NASA change has to start at top, report says

Private survey of workers finds familiar problems

April 13, 2004|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,ORLANDO SENTINEL

WASHINGTON - The keys to making profound, lasting changes to NASA's safety culture are the attitudes and actions of the agency's top leaders, according to a report released yesterday from a private firm hired to outline a plan.

The report's conclusions - based on a comprehensive survey completed by 45 percent of NASA's roughly 19,000 workers - identify many of the same problems found by the independent board that investigated last year's loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

The recommendations echo what experts in the field have said since the agency's culture became an issue - that change must begin at the very top.

NASA would not comment on the survey yesterday, although agency chief Sean O'Keefe plans a meeting with employees today to discuss it. But the report is a first step in addressing one of the Columbia board's most withering criticisms of the space agency.

The first progress check is five months away.

Behavioral Science Technology Inc., the California-based firm that conducted the survey, noted that NASA has many good things on which to build.

But its report and recommendations underscore the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which said the agency's organizational failures were as much to blame for the accident as the chunk of foam that flew off the shuttle's external tank during launch, punching a fatal hole in the left wing.

BST concluded that NASA's culture does not reflect the very values it most prizes. The report says:

NASA workers are committed to safety in concept, but NASA's culture is not fully supportive of it. Employees do not feel totally comfortable raising safety concerns.

Employees do not feel respected or appreciated by the organization. Workers are loyal to their technical work but are not necessarily committed to the organization itself.

Excellence is valued in technical areas but is not as highly prized in other aspects of the agency, such as communications and management skills.

There are "pockets" where the management chain has sent the message, perhaps unintentionally, that workers are not welcome to raise issues.

The survey indicates that there is at least a perception that budget constraints affect engineering and mission safety.

The firm also offered a series of recommendations to help NASA make major changes - and to make them stick in a way that clearly didn't happen after the 1986 Challenger disaster, which also killed seven astronauts.

Patrick Smith, BST's CEO, said in an interview yesterday that the firm hopes to capitalize on the change in the agency's climate - that is, the almost immediate shift toward re-emphasizing safety that was a byproduct of the Columbia accident - and use it to promote fundamental changes that will truly last.

While the survey shows that employees think there have been some improvements since the accident, there is a lot of room for improvement, the report says.

"If you don't really dig in and deal with some of the deeply embedded aspects the way an organization functions, you can change the climate for a while, and not really change the culture, which is what really needs to change," Smith said.

"Not a lot of people make the distinction between culture and climate, but it's one that we feel explains how we could have had the Challenger accident and then have that followed up on by the Columbia accident a few years later."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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