Sunday Soapbox: Being a Team Player

>> Sunday, January 31, 2010

I know, I know, protagonists, right? As much as I hate to break a series, I don't want to let my weekly rant go unranted. I had a topic left over from last week but, in memory of the Shuttle crew that died seven years ago tomorrow, I have a different topic.

*Steps on soapbox*

I have a reputation. I know that's hard to believe, but I do. I have the reputation for being a pain in the ass. (Some of you are nodding. That you could have guessed.) Many people think I love to cause trouble for entertainment value or love to argue (even people who have known me all their lives and should know better). I don't love it. I hate it. I argue when I feel it's necessary or when I feel like a statement has been made that should be corrected (which, admittedly, isn't always necessary).

Here on blogs, arguing is not necessary and disagreeing with others is unlikely to do more than get a few people squawking at their screens in other parts of the world - if that. The same for being silent. Where I work, where we work with toxic materials and vacuum and temperature extremes and explosives, being silent gets people killed. Not just any people - other people. People that trust you to look out for them.

The culture at NASA is fascinating. Much of it is driven by the attitudes of the astronauts and the mission ops folks, those people that man the consoles during flight. Both of these groups are gung-ho can-do people, the kind that never say die and will fight to the last breath to work a problem. We couldn't do space exploration without these folks (ops and crew), who routinely juggle an untold number of constraints at any given time - crew time, resources, prop, priorities, safety, mission success, ops constraints, etc - while trying to get things done. And their success rate is truly phenomenal. A significant portion of that is their attitude, but, even more, it's the untold unsung hours, weeks, months and years of training and sim they do so that they know the potential problems and how to solve them. They've earned that attitude of being ready for everything by preparing to the nth degree for just that purpose.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, most other areas area also infected with that same attitude without, necessarily, having done the prep work to make it so. I've been frustrated with work in this section or that section where tests and analyses are streamlined or eliminated for cost savings only to have to fix crap on orbit or work around it, which not only increases the cost exponentially, but impacts that already overburdened juggling act. We don't learn from this (or our catastrophic failures, unfortunately) as much as I think we should. We keep giving ourselves credit for the lesson without changing our behavior.


Part of it is because most are sure all that testing is overkill. Some of it probably is. But which part?

A bigger part of it, however, is this sense that we have to be a team player, not rock the boat, not complain about a broken process or a substandard design. Everyone worked so hard, we have to make it go. We're all in this together.

'Cept we're not. When all is said and done, those team players who "worked so hard" are sitting comfortably on the ground and someone else's butt is on the line. By all means, get cavalier with your own butt, but I don't hold with leaving someone else's hanging in the wind. Our crews are fantastic, more than willing to take more than their share of the risk, but on the understanding that we are holding up our end of the bargain, that we are doing all possible to make them safe. It's a matter of trust.

Which is why I'm a pain in the butt. If I like the direction we're going. If I see us doing the right thing, I don't say a word. I've gone months not causing a stir. But, if I see something wrong, if it's something that puts the crew (or anyone else) at unnecessary risk, I'll take it to the top. All the damn way. They may not listen or agree, but, by Gantry, they'll hear it. Even though I'm not technically in safety any more, I still sing out.

Actually, it's kind of sad I get more notice now than when I was in safety, when I had to run the whole gamut of "let's just get along" management. About twelve years ago, they changed how safety was run at JSC. Now, safety is paid by the programs it oversees and paid what the program thinks their worth. Rocking the boat cuts one's funding. Just before I left safety, I was in a meeting and made some pointed comments and asked some tough questions about a proposed repair. The crewmembers there were so surprised, they mentioned it to some folks in the EVA program office. "I've never heard someone from safety speak out or ask tough questions like that," they marveled. The EVA folks (who told me about this later) said, "Oh, it must have been Stephanie."

That story made me terribly sad.

In my opinion, safety's supposed to cause trouble and make them explain. They're supposed to challenge the status quo and dig in their heels if there's another way to do it. They're supposed to be pains in the butt. To me, that's being a team player. 'Cause, if you're not doing that, what exactly are you contributing?

This is, of course, a very specific example and personal to me, but we all have the opportunities to stand up for what we believe in. We all have opportunities to speak out for things that matter, for things we don't agree with, policies we think are destructive. Too often, we don't want to cause a stir or buck the system and someone, often not one of us, is run right over. Sometimes, we even become party to terrible things.

I have been silenced before, well, not silenced but allowed myself to be moved to a different job rather than keep causing trouble in the first. I let them move me because I didn't want to lose my job. I kept feeding more disturbing data to the same management that moved me over (more fool me), hoping they would listen instead of screaming bloody murder. I'll never know if my silence was a factor in Columbia. But I'll tell you one thing. I'm not silent for anybody any more.

And, if necessary, I act.

*steps off soapbox*

(This image is a view of the underside of Columbia during its entry from mission STS-107 on Feb. 1, 2003, as it passed by the Starfire Optical Range, Directed Energy Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. The image was taken at approximately 7:57 a.m. CST. Ironically, I took a call from these folks after Columbia [I worked phones] as they were trying to get it to us)


  • Shakespeare

    Great post! I'd argue with you, but I agree.

    I don't tend to be the thorn, but only because I butter and honey up my objections pretty well. Then again, I also don't do rocket science. Literature is a far less deadly (and objective) area of exploration.

    Still, I know when my objections will work, will change teaching behavior, etc....

    And I know when it won't. (So sad when it won't!) Fortunately, most of my colleagues remain open to learning--it's the whole reason they are in higher education!

  • Cottage Country Pest Control

    it's a damn good thing there are people around to ask questions - and be a pain in the arse too. More people should have the courage.

    dang... apparently I'm logged into the wrong account!


  • Jeff King

    I am proud of your attitude, if lives depend on your decisions or data; then I could not agree more.
    Most people who know their stuff, and stand up for themselves; more often than not end up in a position of influence or power.
    It’s much better to be the puppet master than the puppet.
    My job rarely has lives in the balance. But I stand up for what I know is right. I am normally respected as a specialist. So having to argue: does not normally apply.
    Best of luck

  • Aron Sora

    Wow, I need to work on something. I am the most unconfident, shy person ever. I will not defend my position, even if it matters. I learned that mainly from my first engineering project in basically "intro to engineering" at my school. But this putting it into perspective.

    Thank you for sharing this, I can see the pain in your voice, but it has taught me a powerful lesson.

    I remember a teacher once telling me, Scream bullshit until you run out of reasons to scream it.

  • Quadmama

    If no one ever asked tough questions, we would be in big trouble. Having someone challenge our ideas makes us critical thinkers. I learned along time ago that if you never speak up then you're never going to make a difference. Are there some people who take this to the extreme and argue just to argue? Sure. But the majority of us will speak up only when we know it's necessary.

  • The Mother

    This is where medicine (where we do nearly the same stuff everyday) differs sharply from the way out world of space travel, where you guys deal with stuff that has never been done, anywhere.

    We get to look at testing and evaluate it in terms of cost/benefit ratios and patient outcome.

    You guys get to sit on the frontier and gestalt what works, both safety-wise and cost-efficacy-wise.

    I don't envy you.

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