Spacing Out on Quality

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Did I mention I met an astronaut?  Okay, so by “Met”, I mean I was in the same room as one that gave a talk.  Spun from one of my favorite Laura Sherman-isms, I could literally say his attention was fully on me – because when he turned my way he was looking right at me.  That and he talked about me … and by ‘about me’ I mean he basically described why I was hired to move to Alaska and why I left … and by that, I more mean he described the situation that I just happened to be a part of … and by that I mean, he mentioned it … and  by that, I mean he was talking about me.

Today, I make the long trip back home after a week of conferences in Cape Canaveral.  I attended two in the same hotel / room (not actually at the space center, but come to find out where the Apollo astronauts stayed when they were in town … which explains the ’60s decor of the room).  Both conferences focused on quality in the Space industry – the first put on by our main industry group the American Society on Quality called the Collaboration on Quality in the Space & Defense Industry (giving you the mouthful acronym of ASQ-CQSDI).  The second, a NASA center Quality Leadership Forum (following the more responsible TLA approach of QLF).  Both pulled in industry leaders and key subject matters to discuss current topics & cultures in Quality – in a battle for everyone to stay awake through four days of industry leaders and key subject matters discussing most of the same current topics and cultures in Quality.  I joke, but it was actually really good.

After 16 months in this industry, I am still trying to put my finger on it.   Every job I have had in quality had shown me that Quality means something routinely different from industry to industry.  You would think my time as a quality person in the “Aero” side of “Aerospace”, would translate easily to the “Space” side of the same word … but it’s quite a shift.  Quantities is the most glaring one.  For example, while never to be confused with the quantities of parts needed to build hundreds of thousands of cars a year – we could still consider that any part a supplier would make would need to have a few dozen similar friends to fill the 40 aircraft built on a design in a year.  So, in comparison, how you deal with 100,000 parts for automotive is different than the 40 for air frames.  At JPL … we’re building one rover.  For a field that relies on data, a single data point to make decisions is difficult.  The gut feel for that is to make sure everything about that one part is perfect, to make sure every risk is mitigated, to make sure no chances are taken.

Yet where Space also sets itself apart is that it is defined by the risks it takes.  This whole week, the message was “if there is a major threat, a danger, a chance someone may not come back … you must stop the process” … shortly followed by “if there is a risk that exists, and you can accept the outcome; it’s okay to take it.”  It’s sort of like – the best decisions are made when you have all the information in front of you; but the worst decision is the one that is never made.  Apollo 13 for example was a great feat of problem solving to save the lives of astronauts; but some of the biggest risks and biggest moments in the rescue happened because the people on the ground not only knew the capabilities of the crew capsule and had calculated those events years before the failure happened.

After four days of discussions like that, I come back a little more informed and a little more motivated.  I’m a little more networked, a little more ready to do my job, and a little more disillusioned by winters in Florida.  I’m a little more aware of why we do what we do; little more aware of how I fit in the greater machine of space flight, and a little more excited about what else I can learn from this experience.

And I met an astronaut.

So what did the rest of you do this week?

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