It's a Project Manager's World Newsletter with Dr. James Brown
      October, 2013 Full Moon Edition      


What Some Think is More is Really Less

Early in my NASA career I served as a design center liaison, representing Johnson Space Center at Kennedy Space Center.  After the Challenger tragedy a design center representative was required to sign all Space Shuttle problem reports and other Space Shuttle processing documentation.   In this liaison role I was responsible for signing Space Shuttle problem reports for closure.   This was a great opportunity that allowed me to learn about every Space Shuttle system. 

What this taught me about accountability was even more important.

After the tragedy, often seven or more signatures would be required on a document.  An obvious effect of this was to slow the process down.  Each of the signing organizations had a role and a role they felt was justified.  As time passed and processes matured, some of these signatures were eliminated including the design center role on problem reports.

I thought it was good decision because less signatures meant more accountability and higher quality (my opinion, not everyone's).  What I learned over the time period of signing documents was that  sometimes bad things would happen when a lot of people signed off.  A lot of good people would sign something and sometimes it would turn out that what they signed wasn't right.  How could so many good people miss it?

The problem is in a lot of cases when you have seven people sign something, seven people with accountability, an individual will feel they don't have to look at it in detail because six other people are going to look at it or have looked at it.  People are also less likely to exercise due diligence when they have worked together for awhile.  Because you may personally know two people that already signed the document and know they do good work, you feel you don't have to look at it in detail.  All of this is amplified with schedule pressure, when everyone is trying to save time and the result may be a cursory review.

Embarrassing and costly problems are often a result of too many signatures.  One of the most egregious in the Shuttle program history was when a large, work platform was left inside an Orbiter, and multiple people signed that it was out and it wasn't. It was discovered still in the vehicle when the crane lifted the Orbiter from a horizontal position to a vertical position for stacking and they heard "crash, bang, boom."

Do more signatures equate to higher quality?

I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell and currently reading his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.  One of the essays in this book talks about the Inverted U curve.  Gladwell asserts that some things follow a Inverted  U curve pattern and he cites school class room size as one example.  The prevailing notion is smaller classes equates to a higher academic achievement, and he essentially shows that smaller classes can actually increase quality to a point but there is a number where that quality decreases if class size continues to shrink.  The Inverted U Curve - David and Goliath - Malcom Gladwell

So when class size is reduced to a certain point, academic achievement actually decreases!

I believe that the number of reviews or signatures in a process follows this Inverted U curve.  Two reviewers may certainly better than one.  Three may be better than two.  But is four really better than three?  Is seven reviewers better that two?  At some point when you increase the number of reviewers, people don't feel as accountable.  If they know there are six other reviewers they won't review it in the same manner as if they were the only one accountable or knew they were one of two accountable.

Leadership success is always about striking a balance.  It can seem like an easy, low cost solution to always add another review or another verification.  This may be warranted.  But you should always look and assess what is this additional review doing to accountability?  Lets not forget the words of quality guru W. Edwards Deming, "Hold Everyone accountable? Ridiculous."

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