Tracing the Whys

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When reading the Augustine Committee’s summary report, there was one particular line that really stood out to me.

“In fact, the Committee finds that no plan compatible with the FY 2010 budget profile permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way.”

Wow. That is a lot to take in. It isn’t a big surprise, but to see it there in black and white somehow makes it seem that much more real. Many people who read that report saw it as a death sentence for manned spaceflight. That is not necessarily the case. Given this information, it would seem to be imperative that NASA receive more funding. If that is not possible, are there any other options? If you can’t get more money, what is the logical thing to do?

Spend less money.

When faced with cutting costs in human spaceflight, the first instinct is to think that safety will be compromised, but that doesn’t have to be true. In fact, it is possible to improve safety while drastically cutting costs. It is all about tracing the “whys.”

Many of us grew up constantly asking why? why? why? about everything. I know I did. I drove my parents nuts with all the questions. Unfortunately, most of us seem to grow out of that curiosity. We settle into walking around with blinders on. In most government agencies, it is believed that things must be done a certain way. Often this is not the fastest, cheapest, most efficient, least wasteful, or even safest way to do them. Over the years as new processes are implemented, we often take nearly ridiculous measures to make the new processes work with the legacy ones.

For example: Recently, a co-worker was having trouble with a scanner. He was trying to scan in a scheduling document so it could be uploaded to a certain folder on the intranet and thus be visible to all interested parties. I asked him where he got the schedule in the first place. He told me that one of the schedulers prints it out for him every day. I was floored. “You mean it is an electronic document in the first place? She prints it out for you to scan back in? That’s crazy!” He said that he had to add his notes to it before scanning it in. I wasn’t impressed. He said that that was how they were all taught; that’s just the way they have to do it.

In this pervasive culture of just doing things the way we are taught- we don’t ask why. These are not just a few things, but rather thousands of them; some with small impacts and some that are large. The sum of these unasked “whys” are critical to the future of NASA. We must make an agency-wide effort to really ask ourselves why we do some of the things we do.

It isn’t enough to just ask why. We have to trace each “why” all the way to it’s origin.
Traced to their sources, I believe most of the answers we will arrive at could be categorized as such:

We do it that way for valid reasons such as safety, feasibility, and cost
We do it that way because it was a workaround for some other issue
We do it that way because someone wanted it done that way
We do it that way because it is the only way we know how
We do it that way for a reason that is no longer applicable
No one remembers why we do it that way

Of those that are necessary for a reason such as safety, cost, or feasibility; we might then ask if the reason is still valid. Have regulations or equipment been changed, or can they be?
Is there new technology available that could improve safety, efficiency, and cost?

In many cases, the answers will be yes, and the door is open for improvement. Those that fall into the other categories hold the real potential. Many are things we are doing for no good reason at all, and can be cut out altogether. Some will need to be changed. Some changes or cuts will be easy, others will not. It will be downright difficult to make many of these changes because they are so deeply entrenched in our culture. This kind of effort will require commitment from all levels of the agency, beginning at the top. All centers will need to be in cooperation, and policies must be consolidated and streamlined across them all in order to be successful. We will need to be creative and innovative in our solutions- perhaps flexing some muscles we haven’t used in a while.

We can rise to the challenge.

I’m not saying that NASA or other government agencies are out there wasting taxpayers’ money. That’s not it at all. When a large organization has been around as long as NASA has, there is a natural tendency to experience a buildup of inefficiencies over the years. Every so often something drastic must be done to clear these non-value added requirements or processes out and forge ahead. Will it really make that much of a difference to the bottom line? Will it enable us to continue with human spaceflight in a meaningful way without an increase in budget?

Don’t we owe it to ourselves and our country to give it a shot?

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Thanks for the post, Jen. As a project manager, the ‘ask why five times’ has been drilled into me! You might want to check out the featured GovReads – the title alone may intrigue you (“If We Can Put a Man on the Moon”). We accomplish great things in government and the book outlines the process to get there, highlighting concrete examples…such as our initial explorations in space. Also, I believe I read somewhere that there is more computing power in a typical cell phone today than was available to the Apollo mission…proving that we can do more with less!