Organizational Change – Challenger Disaster

A review of the external and internal threats will help determine the weakness of the problem analysis related to the launching of space shuttle Challenger. At the time of the accident, the country was experiencing an economic slowdown.
Considering the economic climate, Congress wanted to know if the American people still support the huge requirements of the program. The government ruled out increase in taxes being an election year. Simultaneous to the congressional investigation was a launch of space shuttle Challenger. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) wanted a successful launch. A no-launch situation might convince Congress to slash the program’s budget. Furthermore, Americans were anticipating the first female astronaut-teacher crewmember. Internally, NASA undertook cost-cutting measures and approved the use of materials approved by sister industries. At the time of the launch, engineers expressed concern over two factors: a) The o-ring which is not designed to operate at the existing temperature of -32 degrees Fahrenheit; b) There was a question on the stability and predictability of engine propulsion.

Given the above problem considerations, NASA formulated two alternative decisions: launch now or wait for better weather conditions.

NASA was faced with decision traps, the framing trap and the confirming evidence trap (Langlois, H, 2007). Unfortunately, it was not able to identify and cope with them. NASA management argued a successful launch would guarantee congressional budget approval (framing trap). There was a presumption the launch will be successful, as previous launches before. This line of thinking blocked the consideration of safety factors. It only considered the external threats. In this case, the reframing trap would have been resolved if the framing option considered the internal technical weaknesses related to the planned launch. Other possible outcomes could have surfaced with the reframing of the problem. At this point, it is not important if ultimate problem was one of the possible outcomes. What is valuable to NASA is that there is free flow of communication among its employees who are receptive to ideas due to the logic of any proposed outcome.

The group of administrators led by Dr. Loyal downplayed the technical considerations and believed launch should proceed. It got support from smaller groups involved in the lobbying efforts – who naturally would like the launch to proceed as scheduled (confirming evidence trap). Getting the support was a selfish move since the outcome would definitely be in Dr. Loyal’s favor.

The internal goals of each group should have been considered in the decision. The administrative group anted a launch while the engineering group wanted a postponement. Are they the only groups a giant organization NASA has? Truly, other groups in NASA, with their respective interest, exist and who may help add to the factors for consideration. On these bases, alternatives generation can improve. Two questions that may have cropped up: Will a launch postponement result in a budget slash? Will a launch problem endanger the very existence of the space shuttle program?

Some theories in organizational behavior stress the importance of organizational resiliency and learning. Caralli (2006) said that the success of an organization relies on its resiliency and ability to adapt to changes in its environments. They define resiliency as the organization’s capability to change business processes, tactics and strategies as called for by its environments. The procedures in the previous successful launches were obviously not followed. It is surprising that NASA administration disregarded available competent technical information prior to the launch. Politics predominated the internal technical launch processes and this partly explains the failure. The organization’s reaction was focused on budgetary concerns. Budget is a valid concern, but it disregarded the success of its main function and that is to launch the space shuttle into outer space safely.

McShane and Von Glinow (2005) define organizational learning as the internal corporate business process that facilitates the acquisition, sharing and use of knowledge within the whole organization. By doing so, the organization is able to achieve its tasks and mission.
Technical people are also at fault. How did faulty o-rings get installed in the space shuttle? Why was engine propulsion unreliable even at the last moment, when the whole launch process is dependent on this factor? With all its technical capabilities, it seems the NASA organization has a problem in managing the flow of internal technical information.

Problem Framing and Decision Making

The external threat of a budgetary slash was capably handled by the groups assigned. The same group will be assigned to explain the highly technical processes of the space shuttle program to the congressional committees concerned. They have to explain in laymen’s language that the level of technicality requires that all the millions of parts of the shuttle has to function effectively and efficiently. These include small parts such as nuts and bolts and o-rings. Any question on the integrity of any of its parts requires the postponement of launch. The ability to monitor and trace each of these parts explains why the budgetary requirement of NASA is so huge. Any cut in the budgetary level endangers the safety of the technical crew and the astronauts, themselves. Remember one of them was a chosen schoolteacher whose participation in that planned space journey was highly anticipated by the American people. With this reasoning, the congressional committees involved will most likely leave the proposed budget untouched. The same group can explain further that even with such a huge budget, NASA has undertaken cost-cutting measures in order to maximize the use of the people’s money in the program.

The cost-cutting measures should initiate the search for cheaper alternatives. By setting acceptable quality standards, all proposed replacement parts shall be subject to tests. Due to the highly technical requirements of the space shuttle, all possible replacement parts will be tested without exception. The performance of parts which pass the tests will be compared to that of the original parts. In this manner, the performance data of the new part is anchored on the performance data of the old part.

Resulting problems will be exhaustively discussed along the organizational hierarchy in order to extract all possible points of view within the organization. After this process, the problem will be framed and defined accordingly. To solve the problem, all alternatives will be considered and decisions formulated.

As part of NASA leadership, the cultural and power structure of the organization shall be taken into consideration when assessing the various points of view of the individuals and groups in the organization. This practice provides a safety net from heuristic traps that tends to block or limit the ideas coming from the men and women of NASA. An organization composed of one of the brightest minds in America.

The leadership’s responsibility is to guide the NASA organization in the achievement of its mission and vision. The existence of NASA or any of its projects is not the decision of NASA itself. The fact that it is funded by the government means that the American people decide on these matters. Therefore, the leadership can only follow what the people say and this is voiced through its various branches: executive, legislative and judiciary.

The fact that the administrative group within NASA was able to influence the launch decision deserves a review of the power structure of the organization. People with expertise in administration and finance should not be involved in the launch decision. Leadership should be able to establish a system where the integrity of the decision made is based on the right parties. By maintaining this policy, corporate politics will not interfere with the professional work of each group. The technicians and engineers will also be limited to their area of expertise. The leadership should also see to it that information is handled objectively. New knowledge will be absorbed through a systematic process that is anchored on old knowledge.

The objective for NASA is actually to transform it into a truly a learning organization. In this way, errors of the past can be avoided. As modernization moves fast forward, information will play a key part in the survival of organizations. It is essential that organizations have the capacity to learn as an organization so that new knowledge can be acquired, adopted and used.

Reference

CARALLI, R. 2006. Sustaining operational resiliency: A process improvement approach to security management. Networked systems survivability program, CERT coordination center. Available: http://www.cert.org/archive/pdf/sustainoperresil0604.pdf [7 January 2008].

LANGLOIS, H. 2007. The challenge of changing, part II. Massachusetts: Cambridge [Course notes.] Available: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic203996.files/Challenge_in_Changing092507B.ppt [January 8, 2008].
MCSHANE, S.L., VON GLINOW, M.A. 2005. Organizational behavior: Emerging realities for the workplace revolution, 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education (Asia).

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