On this date in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of all seven members of the crew. After an investigation, it was found that the disaster was caused by a faulty O-ring that allowed a gap through which combustion gases could leak and produce a deadly flame path.
The failure of the O-rings was attributed to a faulty design, whose performance could be too easily compromised by factors including the low temperature on the day of launch. It was also determined that NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making process played an even greater part of the disaster. NASA staff members revealed that they knew the O-rings had failed in the past and that they weren’t suitable for use at temperatures below 40 degrees yet still decided to launch on a 28 degree morning. These employees expressed their feelings that management was not interested in any outlying opinions or viewpoints about the safety of the launch. More disturbing than the catastrophic effect of such a seemingly simple part failure was the failure of NASA to overcome their “go fever”.
The term “go fever” is used in the space industry to describe a push to finish a project, sometimes at the cost of safety. Go fever, a form of groupthink, refers to the overall attitude of being in a rush or hurry to get a project or task done while overlooking potential problems or mistakes. It is due to the tendency of individuals to be overly committed to a previously chosen course of action based on time and resources already expended despite the possibility of reduced benefits or considerable risks. It can also be due to the desire of members of a team not to be seen as the one who is not committed to the team’s goals or to be the one interfering with the team’s progress or success.
In a groupthink environment, rationalization, peer pressure and complacency lead to an illusion of invulnerability and unanimity. NASA management became accustomed to these phenomena when no serious consequences resulted from earlier episodes of O-ring failures. They thought they were invincible because as a team they rationalized that the risk from the faulty parts was acceptable to ignore.
The negative results of groupthink behavior can affect companies of all sizes and all industries.
Some ways to avoid groupthink in manufacturing environments include:
Diversify Your Team. Make an effort to form a team of diverse personalities and strengths and avoid putting “yes people” in decision making positions.
Avoid Being Too Directive. If you are a leader or project manager, avoid stating preferences and expectations at the outset of a decision making process.
Checks & Balances. Create subgroups or departments to manage different parts of a process and play devil’s advocate.
Encourage Healthy Conflict. Create an environment where ideas can be challenged without reprisal.
Brainstorm Regularly. Brainstorming is a non-threatening way for ideas to flow freely without criticism
Analyze Risks. Examine risks of preferred and alternative options and make sure the team understands the risks before coming to a final decision.
As manufacturers, the Challenger disaster can be used as a case study to examine groupthink culture in our industry. The manufacturing industry makes parts and products that could very well mean life and death. Making an effort to improve your organizational decision making process ensures that you will get the most out of your diverse team of employees and that your customers best interests are being served.