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Murphy Rules, Ok! …

by Tom O'Connor on June 4th, 2013
Aeronautical Engineer, Capt. Ed Murphy - to whom Murphy's Law refers

Aeronautical Engineer, Capt. Ed Murphy - to whom Murphy's Law refers

George’s Santayana’s oft-quoted words seem to haunt the world of decision-making:

“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

President Kennedy certainly understood.

Hence, during the Cuban Missile crisis, he gave each member of his cabinet a copy of The Guns of August,  Barbara Tuchman’s historical account of World War 1– to ensure they wouldn’t repeat the mistakes that conspire to make war inevitable.

Unfortunately, the same level of awareness isn’t always present in organisations.

NASA’s Challenger & Columbia tragedies testify to this – with the follow-up investigations highlighting some common & recurring flaws to which probably every organisation is prone.

Principal among these is the phenomenon of normalization of deviance identified by Diane Vaughan.

In lay person’s language, this is what we might term the slippery slope syndrome – where individuals in an organisational setting can become incrementally more comfortable with ever descending slips in standards, to a degree that they lose sight of what to an outsider would appear basic elementary boundaries.

Thus, the problems with the O-rings on the Challenger’s solid rocket booster were well-known to engineering  staff, for up to 9 years before that fateful day of January 28, 1986.

These engineers initially raised it as a serious hazard, but with each space flight appearing to be getting away with it, in the intervening time, they gradually became comfortable with the notion that it was an acceptable flight risk – though the fundamental issue had never been addressed.

Similarly, the issues of the thermal insulation foam, releasing slabs of debris during the Columbia take-off, had been observed on 4 previous flights.

Though initial observations had met with strong concerns, the experience of having got away with it in these other flights, led the NASA engineers to gradually become more comfortable with it – to the point of euphemistically describing it as merely “foam shedding”.

Neither group had counted on Murphy’s Law ultimately rearing it head.

This, the most fundamental of risk management laws, simply states that:

“anything that can go wrong, will go wrong – eventually.”

And, for NASA, how ironic to think that said law actually takes its name from one Captain Ed Murphy, a development engineer, at Edwards Air Force Base –  the major nursery for so many of NASA’s early astronauts.

PS. For related decision-making tips, please click on the following links:
1. Decision-making: types, tips & traps
2. Choosing between a rock & a hard place
3. Problem-solving: forensic style
4. Prejudice, emotion & bias
5. White Smoke Meetings
6. Decision-Making: New iPhone Apps

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