Managing Knowledge and Learning at Nasa and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory


National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established by Congress on October 1, 1958, in order for the United States to keep up with the technological advancements achieved from former Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik (1957). The Apollo Era-Mission had risen from the support of John F. Kennedy’s goal, which was “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

Prioritization at NASA evolved into the center’s motto of “Faster, Better, Cheaper” (FBC), which was mandated in the Goldin Era beginning in 1992. NASA shifted priorities from: 1) performance, 2) schedule and 3) cost to 1) increase mission performance, 2) cut cost and 3) work force reduction. However, this reform was not as successful as planned. From 1992 and 2000, six of 16 FBC missions failed. To address concern of the impact of failed missions and impending retirements of many of the most experienced NASA employees, Congress enforced that the agency search for the solution to Knowledge Management (KM) and promoting learning initiatives at NASA-JPL. NASA’s KM tools were mainly IT systems of Internet-based databases and portals for ease of lessons. The NASA KM crisis was attributed to the organization’s inability to document experiences of failures and successes of missions or projects; ultimately incapable of capturing the “experiential knowledge” from expert engineers and scientists. In addition, this lack in KM was due to “privatizing knowledge” and promoting creativity, that stemmed from NASA’s culture where competition among centers for projects and funding was the norm. Several KM Initiatives were developed including project libraries for document and data management, developing standards, establishing databases to find experts, ask technical questions, and to capture history and legacy reviews. 1) What were the pros and cons of the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” model? How might outcomes (both positive and negative) of projects executed with this model impact NASA’s stakeholders, i.e. Congress and the general public?

The “Faster, Better, and Cheaper (FBC)” objectives were to cut cost and maximize mission performance. There were several advantages of the FBC reform. FBC allowed compressed development and launch schedules that lead to an increase in the number of missions. Mission time could be reduced from decades to a few years. The number of NASA projects increased from four to 40 under the FBC model. An increase in mission projects was thought to lead to additional discoveries so that NASA could gain further wisdom and space knowledge. FBC missions were changed from one big project to multiple smaller projects. Dividing the program into smaller projects helped to minimize the pressure and stress on the team if a mission failed. Furthermore, one mission failure did not consequently lead to the failure of the entire program. FBC practice allowed senior managers more freedom to implement FBC the way they found fit which promoted creativity and autonomy among senior managers. FBC also reduced the cost of each mission and NASA’s overall budget. For example, the Mars program budget was reduced from one billion dollars to $260 million. There are numerous disadvantages of the FBC reform. Applying the FBC model could lead to more mission failures. During the FBC era, there were 6 failed missions out of 16 FBC missions. Cost and schedule constraints, insufficient risk assessment, planning, and testing, underestimation of complexity and technology maturity, inattention of quality and safety, inadequate review processes, engineering, under-trained staff, poor team communication, and design errors all attributed to NASA’s mission failures. Projects conducted “faster” does not allow for adequate documentation, time for redlining the project, and recording lessons learned from one mission to the next. This could result in...
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