The Ugly Truth
Being a successful engineer requires excellent communication skills. Engineering is often considered one of the smartest professions however engineering is more than just crunching numbers. Engineers work on projects that subject human lives to risk and it is part of the job description to make sure the risk is minimized. In reading, “Communication Failures Contributing to the Challenger Accident: An Example for Technical Communicators” I learned that communication is often the cause of engineering mishaps.
A sad fact of life is that blame is often passed around while the real problem fails to be addressed. It is hard for an individual or a company to take responsibility for a lack of knowledge because it reflects badly and hurts their credibility. In the case of the Challenger disaster Morton Thiokol International (MTI) the engineering firm in charge of building the rocket boosters was unwilling to communicate the extent of their engineering failures to their superiors downplaying the danger involved. MTI had reported that there were problems concerning the O-rings however they downplayed the importance to their superior Marshall Space Center. Thus the seriousness was lost in the shuffle, “Some people at Marshall were willing to say that there was a serious problem—as long as any failure was perceived as MTI’s” (Winsor 103). The author is commenting that serious flaws existed in the flow of information from the lowest level (MTI) to the highest level (NASA). Marshall was willing to share the failure to NASA only as long as the fault was placed on MTI. I agree with the author that when lives are at stake everyone needs to take responsibility for their work and face the problems head on. MTI may have maintained their reputation in the short run, but in the end they lost all credibility by causing a loss of human life and humiliation to their superiors and all of America. The flow of information up the project ladder resembled a game of telephone and the message received by NASA was that the problem would be taken care of swiftly and was of little importance. This proved not to be the case and a lack of communication would cause an explosion that shook the whole country.
In reading this article I was taken aback by the suggestion that a certain risk was “acceptable”. The risk being referred to was human life. MTI had found there to be problems caused by the effect of cold weather on the O-rings ability to provide a sufficient seal. “MTI personnel mentioned the cold as a factor in the damage but labeled the risk “acceptable” mostly because they assumed the secondary ring would seal if the first one failed” (Winsor 103). Reading that a known risk was acceptable made me cringe. To know that on a project of such magnitude shortcuts were being taken and details ignored made me fear for projects of less magnitude. This engineering firm is being trusted by NASA and they overlook safety, what would the firm do if it was only normal civilian lives at risk? Winsor restates the severity of MTI’s words, “Only a single reference was made to O-ring erosion, saying redundancy made the risk acceptable” (Winsor 103). Winsor is emphasizing her belief that MTI was ignorant in downplaying their ineptitude. I agree with the author that MTI committed a crime in the field of engineering and this unfortunate event should be used as a teaching tool for engineering students. Every engineer is liable for their work and must take responsibility for failures. Lying and down playing only lead to disaster and can easily be avoided through proper communication with superiors and being forthright with information.
Winsor’s article on communication failure made me reevaluate the importance of language. Bosses don’t like to hear bad news and are unwilling to halt progress and report a failure to their superior if a problems severity is not made plain and clear. I learned that being a professional is about accepting the blame and turning focus to fixing the problem rather than tossing the blame at others. I was also shocked at how a slight detail like the seal of an O-ring can destroy a huge space shuttle and take lives. Winsor’s article serves as a good wakeup call to all workers out there no matter what their profession. Communication is a part of daily life as well as bad news. It is important to be sensitive and calculated in how bad news is delivered so that the right action can be taken.
If I had to sum up my reaction to this article in one word that word would be appalled. I was appalled that professionals would play the blame game like kindergarteners and wind up with a stream of communication that resembled a game of telephone. I was appalled that after all the tests and findings that MTI had done that showed repeated failure of O-rings the risk was considered acceptable. The importance of communication in engineering is brought to the forefront in this article and it serves as a wakeup call to all Engineers.