Why does NASA need to be a learning organization?

Learning has always been at the core of NASA’s project management successes and failures. Throughout its history, the agency and its external stakeholders have conducted periodic studies of the importance of learning from proven best practices in project management. Walk through a timeline that identifies such research since NASA’s beginning in 1958.

1960s

1969 | Apollo: Ingredients for Success

George Low presented to AIAA on what contributed to the success of five successful Apollo flights leading up to Apollo 11. He concluded that the three basic ingredients include: reliable hardware, well-planned and executed flight operations, and superbly trained and skilled flight crew.

“…failure has to be understood….What counts most is a meticulous and painstaking attention to detail by industry and NASA alike. No change was too small to consider in detail, no anomaly too small to understand.” – George M. Lowe

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1970s

1975 | National Academy of Engineering Workshop

NASA, in conjunction with the National Academy of Engineering, held two project management workshops in 1975 to address the cost concerns during a time of national budget challenges. The workshops identified factors influencing project cost and related project management issues. Overall, the workshops determined that “NASA lacked a project management corporate memory.” The top recommendation to the Deputy Administrator was to establish a training program for future project managers at NASA

1980s

1980 | Wallops Flight Facility NASA Program and Project Management Colloquium

This colloquium contributed greatly to the identification of training requirements after the Challenger accident. It considered three levels of project team management: the project manager, the system manager, and the subsystems manager, and identified the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to be fully qualified at each level. This also resulted in the development of specific requirements for each management level.

September 19, 1980 | House Committee on Science and Technology Letter to NASA Administrator Dr. Robert Frosch

“A number of large projects, for example Galileo, Landsat-D, Space Telescope, and IPSM, are experiencing cost and schedule problems….The Committee encourages NASA to take the necessary steps to minimize the cost and schedule impact of the problems associated with these ongoing programs. Further, the committee has authorized new starts in the space and applications area and is anxious that sound project management principles be applied from the beginning of these new programs.”

November 21, 1980 | Appropriations Conference Report

“The conferences are conferred with NASA’s apparent recent inability to adequately anticipate technical problems and project overruns.”

January 21, 1981 | NASA Project Management Study

In response to a request from NASA’s Acting Administrator Alan Lovelace on October 2, 1980, Donald P. Hearth performed a study of project management at NASA. Lovelace’s request originated from increasing concerns related to cost and performance from Congress and the Office of Budget and Management. Hearth was to assess the state of project management at NASA and to identify reasons which aggravate cost and schedule growth.

“The Study Team verified, from its examination of a group of representative projects, that the cost performance of a project is closely related to the application of sound project management principles and/or the use of available management tools.”

“Rather, they stress the need for continuing application of the basic principles of sound project management by NASA, refinement of existing management tools, and the continuing verification, by NASA’s top management, that the principles are being followed and available tools are being used.”

December 30, 1986 | NASA Management Study Group: Phillips Committee

In the wake of the Challenger accident on January 28, 1986, Samuel Phillips led the NASA Management Study Group to assess the management practices and organization of NASA and recommend changes to improve effectiveness. Their response was provided to Administrator James Fletcher.

“Principal Recommendation #7: Strengthen agency-wide leadership in developing and managing people, facilities, equipment and other institutional resources.”

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1990s

November 30, 1990 | Hubble Space Telescope Optical Systems Failure Report

“There was no formal and centralized information management system to retain and categorize the voluminous data that defined the HST.”

“The NASA Project management did not have the necessary expertise to critically monitor the optical activities of the program and to probe deeply enough into the adequacy and competence of the review process that was established to guard against technical errors.”

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January 23, 1990 | GAO: Government Financial Vulnerability

“It is not enough for agencies to identify problems; they must act effectively to correct them. Currently no mechanism exists to ensure that agencies take corrective action.”

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1990 | GAO High-Risk Report

“This area has been designated as high risk principally because NASA has lacked a modern financial management system to provide accurate and reliable information on contract spending and placed little emphasis on product performance, cost controls, and program outcomes. These weaknesses pose significant challenges to NASA’s ability to implement corrective actions and make informed investment decisions. Due to the considerable challenges NASA continues to face in implementing effective systems and processes, contract management remains high risk.”

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1991 | Issues in NASA Program and Project Management

Edited by Frank Hoban, then-Director of the NASA Academy of Program and Project Leadership (APPL), this publication is a collection of reflections and insights on program and project management of some of NASA’s leaders. These aerospace management papers grew out of a key recommendation from the Phillips Committee for the need for formal training and development of program and project managers at NASA.

“A Program/Project Management Steering Group, established in 1984, set out to develop a management experience library to support those formal training and development programs, seeking lessons learned, policy tools, and development information.”

1992 | Why Projects Fail: Factors that Drive Program Costs and Technical Risks

In the summer of 1992, the NASA Administrator asked Marshall Space Flight Center Director Jack Lee to lead a six-month agency-wide study of 30 recent NASA projects. Lee’s team identified eight factors that drive program costs and technical risks:

  • Inadequate Phase B definition (i.e., before Preliminary Design Review)
  • Unrealistic dependence on unproven technology
  • Annual funding instability
  • Complex organizational structure, including multiple unclear interfaces
  • Cost estimates that are often misused
  • Scope additions due to “requirements creep”
  • Schedule slips
  • Acquisition strategy that does not promote cost containment

1993 | Issues in NASA Program and Project Management – Special Report

“We have plans, what we lack is strategic management.” – Charles Pellerin

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1993 | The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA)

“…provides a new tool to improve the efficiency of all Federal agencies and to ensure that intended results are delivered to agencies’ customers. This Act requires that, beginning in the FY99 budget request, agencies submit a strategic plan for program activities and an annual performance plan covering those activities set forth in the budget.” ~ From “Issues in Project Management”

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1998 | Issues in NASA Program and Project Management

“Over the last several years, we’ve heard people say: ‘I never realized that’s how we were supposed to do it.’ We spend a significant amount of time writing and coordinating NPDs [NASA Policy Directive] and NPGs [NASA Procedures and Guidelines] only to get them published, and then fail to read and follow them.”

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November 10, 1999 | Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board Report

“MCO Contributing Cause No. 5: Communications Among Project Elements: In the MCO project, and again in the MPL project, there is evidence of inadequate communications between the project elements, including the development and operations teams, the operations navigation and operations teams, the project management and technical teams, and the project and technical line management.”

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2000s

December 21, 2000 | Enhancing Mission Success – A Framework for the Future

The NASA Integrated Action Team (NIAT) assembled to provide broad recommendations to NASA on how to best approach the execution of programs and projects after a series of Faster, Better, Cheaper project failures and problems.

“NASA has a vision of being a learning organization implemented by continual development of individuals and teams through experience and training in a supportive environment. The development and proactive support of our people is essential to the sustainability of our excellent capability….The success of NASA depends on having a knowledgeable and skilled workforce, supported by clearly understood processes and methodologies, and armed with tools that leverage emerging technology to simplify and improve design, development, and verification related engineering approaches.”

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January 30, 2002 | GAO – NASA: Better Mechanisms Needed for Sharing Lessons Learned

“We found that successful industry and government organizations have overcome barriers by making a strong management commitment to knowledge sharing, developing a well-defined business plan for implementing knowledge management, providing incentives to encourage knowledge sharing, and building technology systems to facilitate easier access to information. The application of these principles could increase opportunities for NASA to perform its basic mission of exploring space faster, better, and cheaper more successfully.”

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2003 | Center for Project Management Research (CPMR)

“CPMR was formed in 2003 as part of the Academy’s response to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) Report, which noted that NASA did not perform optimally as a learning organization. At the time, NASA had no systematic approach to integrating the latest developments in academia into its program and project management training and development. NASA’s relationship with USRA, which was founded in the Apollo era to provide a means for enhancing cooperation among academic institutions and the space program, made it a natural choice for a partnership that could remedy that situation.”

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2003 | GAO: NASA – Major Management Challenges and Program Risks

“NASA’s ultimate challenge will be in tackling the root problems impeding [its largest] programs. This will require (1) instituting a results-oriented culture that fosters knowledge sharing and empowers its workforce to accomplish programmatic goals; (2) ensuring that the agency adheres to management controls to prevent cost overruns and scheduling problems; (3) transforming the financial management organization so it better supports NASA’s core mission; and (4) sustaining commitment to change.”

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2003 | Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report

“The Board concludes that NASA’s current organization…has not demonstrated the characteristics of a learning organization.”

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July 2005 | Final Report to the Return to Flight Task Group: Annex

“…weak understanding of basic program management and systems engineering principles, an abandonment of traditional processes, and a lack of rigor in execution. Many of the leaders and managers that we observed did not have a solid foundation in either the theory or practice of these basic principles.” (p. 194)

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December 2005 | GAO: NASA, Implementing a Knowledge-Based Acquisition Framework Could Lead to Better Investment Decisions and Project Outcomes

“NASA would benefit from consistent, agency-wide project management practices and standardized product development criteria across its centers, according to a December report by the General Accountability Office (GAO). GAO called upon the Agency to support its flight systems and ground support projects with comprehensive, cross-center policies that encourage best practices used by successful project developers in other industries.” – ASK OCE

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2005 | American Society for Engineering Management Journal

“Engineering Management Journal, the flagship quarterly publication of the American Society for Engineering Management, devoted its entire December issue to the Center for Program/Project Management Research (CPMR), a partnership between NASA APPEL and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA).” – ASK OCE

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July 2006 | Tinsley and Dillion-Merrill’s Understanding Near-Misses at NASA

Tinsley believes that improved understanding of the near-miss bias will play an important part in overcoming its dangers. “If we can raise people’s awareness of how the biases are affecting peoples’ decision-making, then I think it’s possible to really improve decision-making at a very low cost.”

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2007 | Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration

“Ultimately, the committee concluded that the salient requirement was the need for junior-level members of the workforce—including current and potential employees—to gain hands-on experience that would satisfy one of the perennial issues facing the agency: the need for highly skilled program/project managers and systems engineers.”

“If NASA does not nurture and train its own potential workforce, there is no guarantee that any other government agency or private entity will do so, nor that the agency will receive the high-quality personnel that it requires to achieve the ambitious goals of returning humans to the Moon and eventually sending them to Mars.

The committee emphasizes further that when evaluating its future workforce requirements, NASA has to consider not only programs for students, but also training opportunities for its current employees. NASA’s training programs at the agency’s various field centers, which are focused on NASA’s civil service talent, require support to prevent the agency’s internal skill base from withering. Furthermore, NASA faces the risk that, if it fails to nurture its own internal workforce, skilled personnel will be attracted to other government agencies and industry.”

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April 2008 | Seven Key Principles of Program and Project Success: A Best Practices Survey

“Strong leadership is another prerequisite for success, requiring the program/project manager to identify and develop other leaders and technical staff within the team, to define clear lines of authority within the project organization and then demand accountability from the designated leads, to implement sound project management practices especially with respect to budget and schedule visibility, and to demonstrate uncompromising ethical standards in all matters.”

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April 28, 2009 | The Joint Confidence Level Paradox: A History of Denial

“…NASA rarely acknowledges publicly this pattern of aiming high and shooting low. Cost and schedule estimating candidness has proven difficult to come by. NASA should actively pursue a course that will change our prevailing reluctance to ‘tell it like it is in the cost and schedule world.’”

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2010s

February 1, 2010 | GAO: NASA – Assessments of Large-Scale Projects

“The need to effectively manage projects will gain even more importance as NASA seeks to manage its wide-ranging portfolio in an increasingly constrained fiscal environment.”

“Although space development programs are complex and difficult by nature, our work consistently finds that inherent risks are exacerbated by poor acquisition management.”

“NASA noted that its projects are high-risk and one-of-a-kind development efforts that do not lend themselves to all the practices of a “business case” approach that we outlined since essential attributes of NASA’s project development differ from those of a commercial or production industry. We agree, however NASA could still benefit from a more disciplined approach to its acquisitions whereby decisions are based upon high levels of knowledge. Currently, inherent risks are being exacerbated due to projects
moving forward with immature technologies and unstable designs and difficulties working with contractors and international partners, leading to cost and schedule increase which make it hard for the agency to manage its portfolio and make informed investment decisions.”

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February 2010 | GAO: Assessments of Large-Scale Projects

Our work has shown that reducing the project challenges that can lead to cost and schedule growth this report identifies hinges on developing a sound business case that includes firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, realistic cost estimates, and sufficient funding. To its credit, NASA has continued to take steps to improve its acquisition process along these lines. The revisions aim to provide key decision-makers with increased knowledge needed to make informed decisions before a program starts, and to maintain discipline once it begins.

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November 12, 2010 | NASA’s Top Management and Performance Challenges

“Effective acquisition and project management are critical to NASA’s ability to achieve its overall mission but systemic weaknesses in these areas have proven a long-standing challenge for the Agency.”

“To execute projects within established cost and schedule estimates, NASA needs to maximize the use of a wide range of project management tools including earned value and risk management. While effective project management tools to produce positive results.”

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