Monday, July 27, 2009

The Other Problems

It’s been said that if you use the same people and the same processes, you'll get the same result. The acronym trail which brought us NLS, SLI, X-33, X-34, OSP, and Ares is long and winding, but the ditch at the end is not in danger of being emptied any time soon if change in the way of doing business on E Street is not forthcoming.

For instance, take the Theater’s “Governance Model.” Please. The model describes how leftover authority and responsibility is rolled down hill from the Band Leader to the Viceroys to the minions. We say leftover, because we all know Sen. Stickman really holds the baton these days. But we digress. Roll in the fact that program work is distributed across ten Field Center locations (and even more locales when contractors are counted in) spanning the country and you quickly see the need for a wiring diagram for how the root of all power, that is to say, money, flows.

Housed on E Street, the Viceroys in charge hold the execution authority for all of the programs operating in their Directorate. Center Directors, operating much closer to the action, are perceived to be responsible for the people, places, and things required to successfully execute programs and projects. The reality couldn't be further from the truth, as they hold little sway over the resources being applied to execute a program. Instead, they really worry about toilets and toilet paper.

From this point forward, it gets very confusing. Almost spaghetti-like. No wonder an Italian Waiter is at the forefront of the confabulation. Program Managers in reality (but not on paper) report to both the Viceroys and the Center Directors. Functional Managers, such as the Engineering and Center Operations managers, theoretically report to Center Directors as well, but in reality talk to other “mystical” E Street organizations (like the Chief Engineer’s office) when verifying compliance.

As you might imagine, pulling a Program Manager’s ability to execute a program in more than one direction limits his or her degrees of freedom when dealing with the inevitable risk and value trades that surface over the life of a program. And if your Program Manager lacks the experience to build a complex system in the first place, get familiar with the ditch.

Core competencies are diluted as well. Program Managers today are saddled with distributing their resources over “ten healthy centers,” whether the real competencies exist at each Center or not. Center Directors don't have any real incentives to inject themselves into the resulting quicksand. Since there is no Institutional Czar doling out resources for facilities and equipment, program and project budgets are inflated to cover those needs, sometimes replicated, at each Center. More time and effort is spent on artificial constructs than efficiently solving problems.

Of course, this could be fixed by installing small program offices on E Street, farming out work packages to the centers with Center Directors back in the line of fire for program and project execution. It’s hard to argue with success, as Apollo, STS, and ISS were managed more in this fashion than not. Core competencies are managed better and funding is better matched up with need. The hard part is getting the local Congressfolk to agree to any governance model that results in one less dollar being spent in their district, no matter that the greater good is served.

Next, take the “ Independent Technical Authority.” Please. A band-aid of the worst kind, applied directly over a wound that was never cleaned. Independent technical authority has never been clearly articulated and the implementation has many confused. A theoretical outlet for whistle blowing, or disgruntled, or bored minions, independent technical authority allows for sidestepping the Program Manager, and any safety and mission assurance organization, to work issues of real or imagined consequence.

Sounds good on paper, but any issue that is not on a Program Manager’s risk list and should be, should be grounds for firing the Program Manager if he is deliberately ignoring it. Program reviews should surface such issues. Viceroys or Center Directors or Functional Managers should be able to raise their hand at the reviews and ask for the Program Manager’s rationale for dealing, or not, with a specific issue.

Concerned engineers should be able to go to their Functional Managers if they feel they are not getting a fair hearing for their issue de jour. And that problem should be worked in the program reviews. If funding is the reason for not addressing any particular issue, the Program Manager should elevate his engineer’s concerns, with rationale, to his Viceroy, or his Band Leader. If funding is not forthcoming, then all are in agreement to take the risk. Or the Program Manager with stronger feelings can throw his badge on the table.

What is not needed is yet another independent technical authority competing for the right to manage programs. There are three, count ‘em three, independent technical authorities for human spaceflight today. Engineering, Safety and Mission Assurance, and Crew Health. Imagine a football game where everyone in the stands can throw a flag whenever they feel like it. Ever wonder why such organizations don’t exist out in the real world where real things get built successfully? A strong engineering directorate model works. It’s time to bring back the healthy tension between programs and engineering. Feelings are back, why not good technical management as well?

Finally, take the aforementioned Program vs. Institution debate and settle it. Please. On paper, our Theater is organized around four Mission Program Directorates with other supporting infrastructure Directorates. The Center Directors are theoretically on the same level as the Mission Directorate Viceroys, but that’s not how it really works. Program funding to Centers for capital expenditures flows through the applicable Mission Directorates. The supporting Directorates provide mostly guidance for how to spend, but do not actually provide significant funding to the field centers.

Center Directors thus must leverage programs to get the necessary funding for the people, places, toilets, and toilet paper he or she is responsible for. But programs rightfully focus on their mission objectives and the hardware to achieve them and resent spending money on the infrastructure underlying every design, development, and test. No one wants to pay to keep a leftover facility ready for the next program. That’s how base maintenance and repair budgets have blossomed into an almost $10 billion (with a B!) off-the-books problem.

These Other Problems have not been addressed in the two previous Theater seasons. It’s also probably wishful thinking to expect them to be addressed this season. But, unless and until they are dealt with, we will all soon understand that we have been to this picture show before.


Anonymous said...

Having lived in Soviet Union, this post gave me chills to the bone. Guess why.

Anonymous said...

It matters little. As time passes and programs rise and fall the time between a start and end will become shorter and shorter until the same people who killed X-33 and soon Ares 1 will be able to kill a follow on program right out of the gate. All that within 1 FY. Not bad for people who know little, learn less and play the worse kind of political games.

Anonymous said...

Rocket Man for Space Czar!

Chuck2200 said...

The acronym trail which brought us NLS, SLI, X-33, X-34, OSP, and Ares is long and winding, but the ditch at the end is not in danger of being emptied any time soon if change in the way of doing business on E Street is not forthcoming."

I don't believe NLS properly belongs in this list because it was not a failed program. It was a technically competent program that didn't get funded by Congress because of budget constraints.

Anonymous said...

I've lived in the morass you describe, and you are uncannily on target. Center Directors are responsible for little more than roads and commodes, and the convoluted management chain assures no progress.

Chalk this on up to the Goldin boy, who made a mess of everything (though we were ISO 9000 compliant).

The Augustine Commission is reviewing the goals and the mission. It's time for a Blue Ribbon panel of management types to be convened to fix the morass. To do anything less assures certain failure.

Anonymous said...

NASA simply shouldn't be designing and developing new rockets at all. There are existing small and medium rockets available right now from the ULA stables and at least one or two more coming from new companies as well.

An SDLV Heavy Lift solution seems to be an essential element from the political perspective, but NASA is far from being the only organization who can develop it!

Having made such a mess of developing Ares-I, NASA should never again be put in charge of such an effort. Oversight should be NASA's future role. The agency should write the standards and they should monitor the contractors work to ensure it is done to standard. Then they should be forced to leave it to the experienced development, production and operations companies in the commercial sector to get on with it.

But there are too many incompetent managers who have been promoted beyond their level of competence within certain parts of the agency (Cx being the most critical part) who seem determined to prevent anyone but them from succeeding. Yet it is these managers own personal lists of failed program which is easily the most spectacular in the whole industry. Pot, meet Kettle.

The entire lot of them need to be cut, trimmed, excised, removed and booted out. They really need to be made an example of, if at all possible.

Like DoD a few years ago, there needs to be a thorough "night of the long knives" clean-out within the top echelons of NASA management. The highly talented troops who have been stifled for so long below those fools need to be set free.

If we fail to do this grim but necessary task and re-organize the whole agency, we will only keep going round and round in these stupid circles of in-fighting. And as a nation, we will never get anywhere. And it will serve us right for not fixing it properly when we have this golden opportunity.

Anonymous said...

I believe you missed the control path of ESMD personnel(AA and below) directly to Level 3 Subsystem Manager.

Anonymous said...

X-33 was killed by fundamental physics and the brutality of the rocket equation. The mystery is how on earth it was sold in the first place- how did it get though the gates of sanity checking. 15 minutes with anyone who has actually worked on a rocket would have called the bluff.

ARES will die because of the same physics though because of more subtle reasons. It is essentially a bad design. It has crummy performance, outlandish costs, horrible physical design and is competing with systems that don't have these problems and actually exist. The folks that proposed it were not evil- just newbies at that business. It was their first try and those are usually bad things. They made it worse by insisting that it and themselves were the best things since sliced bread. Then they used unethical behavior motivated by simple greed and hubris to try and make it stick. A sickening process and one that will certainly reward the innocent with punishment.