No organisation is immune to things going wrong. Machines fail, parts malfunction and human error is something that simply can’t be avoided. But for NASA, failures can have very large scale implications.
So how do you manage these inherent risks? It requires high performing, high reliability teams and the backbone of it all is good leadership. During Mainstream Conference 2016, Ed Van Cise, Flight Director for the International Space Station, pulled back the curtain on NASA’s culture and revealed the secrets of its high performing, high reliability team.
A Near Disaster
NASA had been tracking a very small ammonia leak in a power channel cooling system on the space station for a number of years and it was agreed that it was small enough to accept and live with. Then in May 2013, the space station crew reported ‘snow flakes’ outside (quite alarming as it’s not supposed to snow in space). It became obvious the ‘snow’ was ammonia flakes and it was leaking at an exponential rate. The International Space Station (ISS) program asked the team to stop the leak before the system runs dry which would have been about two days. Now for a normal spacewalk you’d have about 12 months to plan it. If you had to do one in a contingency timeframe you need at least nine days. Ed and his team had 39 hours. Watch this video for the full run down of the crisis.
Spacewalks are inherently dangerous. By all accounts and purposes, given the very short time available to plan this spacewalk, there should have been an accident, which ultimately could have meant a loss of life of one of their space crew. But Ed and his team managed to avoid a disaster. So were they lucky? Ed believes it was because they were mindful that they had the right circumstances, processes and culture to deal with it. Or put another way, they are a high performing organisation.
High performing organisations have 5 unique characteristics:
- Leadership: Leadership is aligned and effective deep within the organisation
There is an unambiguous chain of command within Mission Control Centre in Houston (the primary Control Centre for the ISS) and between the other control centres that support the space station. The flight director is the ultimate authority in the flight control room. Flight could make decisions in a vacuum but they acknowledge that’s not going to be successful in the long run so they train all teams to be leaders as well. The idea of “Lead Your Leader” is a cultural norm embedded into teams very early on.
- Design: The structure is lean and reflects the organisation’s strategic focus
Everything in Mission Control is documented: processes, training flows, certification guides, everything is documented down to the final console level. But beware: if you have all this documentation you can get behind really quickly, so you have to have a nimble process that allows you to make changes as you go.
- People: The organisation effectively translates business strategy into a powerful people strategy, attracting and retaining the most capable individuals
People are undoubtedly the most important part of Mission Control. They are very specific in the people brought into the organisation, the interview process is very rigorous. They also run a flight controller boot camp and progressively work through more complicated training until new recruits get to the final simulations where they are assessed and certified. It’s made very clear to them that if they don’t get certified they can’t stay with the organisation.
- Change Management: The organisation can drive and sustain large-scale change and anticipate and adapt.
Mission Control is a balance between being nimble enough to adapt to unexpected change yet knowledgeable enough to ascertain whether the change is within accepted limits. It’s a real balancing act.
- Culture and Engagement: The culture is shaped to achieve strategic goals and employees pursue corporate objectives.
The culture at Mission Control is something that has been developing for over 55 years since its military beginnings. They teach flight controllers how to think, how to learn and what they should believe so everyone has the same mentality.
But despite these rigid rules, one of the underlying values is that you are allowed to be wrong. People are encouraged to speak their mind – in the high intensity situations that they deal with they know that co-operation can save lives.
For more on this topic including a detailed case study on a near disaster involving an intricate piece of machinery, download a recording of Ed’s session from Mainstream Conference 2016 “Leadership in a High Performing, High Reliability Organisation”.
About the Author
Ed Van Cise is the International Space Station Flight Director at NASA. Ed has led multiple missions including two contingency-response spacewalks to address failed critical external ISS hardware. In his role as Flight Director he is accountable for critical decisions affecting mission success.
Ed was a popular presenter at Mainstream Conference 2016.
For more detail on the theorem of High Performing Organisations, reference “High-Performance Organizations, The Secrets of Their Success” by Bhalla, Vikram; Caye, Jean-Michel; Dyer, Andrew; Dymond, Lisa; Morieux, Yves; Orlander, Paul (2011). http://www.bcg.com/documents/file84953.pdf