By Ben Wilhelm, President, Carolinas Region
Gene Kranz, best known as flight director of the beleaguered Apollo 13 mission, was brutally honest, competent and introspective in his leadership at NASA.
Space flight and construction share many common themes: heavy on engineering, process driven, unpredictable and reliant on many people to succeed. NASA works tirelessly to plan its work, test its outcomes, and solve problems as they arise, knowing that it will get exceedingly harder to fix an issue if not resolved quickly and correctly. How do we apply this same philosophy to our industry?
Someone recently made the comment to me that construction is one of the few manufacturing processes completed outdoors; therefore, it is prone to adversity and unwelcomed change. NASA is tasked with similar circumstances, but the risk is far greater when a given mission catapults sane women and men to the abyss of space and somehow, heroically, navigates a spacecraft back to the gravity of earth. Truly amazing.
NASA does three things very well when tasked with a problem: assign competent people, diagnose the issue, and communicate effectively. It is very simple.
We want competent physicians to operate on us and we want great teachers for our kids, so it makes sense to have skilled craftspeople and competent project teams to meet our expectations on the jobsite. Competent people have the agility, expertise and emotional toolbox to solve problems on a given project and they are invaluable when you recruit, train and support them.
In construction, no two buildings are alike, so we have to have good processes to diagnose an issue. Problems left unaddressed on a construction project can be an insidious derailer of progress, which costs money, time and added tension for everyone. It is imperative to diagnose problems early, implement a fix, and course correct to maintain momentum. Be accountable.
Construction teams face communication barriers such as varied languages, inadequate technology, and cagey characters who may be competent, but not tactful. This is a huge opportunity and challenge on any project, so it takes deliberate effort to promote disciplined communication. It is great to have competent problem-solvers, but it requires rigorous commitment to make sure all relevant information, essential schedules, responsive answers, and feedback is shared with everyone on the team. NASA has a history of doing a pretty good job of making this their standard modus operandi. We can learn more to do better.
In the 2015 release of The Martian, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) returned to earth after a harrowing mission from Mars where he was stranded for more than a year. His sage wisdom to aspiring astronauts was, “You solve one problem…and you solve the next one…and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” Excellent advice.