Friday, July 10, 2009

Rockets and Notebooks

As I mentioned over on my personal blog recently, I have been doing a lot of research into the history of the space program, and a few weekends ago took a trip to the New Mexico Space Museum. While I was there I got chatting to one of the museum volunteers who had worked in the astronauts’ office during the Apollo days. During the conversation he offered the observation that:
There were things they did back then that we can’t do today.

This reminded me of a conversation I’d had many years ago while visiting one of the NASA facilities where an engineer had told me that even though the Saturn V rockets on display at the Cape Kennedy launch site in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX (below) were fully functional, they could never be put back into service as no-one knows how to operate them. As the engineers from the Apollo projects dispersed or died off, and the focus shifted to Shuttle operations, the institutional knowledge needed to launch a Saturn V disappeared.

Recounting this story a few days ago prompted another memory. Several years ago, the consulting company I was working for was engaged to help identify just such a loss of institutional knowledge. During our time at the company we discovered that a tradition had developed among the people who worked on the assembly line to keep a small note-book in their overalls pocket. These notebooks were used to write down workaround steps, or take notations on how to improve the efficiency of the assembly process. Many of the notebooks had photocopies of pages from the company official assembly manuals pasted in with notations added. We also found out that the people with the longest service could assemble the product in about half the time the official process said it would take. The increase in efficiency was due to a combination of experience, and the tricks and short cuts they had written in those notebooks. The real problem came when the longest serving employees retired or moved on they took their notebooks with them. The institutional knowledge was lost. Each new person employed on the assembly process would start from zero with the official procedures and have to relearn all the tricks that their predecessor had developed.

Because the existence of the notebooks was never officially acknowledged, they were never included in any part of the company’s knowledge capture procedures. Our recommendation was to engage the people in the company who had the best skills for interviewing subject matter experts – the technical documentation group. From that point on a monthly review session was held where a technical writer would sit down with the assembly team and take notes on what the engineers had written down in their personal note books over the previous four weeks.

In fact in today’s economy where turnover of staff is high and a lot of valuable information is lost during layoffs etc., this is a great opportunity for a Technical Documentation team to showcase how their talents can be used and the real value they can bring to a company.

If someone who held a technical role is leaving the company, for whatever reason, don’t just conduct an exit interview with the HR department, but have them sit down with a technical communicator who is good at interviewing subject matter experts. Do a proper debrief and capture not only their notes, but the inherent knowledge and process tricks that are in their heads too.

Perhaps if NASA had done this, we might still be able to fly those Saturn Vs.