Monday, December 06, 2004

The Challenger disaster and modern management

Richard Fynman served on the review board which studied the causes of the Challenger disaster in 1986. One of his chief observations was that there existed a huge disconnect between Engineers who worked closely with the spacecraft and Management. While the Engineers were aware and knowledgeable of the many risks with the spacecraft, Management was generally much more ignorant. Management had a very rosy view of the status of the craft and it's ability to be launched safely. The Engineers were a great deal more skeptical. And detailed investigation demonstrated that, not surprisingly really, the Engineers view was much closer to reality. So something about the management of the program prevented accurate communication of the status of the spacecraft from the ground up to Management.

The same problems still existed for the Columbia disaster in 2003. It seems to me that much the same problem could be found at the FBI and CIA prior to 9/11. There was a great deal of information available to front line members of those organizations which simply did not get up the chain of command.

The point here is that there seems to be a fairly widespread problem with a failure to communicate from the ground up a chain of command. Furthermore, the problem seems to be that management is resistant to hearing about problems. Management is isolating itself. Unfortunately, this isolation frequently results in disaster.

This leads to one of the reasons for the strong dislike of President Bush. Far from trying to solve this problem, he intends to exacerbate it. This is especially evident with the recent cabinet shakeup. The attitude of this administration is not that we need to improve communication from the front line to the top, that the folks at the top need to do a better job of listening to those on the front line. Rather this administration apparently feels that the only problem is that front line folks talk at all. This administration acts as if it will decide what is going on in the world and the role of front line folks is only to support them and take the fall if disaster occurs. This is an awful system of management.

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