It Isn’t Rocket Science: NASA Shares Supply Chain Management Lessons

NASA launch
Photo: NASA

With international value chains becoming more sprawling and complex, the idea of risk management in such behemoth structures may cause compliance practitioners to break out in a cold sweat. That’s especially true when corporate corruption scandals make headlines across the world, denting stock prices and ruining hard-won reputations.  It is hard to think of an organization whose failures are more public than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The age-old fascination of space fuels big-budget Hollywood films such as The Martian and the new Star Wars movie. New global economic powers like China and India are launching ever more ambitious space programs.

As the world’s largest space agency, NASA is watched with fascination, as a pioneer and, for Americans at least, a source of national pride. Given that its missions often push the boundaries of what is possible, its operations also entail a high risk of failure. Despite this high level of public scrutiny — or rather, because of it — NASA cultivates a culture of transparency and openness among the entire organization, particularly among its leadership. It is only through maximum transparency and information sharing that potentially fatal flaws can be quickly uncovered and remedied before they become mission critical. Furthermore, 100 percent of NASA’s space missions and 80 percent of all science missions involve international collaboration; thus, NASA’s value chains are truly international.

At a recent talk hosted by the World Bank Group, Dr. Edward Hoffman, NASA’s Chief Knowledge Officer, spoke about how NASA addresses supply chain management challenges in the constant pursuit of excellence. Among these thoughts were some key lessons for the anti-corruption compliance world:

  • Cultivate Transparency – “We’ve found that the less transparent you are, the quicker people find out about it,” Hoffman said. In other words, nothing is hidden for long, especially errors. Information sharing is vital to ensuring that the same errors do not impact future missions.  It is difficult to know what information might be mission-critical in the future. Modeling reflective leadership and cultivating a community where failures are shared and examined is a major component of NASA striving for excellence, as evidenced by crises that have been avoided through information sharing among the international space exploration community.
  • “Respect Local Customs and Enhance Organizational Norms” – NASA employs a federated approach for knowledge management relying heavily on local insights while still emphasizing particular attributes such as transparency across the organization. An important component of this approach is making sure that information is communicated effectively across the organization. This includes facilitating communication across process functions or departments, ensuring information is readily accessible, collecting lessons learned, and measuring and validating improvements.  It is also helpful to have a facilitator overseeing knowledge sharing.
  • Apply Certification Procedures NASA relies on objective and validated standards to benchmark achievement through defined performance and capability measures. This ensures that constant improvements are being made through lessons learned.
  • Instituting Governance, Business Management, and Operations Oversight Internal governance mechanisms to ensure that programs are aligned with NASA goals are essential to confirm that programs are moving in the correct directions. Approvals from oversight bodies that are not overly burdensome are key to managing programs. Senior leadership needs to support projects to ensure they are in the best interest of the organization.

These lessons learned are critical to supply chains that operate outside of NASA as well, particularly when implementing a compliance program. Modeling reflective leadership, cultivating transparency, utilizing the federated model, applying certification procedures, and instituting governance, business management, and operations oversight all support the effective implementation on compliance measures.

Such an approach sends a signal across the organization that learning from mistakes and measuring improvements is an essential part of the pursuit of excellence. It underscores that reducing risk by promoting and maintaining a culture of business integrity is a highly organic process, one built as much on mistakes as success.

Laura Van Voorhees is a Program Officer for Global Programs at CIPE.