[FPSPACE] NASA managers told to shape up or ship out
joberg at houston.rr.com
Thu Jun 10 17:43:36 EDT 2004
NASA managers told to shape up or ship out
MANAGEMENT MATTERS June 9, 2004
Earth to Managers, By Beth Dickey (bdickey at govexec.com)
Middle managers, the leadership of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has a warning for you: Go with the agency's cultural reforms, or go away.
"If we can't change the people, we'll change out the people," says NASA's associate deputy administrator for institutions and management. James Jennings' warning follows the release of survey results indicating that, more than a year after the shuttle Columbia disaster, space agency workers still are afraid to speak up about safety.
The attitude survey, conducted in February by Behavioral Science Technology Inc. of Ojai, Calif., found that NASA's organizational culture does not reflect the values it prizes most. "Safety is something to which NASA personnel are strongly committed in concept, but NASA has not yet created a culture that is fully supportive of safety," the consulting firm stated in its March 15 report on the results. Although the assessment revealed a "very solid foundation" of employees who are passionate about NASA's mission and want to contribute to President Bush's vision for space exploration, company Chief Executive C. Patrick Smith says, "their achievement drive is both a great strength and, if unmanaged, a very real liability."
Like the Columbia Accident Investigation Board tome that prompted it, BST's 145-page report attacks the leaders from whom NASA employees take their cues. The Columbia investigation decried management's apparent unwillingness to hear bad news, saying a lack of upward communication contributed to the orbiter crash that killed seven astronauts on Feb. 1, 2003. By charting the perceptions of 8,350 employees - 45 percent of NASA's civil servant workforce - BST found the communication ceiling at the branch manager level, just a step above line supervisors.
"It's because they are afraid of being rendered ineffective and being moved to a different job, which to somebody at NASA is equivalent to being fired," says astronaut James Wetherbee, an assistant to the safety chief at the home of Mission Control, Johnson Space Center in Texas. The retired Navy captain and five-time shuttle commander is helping to oversee NASA's post-Columbia transformation. "It stems from the can-do spirit," Wetherbee adds. "Our pervasive culture for the last 45 years has been one of mission accomplishment. 'Man, we really get things done.' "
The report has become the launching pad for a three-year campaign to reform the safety culture and climate across the agency. BST has a five-year contract worth as much as $10 million to trigger "measurable progress" by mid-September - to help ensure a safe and successful return to flight for the space shuttle - and "broad changes" by 2007.
Change will come from the top. The "intervention," as some call it, began in mid-April with one-on-one coaching and 360-degree performance evaluations designed to modify behaviors among the 10 to 15 most senior executives at NASA's Washington headquarters. "The leadership's got to take it on, starting with me," Administrator Sean O'Keefe told reporters. During the next five months, the first phase of the campaign was to move out across the country and down through the NASA hierarchy, targeting middle management at two field centers and in selected departments of several others. Jennings planned to introduce the initiative at the field centers during the first two weeks in May during meetings with NASA managers and contractor executives. For now, that is the only way the agency's 45,673 contractor employees will be included.
One of the selected departments is the safety and mission assurance directorate at the shuttle launch site, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Jennings spent most of his NASA career. The directorate is being reorganized, and Jennings says BST's assessment revealed some concerns about upward communication. During his tenure at Kennedy, he learned from similar studies that NASA middle managers suffer from stress "more than anybody, because they get it from the bottom and they get it from the top," he says. "Like the [BST] survey said, we've got to show that group of people that we care for them and that we understand their issues."
But in Florida and elsewhere, anywhere up the management ladder, those who refuse to embrace sweeping cultural change eventually will be moved aside, Jennings adds. The get-on-board-or-get-out approach is justified, says Laurie Broedling, an organizational consultant who spent a few years in the mid-1990s as NASA's associate administrator for continual improvement. Before they agree to change, lower echelon employees want to see superiors putting their own careers on the line, according to Broedling. "It comes back to who's the customer. People will say the taxpayer or the space exploration community is the customer, but the truth is, on a day-to-day basis, their boss is their customer, and that's a very difficult mind-set to break."
NASA insiders wonder whether the agency's safety culture can be improved without compromising its strengths. BST says it can. "Changing an organizational culture is a tricky business. The change comes down to very specific sets of behaviors, mostly related to leadership," says company chairman and co-founder Thomas Krause. What it will take, he says, is "really hard, rigorous work" to show leaders how their objectives translate into organizational behaviors.
BST will help NASA identify desired behaviors and statistically monitor their occurrence. The company also will use data-driven "interventions" to root out organizational barriers and help individuals adapt to safety expectations. Personal coaching can accelerate the process and result in significant transformation within months instead of years. "Culture change is a learning process," says Krause. "It will happen naturally, without any intervention from an outside consultant, but would take a long, long time."
As BST's results were made public, two events highlighted the insidious nature of NASA's culture problem.
O'Keefe left a news briefing about the survey results on April 13 to accept agency honors for being first to achieve the highest standard in two of five initiatives on the President's Management Agenda - strategic management of human capital, and budget and performance integration.
Two days later, the Partnership for Public Service and the American University Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation announced that NASA continues to be voted the best place to work in federal government. A new set of rankings by young people, women and minorities was compiled from a previous employee satisfaction survey administered to more than 100,000 civil servants by the Office of Personnel Management. NASA's associate administrator for human resources, Vicki Novak, said in a statement that the agency values diversity of thought, ideas and perspectives.
Jennings acknowledges the irony of both events, but sees no contradictions. On BST's survey, he notes, NASA scored high in areas the OPM survey covers. "Employees do think they're fairly compensated and rewarded," Jennings says. BST asserts its survey shows that people are more loyal to their technical work than they are to the space agency itself. Jennings rejects the notion, saying the results depend on the job at hand. "They're loyal to NASA because NASA does great things. When NASA stops doing great things or is not doing great things, they will want to go where great, exciting work happens."
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