NASA enlists Behavioral Science Technology, Inc. to lead agency-wide culture change

NASA enlists Behavioral Science Technology, Inc. to lead agency-wide culture change

When the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s (CAIB’s) seven-month investigation into the Feb. 1, 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy revealed that organizational safety climate and culture contributed as much to the accident as any mechanical failure, NASA officials began to focus on making mission safety the highest priority throughout the organization. To that end, NASA selected Behavioral Science Technology, Inc., the 25-year-old leader in behavior-based performance improvement, to facilitate its three-year culture change initiative.

Since the release of the CAIB report in August, NASA leadership says it was inundated with suggestions and advice on how to guide NASA through the cultural changes indicated in the board’s findings. Speaking to reporters late last year, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said that he was warned by then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Hewlett Packard Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina to be on guard against “charlatans and flimflam artists” masquerading as consultants. O’Neill recommended that O’Keefe look at BST, a company he had worked with 10 years earlier as CEO of Alcoa. After a competitive procurement process that included more than 40 potential providers, NASA concurred with O’Neill’s opinion and selected BST.

According to BST Chief Executive Officer C. Patrick Smith, BST is distinguished from other consulting organizations by its technology. Smith says BST’s use of performance improvement and organizational development tools derived from the applied behavioral sciences is a significant departure from the “train and hope” approach frequently associated with culture change efforts. “BST has an unsurpassed record of delivering real behavior change and quantifiable performance improvement in organizations committed to creating a strong performance-oriented culture.” Other organizations that have contracted BST services include the United States Marines Corps, Genentech, GlaxoSmithKline, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space Company.

In communications to employees, NASA leaders have emphasized that the BST-led culture change effort will be the integration point for all other organizational culture efforts related to the CAIB recommendations, including OneNASA, Return-to-Flight, and the Diaz Implementation. One memo from Associate Deputy Administrator James Jennings, dated February 17, stated that “The successful implementation of this effort is critical to the Agency’s future as we prepare to return to flight and implement the President’s Vision for U.S. Space Exploration.”

The NASA culture change initiative was kicked off in March using a proprietary BST survey to conduct an agency-wide cultural assessment. Results were published last week on NASA’s website ( Among the conclusions, the report noted that safety culture remained a problem more than a year after the Columbia disaster. “Safety is something to which NASA personnel are strongly committed in concept, but NASA has not yet created a culture that is fully supportive of safety,” the report states.

But the news isn’t all bad. “We’re building on a very solid foundation,” Smith notes. “People choose to work at NASA because they have a passion for the Agency’s mission–they want to contribute to the President’s vision for space exploration. Our team has been quite impressed by the people we have worked with thus far at NASA. They have an intense achievement orientation-an amazing can-do attitude.” Where they get into trouble, Smith says, is in balancing risk and achievement. “Their achievement drive is both a great strength and, if unmanaged, a very real liability.”

In order to improve the agency’s safety culture without compromising its strengths, the culture change effort will include behavior-based leadership development, cognitive bias training, and comprehensive team and individual effectiveness processes. The core of the change effort will involve BST helping NASA personnel to identify the behaviors critical to successful outcomes and implementing mechanisms that systematically capture data on the occurrence of these behaviors. These efforts will be followed up with data-driven interventions that root out organizational barriers and help individuals adapt to safety expectations. BST Chairman and Co-Founder Thomas Krause says, “Changing an organizational culture is a tricky business. The change comes down to very specific sets of behaviors, mostly related to leadership.” The initiative will engage NASA employees from the agency’s lowest levels to supervisory staff and upper-level management.

Speaking to business leaders in February, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe emphasized that addressing culture was part of the agency’s promise to the Columbia astronauts’ families and the American people. “We are working hard to fulfill our pledge. We take seriously our commitment to implement all of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s recommendations for addressing the technical, organizational and human factors that contributed to the accident. We are also striving to raise the safety bar even higher.”

COPYRIGHT 2004 Millin Publishing, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group