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.



Learning Success

DTS this year is shaping up to be a great event! We’re enthusiastic about the topics and DTS speakers we have lined up for our simultaneous roundtables on Thursday and we’re very excited about the agenda we’re putting together for Wednesday’s discussions. As you may have previously read, Wednesday’s discussions are going to focus on a concept that has been getting increasing press “Continuous Next”; the idea that as technology driven change accelerates, we are less and less likely going to be able to maintain a steady state as it pertains to our technology platforms, tools, workflows and processes. Rather we need to be prepared for constant change and iteration and adapt ourselves and our practices to that nature.
So, what does that have to do with learning or success?  I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase fail early and fail often, or as JFK so eloquently put it “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly”, I think these are important philosophies, but I also think that if we are going to be faced with continuous change we need to be able to learn from where we succeed as well. Not so much of trying to get into a routine, or “well it worked before, so let’s try the same thing again” (put another way if I have a hammer, everything is nail), but rather attempting to decipher from any successful outcome, what led to that success. Too often we spend time dissecting what went wrong that sometimes we don’t spend enough time celebrating our achievements and understanding what led to that success in the first place.
In a world where change truly is inevitable, we need to be prepared to focus on failures and successes. We must learn success, because success is going to be crucial and a state where there is always change. This isn’t to say that there won’t be failures, and we should be prepared to fail, but we also need to learn keys to success, we need to develop habits and approaches to thinking that allow for agility, adaptability and recovery; turning a failure into success.
More importantly, the cornerstone of DTS is sharing and discussion, we particularly look forward to people joining us who can share the techniques and approaches they’ve found most successful to implement and deal with change; how do we successfully change attitudes and mindsets in order to give our practices the best chances at success.

“Cost of doing business”

Writing blog posts about design technology leadership
continues the discussions from previous Summits. One of the topics often brought up is that of how other firms estimate the cost of BIM above and beyond what the firm usually delivers. Where does the line fall between the “cost of doing business” and “additional services”, and how much of this answer is dependent on the client?
Rather than provide answers that aren’t necessarily relevant to your firm or in your local, I open this thread to your input. Email the [email protected] and I’ll add it here.

DTS 2018!

Greetings! As we near the opening of registration for DTS 2018, I’m happy to announce that we will be releasing our position statements as an outcome of DTS 2017. It’s taken a bit longer than we had hoped to get there, but the statements have helped to form the basis of how we will be running DTS 2018.


The document we will be making public is intended to be a starting point for further development and comes from last year’s extensive list of, topics, ideas, areas of concerns, challenges and opportunities, which left the committee with our own challenge of “what do we do with this”, “how do we make it presentable or useful”. In the end we decided the best thing to do was to attempt to aggregate the details into several general ideas or themes. The five high-level topics we developed are:


  • Adoption of Model Based Workflows
  • Knowledge Capture, Management & Dissemination
  • Improving the Quality of Life of Our Staff, End Users, Designers
  • Lightweight Interfaces
  • Application Behavior & Performance


In attempting to decide what our topics for 2018 would be, we realized that we had a readymade list to pick from! DTS 2018’s primary areas of discussion will be the first three topics and we plan to use the more detailed list of sub-topics as a means to moderate and lead the discussion. We believe the last two topics are better suited to be addressed more directly by the software and technology industry with input from DTS and other groups. To that end we also welcome technology vendors and technology consultancies who think they might have something to say on any of the topics to register their interest in participating in DTS.


Please look for the official release of our full position statement document on our Design Technology Leaders website later this week (monitor the hashtag #RTCDTS).


We hope that you will strongly consider joining us in 2018 to continue the conversation and help us further refine our ideas to be shared with the community at large. Registration is scheduled to open next week, and in the meantime you can email us to register your interest in the event.

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!