Jan 21

How to Launch!

How to Launch!

Safety Lessons Learned from Apollo 11


“That’s one small step for man,” Neil Armstrong said from the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, “One giant leap for mankind,” Of course I studied this phrase in school but only now, some four decades removed from Apollo 11’s mission to the moon, begin to fully understand just how big of an accomplishment this was and still is. Norm Mailer, being overwhelmed by the experience later wrote that Apollo 11 was, “Mankind having found a way to talk to God.”  Author C. Clark who wrote the book, 2001, The Space Odyssey said, “At liftoff, I cried for the first time in 20 years and prayed for the first time in 40 years.”


My generation, (I was born three months after the landing), along with those generations after mine, find it hard to fully understand the accomplishments that Apollo 11 represents.  Yet, in a time without personal computers, cell phones, Ipods, satellite television, GPS or microwave ovens, our country sent three men to space, landing two of them on the moon, then returned them safely.  What happened, and how it happened, still has great value to today’s search to launch into excellence, continuous improvement and safety results. Let me explain.


Launch through Engineer—Several years ago I was in a meeting with fellow safety professionals. The discussion centered around noise monitoring data. It was determined that noise levels exceeded acceptable limits. The conclusion was workers should be furnished hearing protection.  It was all but decided until someone spoke up and asked, have we discussed engineering out the hazard?  The room was silent.


The principles of safety are easy, engineer, educate, enforce. Yet today, many leaders, safety professionals and companies quickly move away from engineering toward education and enforcement. Just like in our discussion of hearing protection, PPE is all too often the ‘quick fix’ that allows the hazard to exist, waiting to hurt someone one day while engineering solutions can eliminate the hazard completely.  Performance aerodynamics engineering and development director for Apollo 11 said this, “If I am an engineer I better dam well understand what reliability and what failure means, otherwise I am not an engineer.  We had redundant valves, quad redundant valves everything else. I basically said the best way to deal with risk management is in the basic conceptual design, get the dam risk out of it. And I think that is what made the program a success.” “Science is about what is,” Neil Armstrong once said, “and engineering is about what can be” What ‘can be’ in terms of engineering solutions in your workplace?


Questions to Launch—Where have you and your team quietly slipped into PPE mode?  Do you need a team to look at engineering improvements? What engineering opportunities exist today that can make your work environment safer?


Launch by Training–In your next safety meeting, sit in the back and observe. After several minutes ask yourself  if you are at a funeral or a safety meeting. Question if you are with someone in the waiting room, about to get a root canal, or a training session. The fact is that many of our workers have been around the block a time or two. They are experienced and seasoned. And, with this also comes complacency in training and learning. In most cases, our people have worked safely so many years that we lose the connection between something really bad happening on the job and our training to prevent that occurrence. This means that training all too often leads to a ‘check the box’ attitude.


“The training regiment, however, was exhausting on every level of human effort, for both astronauts and their ground controllers,” writes Craig Nelson in his epic book called Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon. “After learning the basics on a sim-flight that went smoothly, both sides were subsequently put through their paces with a series of problems like mechanical breakdown, conflicting data streams and all out system failures.” Nelson writes later in the book about simulation testing, “This process worked so well, in fact, that in time many astronauts would calm themselves in real work crisis by thinking, this is just like simulation.” Because of their training, they had great confidence!


Questions to Launch–What confidence do we have that our training is pushing our workers to be better? Are we using simulations and activities or simply sitting and listening? How can we shift to a continuous learning environment keeping that close connection between the need to train and hazard elimination?


Launch through toughness—It is no secret that feedback is the ‘lifeblood’ of continuous improvement.  NASA, like any organization, went through periods when feedback did not occur.  When that happens, tragedy often results. It happened with Apollo 1 when three astronauts were killed in a test simulation. Later, a controller said


“I tend to be maybe one of the more emotional of the controllers. I believe that is part of a leader’s responsibilities, to get his people pumped up. I gave what the controller’s came to know as the tough and competent speech. And concluded the talk by identifying the problem throughout all of our preparation for Apollo I was the fact that we were not tough enough.  We were avoiding our responsibilities. We had not assumed the accountability we should have for what was going on during that day’s test. We had the opportunity to call it off, to say this isn’t right and shut it down and none of us did. We had become very complacent about working on a pure oxygen environment. We well know this was dangerous. Many of us who flew aircraft knew it was extremely dangerous but we sort of stopped learning. We had just really taken it for granted that this was the environment, and since we had flown the Mercury and Gemini program at this 100% Oxygen environment everything was okay, and it wasn’t.  I had each member of the control team on the black boards in their office write tough and competent at the top of the blackboard and that could never be erased until we had gotten a man on the moon.”


Questions to Launch—Feedback — a gauge of being ‘tough and competent.’ How tough is your organization? Where have we stopped being responsible and accepted the ‘status quo’ in dangerous environments? How tough and competent is your culture?


Launch through Greatness–Neil Armstrong said this after the Apollo mission,


“I was certainly aware that this was a culmination of the work of 300,00 or 400.00 people over a decade, and that the nation’s hope and outward appearance largely rested on how the results came out.  With those pressures it seems the most important thing to do was focus on our job as best we were able to and try to allow nothing to distract us from doing the very best job we could. And you know, I have no complaints the way my colleagues were able to step up to that.


Each of the components of our hardware were designed to certain reliability specifications. And for the majority, to my recollection, had a reliability requirement of  0.99996, which means you have 4 failures in 100,000 operations.  I’ve been told that if every component met its reliability specifications precisely, that a typical Apollo fight would have about 1,000 separate identifiable failures. In fact we have like 150 failures per flight, better than statistical methods would tell you that you might have.  I can only attribute that to the fact that every guy in the project, every guy at the bench building something, every assembler, every inspector, every guy who was setting up the test and cranking the torque wrench and so on is saying, man or women, if anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault, because my part is going to be better than I have to make it. And when you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little bit better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance.  And that is the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off.


The way that happens, the way that made it different from other sectors of the government in which some people are sometimes properly critical is that this was a project in which everybody involved was one interested, two dedicated and three fascinated by the job they were doing. And whenever you have those ingredients whether it be government or private industry or retail store, you’re gong to win!


Questions to Launch—The fact is that you wouldn’t be in business unless you were making something or doing something that someone needs for something; in short, you and what you are doing are extremely valuable. How do you capitalize on the value you bring to your market and your community? What can your team rally around? How can we foster that ‘my part is going to be better than I have to make it’ attitude?


Launch through deadlines—There was great power in President John F. Kennedy’s statement in May of 1961 when he said, “I believe that his nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”  In fact, Milton Servero, Aerospace engineer recalls, “I always noticed that when president Kennedy said ‘go to the moon by the end of the decade’ that all of our badges issued to us expired on December 31, 1969.  Well, that’s a message for you, either do it or you are not employed anymore.”


It’s one thing to set a deadline and another to achieve one’s goal.  So how did NASA achieve such an accomplishment? Well, they had support, teamwork and engagement toward a common goal…they were aligned.


Questions to Launch—what is your goal around safety, and is it ‘big’ enough to be inspiring? Is there support around your safety goal?  Is everyone in your organization aligned around that goal?


“That we could step beyond our narrow personal concerns to achieve great things,” wrote Bob Herbert after the Apollo 11 mission, “That we could do better, be better, if only we had the strength and courage to work harder and dream bigger.” There are great lessons from Apollo 11’s accomplishments some four decades ago. Lessons learned on so many fronts including engineering, training, toughness, greatness and deadlines.  Can we use their lessons go be great? Yes, we can…if we too want to launch!


Matt Forck, CSP & JLW, is a leading voice in safety.  Matt keynotes conferences and consults industry on safety’s most urgent topics such as; safety awareness, employee engagement and motivation, cultural alignment, accountability and leadership. To learn more about Matt, book a presentation or download FREE safety tools, go to www.thesafetysoul.org.


Quotes and excerpts from the brilliant recount of the Apollo 11 mission by Craig Nelson, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, Viking Adult; 1St Edition (June 25, 2009)