct, expectations, and youâ€™re a team player. Successes have far outnumbered failures, youâ€™ve been rewarded for risk-taking. Youâ€™re supremely confident.
Now you find yourself on the â€œcoachâ€™s couch.â€ Youâ€™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 â€” or any large organization attempting to change its culture.
â€œIt takes five to seven years to change the culture,â€ Dr. Phil Meade, charged with cultural retraining at Kennedy, told a Florida TV station.
Compounding matters, if youâ€™re a NASA employee being coached to change your ways, is that your boss â€” who happens to be the President of the United States â€” has set a goal of completing the International Space Station by 2010 and beginning human exploration of the moon and Mars. Timeâ€™s a wastinâ€™. No wonder one NASA worker told the Associated Press, â€œI see a very confused NASA cultureâ€¦ We have been told to compete and cooperate in the same breath.â€
The current rageLetâ€™s set aside NASAâ€™s somewhat unique organizational safety issues and consider how all things cultural â€” leadership, world-class safety, good-to-great organizations â€” are the current rage in the safety and health profession. Take next monthâ€™s American Society of Safety Engineersâ€™ annual meeting as a barometer. The opening keynote will describe how â€œthe worldâ€™s greatest organizationsâ€ unleash human potential. Voluntary Protection Program leaders will define requirements for cultures of excellence. Dr. Tom Krause of BST will talk about the NASA â€œmodelâ€ of safety leadership. Dr. Scott Geller will weigh in on â€œculture enrichment.â€ 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 â€” what other goals or â€œvisionsâ€ can there be but excellent, incident-free cultures when workersâ€™ lives and limbs are at stake? But letâ€™s not kid ourselves about the many barriers that can block culture change reforms. Plain old human nature packs a powerful counter-punch.
Formidable forcesWant to change your safety culture? Here are some of the institutional forces that could push back, culled from Dr. John Nirenbergâ€™s article, â€œOvercoming Hammurabiâ€™s Curse: The Realpolitik of Building New Organizationsâ€:
Healing is hardLook over this list and itâ€™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 â€” â€œand in fact might just be too hard.â€
Or why safety consultant Dan Petersen writes in this issue that the most popular approach to workplace safety today is still to â€œdo what has always been done.â€ Or worse, do nothing â€” â€œalso extremely popular and very easy to do,â€ he writes.
â€œDo nothingâ€ 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 â€œgood to great,â€ or otherwise improve your safety culture, go for it with eyes open and hopefully some friends in high places.
â€” Dave Johnson, Editor