Applying Lessons from Columbia and Challenger

January 28th, 1986 – Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart a little over a minute into flight.i 


February 1st, 2003 – Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry into the atmosphere.ii 


A total of 14 astronauts died as a result of these tragedies.
Many of you are asking yourselves, “What could possibly be the connection between these two national tragedies and my office’s performance?”  We will get to that a little later in this blog post.


Here is a quick synopsis of the mechanical causes of these failures:
During liftoff, an O-ring seal in one of Challenger’s solid rocket boosters failed and hot gasses burned a structural support and caused the booster to veer into the large external tank.  This led to a chain of events culminating with extreme aerodynamic forces breaking apart the shuttle.


During liftoff, a briefcase-sized chunk of insulation broke free from the external tank and hit the fragile leading edge of Columbia’s left wing.  This went unnoticed for the entire length of the mission.  When the extremely hot plasma of re-entry melted the internal structure of the wing, the shuttle experienced aerodynamic instability and the orbiter broke apart.  All 7 astronauts perished.


The root cause of these failures was an Organizational Breakdown within NASA.  A sociologist, Diane Vaughan, describes this breakdown as a “normalization of deviance”.iii  She defines this as an unsafe practice comes to be considered normal if it doesn’t immediately cause a catastrophic event.
Again, you’re asking yourselves, “Why is this relevant?”  Normalization of deviance is present in every phase of every one of our lives; family, social clubs, government – usually to a much less catastrophic level.  However; without exception all office cultures experience this on a regular basis.
My goal in writing this is to help us all notice when anomalies occur within our office cultures and speak up about them.  We often refer to these anomalies as “exceptions”.  Some basic exceptions may be; “He always does it his way, so we just let him do it”, “She seems to work on her own schedule”, “He never seems to come to important internal meetings – he must be busy”, “We don’t need the complete 800 series of drawings, we will let the contractor figure it out”.   When we see any sign that a deviation is causing a negative effect on our projects or office culture, we need to be confident enough to bring it to the attention of those it affects.


A robust office culture will always benefit from a keen understanding that we, as humans, have a natural tendency to allow a “normalization of deviance”.  And with this understanding we can choose to reduce the anomalies and improve the quality of our service as well as our deliverables.
We have just scratched the surface on this topic.  We’re looking forward to the interchanges during our  “Culture” discussions at the 2019 BUiLT Design Technology Summit in Seattle.




Mike Harris, Gartner EVP, Research and Advisory explains the ContinuousNext formula.

As 2019 begins with great anticipation, so do the groans of many team members in despair of what new technology we are going to be trying to force upon them. But as history has shown us, the ability to adapt to change is a key component to surviving in today’s ever changing environment. Recently the research firm Gartner at its annual Symposium commented that the Technology & IT world must ready their companies for “ContinuousNext”- implying that everyone should be prepared “in order to face and adopt to changes in technology, competition and business.”

Mike Harris vice president of Gartner suggested IT executives consider a new formula: (Mindsets + Practices) x Technology = Capabilities. As an example, Harris discussed the changes that have occurred in competitive cycling over the past decade, where shifts in culture, technology, and process have led to much faster results. In each of the cases, Harris and the other Gartner analysts urged attendees to consider “shift, shape, and share” as strategic principles.”

From <>

Industry culture has always seemed to be the biggest hurdle to overcome as new technology gets implemented, and this was also discussed quite a bit by the presenters. In today’s world, updates appear monthly or perhaps even weekly. However, what we must help our staff to realize is that while change may come more frequently it is increasingly incremental. Even Microsoft’s Windows OS is being treated as a service and by and large introducing incremental change with bi-annual releases.  Updates to the Microsoft Office is even more frequent and granular. So we must ask ourselves how to better prepare our staff for the increasing rate of change with our toolsets, understanding that these are not dramatic changes?

Training in this environment is a challenge and different training approaches must be considered for each software platform for staff to be able to adopt new features promising increased productivity. So in the always updating world of project delivery software, training must evolve to make the best use of staff’s time. With this in mind, should our attention be on how to train people to push buttons or should we instead ask ourselves how to train people to learn to adapt to constant application evolution. We need to encourage the desire to know and apply, not simply push button A to get result X.

Keep those Pencils Sharp!

Why do we continue to look for innovative technology?  The search is a daunting, never-ending battle.  In my (not so sound) opinion, Design Technology is like a lead pencil.  You use it and use it and it dulls.  You need to constantly sharpen it.  Why do you sharpen it?  Because a pencil is an integral part of describing our design ideas. Only with a sharp pencil can our ideas be crisp and clear.  Who sharpens it?  Pencil Sharpeners, of course.  We, the Design Technology Leaders, are the Pencil Sharpeners.  How do we sharpen pencils?  By constantly looking out for newer, better, and sharper technology. 

This metaphor was once the actual method for taking a design from our minds to reality.  We have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time.  Here are some sharpening blades 

we have adapted from other industries. 

  • CAD/CAM – Where it all started.  The Manufacturing Industry in the late 50’s. 
  • Parametrics/Collaboration – The Transportation Industry 
  • Simulation – Our friends at NASA 
  • Virtual Reality – The Gaming Industry 
  • Internet/GPS – The Defense Industry 
  • Handheld Mobile Devices – The Telecommunications Industry 
  • Augmented Reality – The Entertainment / Multimedia Industry 

All of us have sharpened our pencils with each blade in the list above.  However, we need to be more proactive in our search for Pencil Sharpeners from other industries.  We have collected our box of pencils and now we must focus on the finer points.  This year’s DTS will be a step in that direction. 

During last year’s DTS, we began to discuss several sharpening tools.  This year’s DTS will continue that discussion with a sharper focus on several distilled topics.  Check out Robert Manna’s blog post here to find out more. 

I am so looking forward to sharpening my skills at the next DTS in St. Louis.  I hope to see you there!