Keeping It Supremely Simple, the NASA way

Any regular reader (hello to both of you) will know that I also follow an ex NASA engineer/manager by the name of Wayne Hale. Having been in NASA for much of his adult life and being involved across the board he brings a fascinating view of the complexities of space travel, and just as interestingly, to risk.

His recent post is about damage to the Space Shuttle’s foam insulation on the external fuel tank (the big orange thing),and the steps NASA went through to return the shuttle to active service after it was found that loose foam was what had damaged the heat shield of Columbia resulting in its destruction. His insight into the machinations of NASA, the undue influence of Politics as well as politics, and that ultimately everything comes down to a risk based approach make his writing compelling and above all educational. This is writ large in the hugely complex world fo space travel, something I would hazard a guess virtually all of us are not involved in!

It was when I read the following paragraph that my jaw dropped a little as I realised  that even in NASA many decisions are based on a very simple presentation of risk, something I am a vehement supporter of:

NASA uses a matrix to plot the risks involved in any activity.  Five squares by five squares; rating risk probability from low to high and consequence from negligible to catastrophic.  The risk of foam coming off part of the External Tank and causing another catastrophe was in the top right-hand box:  5×5:  Probable and Catastrophic.  That square is colored red for a reason.

What? The hugely complex world of NASA is governed by a five by five matrix like this?

Isn’t this a hugely simplistic approach that just sweeps over the complexities and nuances of an immensely complex environment where lives are at stake and careers and reputations constantly on the line? Then the following sentence made absolute sense, and underscored the reason why risk is so often poorly understood and managed:

But the analysts did more than just present the results; they discussed the methodology used in the analysis.

It seems simple and obvious, but the infused industry very regularly talks about how simple models like a traffic light approach to risk just don’t reflect the environment we operate in, and we have to look at things in a far more complex way to ensure the nuance and complexity of our world is better understood. “Look at the actuarial sciences” they will say. I can say now i don’t subscribe to this.

The key difference with NASA though is that the decision makers understand how the scores are derived, and then discuss that methodology, then the interpretation of that traffic light colour is more greatly understood. In his blog Wayne talks of how the risk was actually talked down based upon the shared knowledge of the room and a careful consideration of the environment the risks were presented. In fact the risk as it was initially presented was actually de-escalated and a decision to go ahead was made.

Imagine if that process hadn’t happened; decisions may have been made based on poor assumptions and poor understanding of the facts, the outcome of which had the potential to be catastrophic.

The key point I am making is that a simple approach to complex problems can be taken, and that ironically it can be harder to make it happen. Everyone around the table will need to understand how the measures are derived, educated on the implications, and in a position to discuss the results in a collaborative way. Presenting an over complex, hard to read but “accurate” picture of risks will waste everyone’s time.

And if they don’t have time now, how will they be able to read Wayne’s blog?

 

 

2 thoughts on “Keeping It Supremely Simple, the NASA way

  1. Lots of good Op-Ed stuff in this! A new regular reader. Would you mind if I linked it in a relevant future post over on my space blog? Credit given, of course.

    Like

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