Success isn't a destination -- it's a life journey.” So says former NASA astronaut Mike Mullane. Mullane, the keynote speaker at a recent conference I attended, offered insights learned from both the Challenger and Columbia accidents. In Mullane's view, the causes of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's two most arresting failures have lessons for all of us.
While the causes of the two shuttle tragedies were different, the lessons are the same. Challenger was destroyed during launch when O-rings on its solid rocket boosters failed while Columbia was destroyed during re-entry after a large piece of foam, which had broken away from the shuttle's external tank, struck the leading edge of the ship's left wing during launch. In both cases, NASA was aware of problems with the components but did not act to change them. Mullane attributes this to “normalization of deviance,” which he defines as a long-term phenomenon in which individuals or teams repeatedly accept a lower standard of performance until that lower standard becomes the “norm.” Often, Mullane says, the acceptance of the lower standard occurs because the individual or team is under pressure -- deadlines, budget, etc. -- and believes it is too difficult to adhere to the original, higher standard. The individual or team accepts the lower standard due to these “extenuating circumstances” and intends to return to the higher standard when the pressure eases. But if the individual or team accepts the lower standard and “gets away with it,” it's likely they'll revert to that lower standard when similar pressures occur again. Over time, the individual or team no longer sees the lower standard as deviant, and it becomes acceptable even when not under pressure.
Deviations from standards are something each of us does every day. For example, who hasn't grabbed a donut or run through a drive-though on a morning when you're running late but hungry? While in a perfect world, we would all eat healthy meals, get the recommended 30 minutes of exercise each day and eight hours of sleep each night; in the real world, there are times when we all make other choices. Whatever pressures lead us to deviate from our “standard” also hold the potential for us to lower that standard. While it may be possible to mitigate or reduce some of those pressures, we cannot eliminate them all. Does that mean we shouldn't try? Better yet, does that mean the lower standard is really the “right” one, and the higher standard should be abandoned?
In a word, no. We must “plan the flight,” setting high standards to ensure safety, economy, good performance or whatever best outcome we hope for. Then, we must “fly the plan,” adhering to the standards we outlined when not under pressure. As Mullane says, teams maintain high standards of performance by setting the highest standards and connecting the dots to ensure that multiple problems aren't just symptoms of a single “normalization of deviance” problem.
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