The article, Lessons in Organizational Ethics from the Columbia Disaster: Can Culture be Lethal? Mason (2004) illustrates the shocking effects of culture by analysing the lessons learnt from NASA’s Columbia disaster. Specifically, it scrutinizes the accident investigation board report which looked at the cause of space shuttle, Columbia which blew apart on its way to its landing site in Florida.
The investigation board reported that NASA’s current culture was to blame for the tragedy because it subdued dissenting views and bred complacency over persistent risks. They placed emphasis on the Space Shuttle Program’s history and culture. The identifiable causes of the disaster were believed to be both physical and organizational. The portion of foam that dislodged from the craft’s “bipod ramp” and struck a heat shield tile in the left wing was determined to be the physical cause of the accident. However, this was a result of a systemic, historical and organizational issues that if averted earlier, the accident wouldn’t have happened.
On the organizational causes, the article begins by observing the history and culture as distant, but effective cause. The board concluded that specific social conditions that served as contributing root causes of the accident needed to be looked at. These could be categorized as distant, intermediate and proximate. Several types of distant and intermediate causes included decisions made by or affecting NASA during its forty-plus-year history, including the founding of NASA, the early decisions the agency made, decisions made by congress that provided expectations and budgetary limitations, the people NASA recruited, its early success and the way of working it developed from the beginning, all of which shaped NASA’s culture. Consequently, the article looked at numerous aspects.
The report looked at NASA’s initial culture which was a culture rooted in technical and management culture and was a culture of excellence. However, over time, NASA transitioned toward a “culture of production” which tended to stress efficiency over safety and effective reproducibility over creative problem solving.
Secondly, the idea that culture is based on deeply held assumptions. A culture once formed is tenacious and difficult to change as it serves a deep psychological function of reducing human anxiety providing members with identity. NASA officials initially rejected the foam strike as the proximate cause of the accident and held to that belief even in the face of evidence.
Thirdly, culture expresses its underlying ethics. It appears that by stressing cost cutting and meeting delivery dates so stringently, NASA’s leaders, perhaps inadvertently, encouraged less than forthright behavior on the part of some members of the organization.
Another aspect presented is that a culture and its members are not necessarily the same. NASA’s employees would have never condoned sending a craft into space with known flaws that compromised any astronaut’s safety. They were distraught to learn that they had been party to it. One reason is that the agency’s culture had become infested with hubris.
Lastly, hubris and a flawed culture at NASA was a determinant to the accident. Hubris refers to an exaggerated pride or self-confidence that runs into arrogance. NASA seemed to be suffering from it given their past success that made them complacent.
In conclusion, the article presents ideas for creating a culture that overcomes hubris and carelessness such as the HRO model based on the concept of mindfulness. Organizations are constantly aware of the possibility of failure, appreciate the complexity of the world they face, concentrate on day-to-day operations and the little things, respond quickly to incipient problems, and accord deep respect to the expertise of their members.
Association between article content and textbook chapter
The textbook chapter talks about organizational culture, while the article examined how culture can cause devastating effects to an organization, and that successful cultures become susceptible to hubris and carelessness. It looked at the case for NASA’s tragedy of the Space Shuttle, Columbia, which exploded, killing all the astronaut’s.
Organizational culture refers to a system of shared meaning held by members that distinguishes the organization from other organizations. The article examined how several aspects of NASA’s culture and history was one of the root causes that contributed to the Columbia disaster. Particularly, how the evolution and previous successes of NASA, created a sense of hubris, that led to carelessness and complacency which resulted into the tragic accident. While the textbook chapter demonstrated how ethical culture can be created, the article looked at how to create a culture that overcomes hubris and carelessness, specifically illustrating the High-reliability organizations (HRO) model can be used for NASA to rebuild its culture.
Identification and application of important lesson from the article
The single most important lesson I have learnt from the article is how culture can be a negative aspect of the organization, and in effect its employees. The idea of complacency, particularly the notion that, “the way things are done around here,” directs employees thinking and behavior.
At my work place, we do have an ingrained culture that builds complacency. Last week, I was overlooked for a promotion, as I was considered an insider, who cannot initiate change. Learning from this article, I plan to “re-set” myself by preoccupying myself with failure, apportioning self-confidence with humility. Secondly, what made me successful yesterday won’t necessarily do today, hence seek alternatives whenever necessary.
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