NASA Needs to Learn Lean

I was reading an article on CNN.com about the successful launch of the space shuttle this past Thursday, and was taken aback by something in the story.

The article noted that NASA aborted plans to launch back in December when fuel gauges failed, which could have caused serious problems with fuel flow. The launch took place this month because the gauge problem was fixed:

The gauges failed back in December because of a faulty connector, and NASA redesigned the part to fix the problem, which had been plaguing the shuttles for three years.

Three years? Are you kidding me? In other words, for three years nobody made a serious effort to address something everyone knew was a problem, but when the situation finally became critical, they solved it in two months.

NASA is definitely not a lean organization. When an organization is committed to lean, problems are addressed as soon as they arise. The root cause is analyzed, and action is taken - quickly.

First, that kind of mindset clearly is not in place at NASA. But second, wasn’t NASA taking some risky chances here? There have been at least a few shuttle launches in the past three years. Maybe the fuel gauges seemed all right at the time of each launch. But if there was a history of problems, wasn’t it possible the gauges might fail, interrupting the flow of fuel, at a critical moment when the shuttle was already in the air?

NASA may have been more lucky than safe in those earlier launches. You would think that with a history of two disasters, the agency would be more paranoid about problems and more aggressive in solving them.

About five years ago, I wrote about NASA in our newsletter Lean Manufacturing Advisor, describing how contractors working on possible successors to the space shuttle were using lean techniques in the design and development process. It’s a shame those lean efforts didn’t become more widespread.

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