What small businesses can learn from the space shuttle program

Paying attention to small mistakes can help prevent larger ones, notes a new management study.

Chris O'Meara/Reuters/File
Space Shuttle Atlantis touches down to end Mission STS-132 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida May 26.

A disastrous NASA space shuttle mission, compared with a successful mission, has yielded advice for how any organization, including small businesses, can learn from mistakes.

Researchers studied NASA’s response to a October 2002 Atlantis flight in which a piece of insulation broke off and damaged the left solid rocket booster but did not impede the mission or the program. According to the researchers, there was little follow-up or investigation in response to the Atlantis incident.

The shuttle Columbia was launched next and another piece of insulation broke off and damaged the shuttle's left wing. This time the shuttle and its seven-person crew were destroyed on re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. This disaster prompted the suspension of shuttle flights and led to a major investigation resulting in 29 recommended changes to prevent future calamities.

The difference in response to the two cases, the researchers said, came down to this: The Atlantis was considered a success and the Columbia a failure.

The research focused on companies and organizations that launch satellites, rockets and shuttles into space — an arena where failures are high profile and hard to conceal. But it has implications for even the smallest businesses, said Vinit Desai of the University of Colorado Denver who worked with Brigham Young University’s Peter Madsen on the project.

IN PICTURES: The space shuttle

“Small organizations should work to actively identify and seek to learn from small mistakes,” Desai told BusinessNewsDaily. “Small mistakes are sometimes more frequent than larger ones, but since they are often less costly, they can be easy to dismiss."

Desai contends that paying attention to small mistakes will help prevent larger ones.

“Larger or more devastating failures can often be prevented by paying attention to small mistakes and fixing the underlying problems. It’s even more important for small and growing businesses to detect and correct errors, since large problems can often be catastrophic and directly threaten the organizations’ viability,” Desai said.

The pair’s work was published in the Academy of Management Journal.

Desai said that small businesses, which can be more nimble in reacting to failures, can buck the trend of organizations ignoring failure or try not to focus on it.

Managers may fire people or turn over the entire workforce while they should be treating the failure as a learning opportunity, Desai said. Employers should be sure to include employees who are responsible for mistakes in the learning process, he added.

“It is essential for employees who cause or are involved in failures to be involved in recovery efforts. The insights they bring to the table can be invaluable at preventing future errors, since they have firsthand knowledge of what went wrong. It often is not any one single employee who is responsible, but rather a chain of events involving how various people and technologies interacted,” Desai said. “In these cases, it is particularly important to involve employees, since each person can bring his or her own specific perspective to bear on learning efforts.”

IN PICTURES: The space shuttle

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.