Monthly Archives: March 2009

Encouraging Innovation at NASA

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I have another video for you to watch, but before you do let me give you a little context.

On this date, March 16, 1926, Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard, professor of Physics at Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts tried out his newest invention in his Aunt Effie’s cabbage patch near Auburn, Massachusetts.  Pretty old cabbages in that garden in March in Massachusetts.  Dr. Goddard’s invention?  The world’s very first liquid fueled rocket.  It flew; not very high nor very far, but it flew.  And attracted the attention of the town’s volunteer fire department – they asked Dr. Goddard not to do any more experiments there.

Dr. Goddard had carried on his work despite the fact that a few years earlier he was humiliated in a very public forum.  After he had delivered a paper entitled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes”, the New York Times devoted several column inches in its editorial page to denigrate his thoughts.  Most quotable from the NY Times editorial was this comment about Dr. Goddard’s grasp of physics:  “”does not know of the relation of action to reaction, and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react”.  A classic line if there ever was one.  I should note that in July 1969 (almost a half century later and well after Dr. Goddard’s death) the NY Times posted a correction with the words “The Times regrets its error.”  Indeed. 

The public criticism confirmed Dr. Goddard’s introverted nature and he continued his work, mostly in secret and mostly in isolation for another quarter century.  Other, more knowledgeable folks, read his work and were enlightened by it.  In 1945, German engineers from Peenemunde, where rocketry had made huge – regrettable at the time – advances, when interrogated by their American captors about rockets, replied “Why don’t you ask your own Dr. Goddard?”  They paid attention.  We did not.

We cannot afford to let good ideas slip from our grasp.  Innovation and creativity are the foundation on which our economy is really founded. 

So a few weeks ago, a team of folks at Johnson Space Center made a video report on what are some of the barriers to innovation at NASA.  A lot of you watched that video and many of the comments reported that these barriers exist in a wide spectrum of private and public organizations.  That video was an amalgam of the most egregious examples of poor communication and bad management that unfortunately still occurs from time to time in supposedly “creative” organizations.

Now the team has taken their list of proposed ways to overcome these barriers and turned them into another video.  This video is to produce discussion and thought.  Some of these ideas are better than others.  A couple of the proposals are being implemented at JSC at this time. 

So watch, and consider.  And ask this question — how are you helping to encourage creativity and innovation in your organization? 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5nA8LX7TMw

 

Lucky Tie

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Even though I’m far from home and even farther from LC-39, I’ll be wearing my lucky shuttle tie tomorrow.  That is a particularly silly thing to do since the tie isn’t even very lucky.  We had plenty of launch scrubs when I wore that tie on launch day in either Mission Control or Launch Control.

But its what I can do to show my solidarity with the team these days.  NASA is one of the few organizations that puts it all on the line in public.  Most organizations have some kind of cover, but when the launch doesn’t go right, there is no cover.  The OCO boys sweated over a great spacecraft but some glitch in the fairing separation circuit got them.  That hurts. 

Tomorrow evening we’ll try to launch seven folks into low earth orbit.  That may not sound like much of an achievement, but it is far from a guaranteed success.  So cross your fingers, get out your four leaf clover, or whatever it takes, and lets hope for success.  One more time.

I’m out in Utah doing some management work for the agency, looking at the facilities which might be used for the next human carrying rocket.  It was particularly exciting because I got to walk right up to the first Orion Launch Escape rocket.  This beast will burn several thousand pounds of solid propellant in less than four seconds to get a crew out of trouble in a hurry.  Rocket serial number 00001 is out there on the factory floor ready to ship to White Sands Missile Range where it will be tested later this year. 

Overall, I saw lots of Ares 1 hardware.  The DM-1 (development motor) is a five segment giant that will be tested in late summer.  Everywhere I went we saw lots of new hardware coming together for the first time.  Progress is being made.

Sadly, I was in the refurbishment shop where they are working on the last set of shuttle booster hardware.  The old bird will be retired at the end of next year and any future refurbishments, if any, will be to make hardware available for the new Ares birds.

It has been particularly busy in space; a spacewalk today at the International Space Station was fully successful; the new Kepler telescope is being checked out after a successful delivery to space.   A few days ago there was a successful parachute test for the Constellation program.  Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is in final checkout on the ground.  Everywhere I go there is progress being made! 

But lets all watch tomorrow, because as we all know, its far from a sure thing.

Innovation,Dissent,Intellectual Property,and the Internet

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This morning I moved the Barriers to Innovation video to the private section of you tube so most folks can’t watch it.  I really intended to delete it but can’t figure out how; so making the video private is the next best thing.  Some folks may wonder why I did that . . . and its a long story, so buckle in if you are up for it.

About two years ago, Mike Coats who is the director of Johnson Space Center started a forward looking initiative to improve creativity and innovation within NASA.  This is a critical goal.  Great leaders have great vision and this was the start of a process to make us over as a more effective, innovative, inclusive, creative agency.  Last spring, seven teams were formed to examine ways in which JSC or NASA could be improved:  recruiting, mentoring, communications, work/life fit, communications, IT, and a team to examine the barriers to innovation.  Everybody reported out in January; several groups made videos, all the groups both identified problems and proposed solutions.  By the way, this was an officially sanctioned part time activity with appropriate charge codes — just for you folks that care about that sort of thing.  And it was very intentional to include contractor representation on each team.

But the barriers team video hit a chord with me and also with a lot of folks when we posted it on you tube.  Lots of comments, lots of views, lots of discussion.  I will say that NASA senior management took the video and its message very well.  Absolutely nobody has told me that posting that video was a problem.  (I wonder if the dissenters to that opinion feel stifled?)  Anyway, the barriers team wanted to also post their “solutions”.  Originally this was a power point chart presentation.  I am not a big fan of powerpoint chart presentations although the team had some good ideas.  So the team decided to stick together and make a video of the solutions — not just a power point, but use the same actors (themselves) and the same themes and show proposed solutions.

So they have been working on that for the last couple of weeks.  As they got the video ready to post, somebody asked if we should get permission to use the TV theme music.  Silly me, I hadn’t thought of that.  Of course TV theme music is intellectual property and is protected by numerous laws.

Even though most folks on the internet don’t seem to worry too much about those laws, we should set a good example.  So we asked permission to make and post a couple of videos with the TV theme music.  The response from those who hold the intellectual property rights for that was OK — but only for internal use — no you tube.

Sigh. 

So, we have done the right thing and removed the old video — while we continue to negotiate with the music property owners.

At the very least, we should be able to repost the original and new video without the music in a few days. 

In the meantime, I hope we can post all the video reports from all the teams.  Even though these are all made by video amateurs, there are lots of great lessons and proposals which could make our organization — and perhaps any organization — more creative and innovative.  JSC is already moving out to implement some of the best recommendations.

More to come!

 

Project Management and Innovation

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NASA puts on an outstanding training event every year for aspiring Project Managers.  About 1200 folks, both teachers and students, rendezvoused last week near the Kennedy Space Center for an intense two days of classes and panels on how to be a successful project manager.

The fundamentals of project management were firmly reinforced:  have a good plan, stick to requirements, control costs, provide schedule margin in high risk areas, etc.

It got me to thinking about how Project Management 101 could be seen as a barrier to innovation. 

When building something that has never been built before, innovation is critically important.   Innovation at all stages of a project is vital for the end product to be cost effective and carry out its intended function.  But what kind of innovation, and when, and how much?  There is the rub. 

In the barriers to innovation video that I referenced in an earlier blog post, one of the “evil supervisor” stops to innovative ideas was flatly state:  “there is no requirement for this”.   Anybody who has been to project management 101 knows that requirements creep has killed many a worthy project. 

Having a better idea, adding just one more function, tweaking the design through just one more iteration — all these things are wonderful, marvelous, the very lifebreath of a successful project — right up until the point where they kill the project by driving it way over budget, way behind schedule, or into an endless technology development cycle. 

Need a down to earth example?  Ok, but don’t spread this one around or it will get me in real trouble!  My wife came to me several  months ago with the requirement to replace the carpet in our dining room.  Well, the stuff is 20 years old and looks pretty ratty.  So I agreed; we decided on a budget, went shopping at the carpet store.  Our project was to replace the carpet, within a budget, certainly within a schedule (before next Thanksgiving!). 

Then a new requirement popped out:  before changing the carpet the walls should be painted.  Certainly makes sense; fresh paint was needed.  Nobody in their right mind replaces carpet first and paints later.  But adding this new requirement meant that the schedule  stretched out and the budget increased!  But there is more!  It only makes sense to replace the drapes, too.  One shouldn’t put old, dusty drapes back up when the paint is fresh and the carpet is new!  So another new requirement has been added, costs go up, schedule gets stretched out . . . and in the meantime the carpet we liked got discontinued by the factory.  Now, new carpet must be picked, at a higher price . . . .

Congress passed an act a number of years ago which decreed that a project more than a certain percentage over budget or behind schedule should be cancelled.  That is where we are with the dining room.  Got to descope the requirements and try again.

But on the other hand, without appropriate innovation and upgrades, projects may succeed in building something less than what we could.  Something that costs too much to operate, for example, or fails to have an important feature that wasn’t included because of an oversight.

Summarily dismissing any new idea because “there is no requirement for this” is clearly wrong.  Nobody gets the requirements perfectly right the first time,  no matter how hard you try.

So, the art of project management includes listening to proposed innovators and thoroughly evaluating their ideas.  Unfortunately a lot of good ideas get left in the trash.  Not because they were not good ideas, but because at some point, somebody has to draw the line and say this much is good enough; we can’t afford any more. 

That is a conversation that is hard to have.  But it is important.

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Akin’s laws of spacecraft design:

 #4. Your best design efforts will inevitably wind up being useless in the final design. Learn to live with the disappointment.

#13. Design is based on requirements. There’s no justification for designing something one bit “better” than the requirements dictate.

Yep, I think Dr. Akin is pretty smart.