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Challenger Case Study

In: Business and Management

Submitted By bhaskarkumar
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Q1. How would you characterize the broader context surrounding the January 1986 teleconference? What impact might that have on the group’s decision making process?

The Challenger Launch decision on January 28th 1986, proved to be one of the crucial decisions ever made as it lead to one of space science's most talked about disasters. The Challenger launch project was faced by a major financial constraint owing to the ongoing Vietnam War. Thiokol won the contract to build the SRBs since they asked for a lower emolument that their competitors and also provided an innovative modular design for the SRBs that would ease the transportation. There were many reasons NASA was pressured to launch, one being the need to launch the 51L space shutter without any delays so the launch pad could be restored in time for the next mission. Also, any delay in the mission would only result in negative publicity through the media. Under such pressurised circumstances, NASA and Thiokol could not look in the right direction and lacked consensus. So, communication breakdown was perhaps the major contributor in the decision making process here.
It is evident that Thiokol was not prepared for the Teleconference since it did not have all the necessary statistical inputs required to arrive at a conclusion. This lead to an internal communication failure within Thiokol. The primary factor for such a communication failure was the lack of structured data and no proper way of seeking the data. Apart from this there was NASA and Thiokol were not on the same side and there was a continuous argument between Roger Boisjoly (The Booster seal expert) and Larry Mulloy (NASA) and complicated the decision make process even more.
The discussion in the teleconference surrounded the grease and the O-rings that could not handle the low temperatures and that both the primary and secondary seals would not function properly. Roger Boisjoly advised that no launches should take place below 53°Fand debated for an hour that the cold weather would exaggerate the problems of joint rotation and could lead to a disaster. This puzzled NASA managers since the booster design specifications called for booster operation as low as 31°F. The majority of the group (groupthink) felt that they should go ahead with the mission. Finally, Roger Boisjoly and the team of engineers had to succumb to the group pressure. Thus, group pressure and lack of self confidence forced him to conform to the group rather than standing by his opinion which was a valid one. Another important failure during the meet was the lack of proper communication process in virtual organisations. There was a huge disparity between NASA and Thiokol and the confusion got further accelerated due to improper knowledge transfer owing to improper communication process.

Q2. How would you characterize group processes in the teleconference? What lead to ineffective handling of the situation?
Temperatures for the next launch date were predicted to be 29. This was a concern as the least temperature faced during any launch till date was 53 degree F. So engineers at Thiokol prepared a presentation on the effects of cold temperature on performance of O rings.
The group process in the teleconference can be characterized as follows: * Group Think: There was difference of opinion among the individuals of Morton Thiokol especially between Roger and all others. Even though he was allowed to express his opinion, he had to conform to the Morton Thiokol’s Management decision. This exhibits ‘Group think’ and the ‘Conformity’. Group think is defined as - a phenomenon in which the norm for consensus overrides the realistic appraisal of alternating courses of action.

* Role Conflict: Management at Thiokol had doubts about Roger's suggestions. It is evident from the conversation of July 1985 that Joe wanted him to overlook the O-Ring problems. Joe told Roger that there could be other major factors which could cause problems in the launch like cracks in the blades of the main engine, brakes etc.

Ineffective handling of the situation was due to:
Lack of leadership: The task force set up to solve the O-ring problem did not have any existent leadership.
Escalation of Commitment: The NASA and Morton Thiokol teams went ahead with their decision to launch Challenger even though they were aware of the consequences of the decision.
Inefficiency in structure and communication: The interaction within Thiokol was ineffective and the senior management was clearly more imposing and they paid less heed to the recommendation made by Roger.

Q3. What issues face Roger Boisjoly, Bob Lund and Larry Mulloy? How should they have approached the teleconference?

Roger Boisjoly
Roger Boisjoly, a Booster Seal expert, was seen as the most vocal opponent to the launch utilizing compromised O-rings. Boisjoly recognized the failure of both the primary and secondary seals within the joints of the solid rocket boosters from prior launches. Boisjoly also recognized the possibility for catastrophic failure if the situation was not immediately remedied.
Roger Boisjoly raised concerns time and time again only to find an attitude of indifference towards the problem at hand.
Temperatures for the next launch date were predicted to be in the low 20°s. The lowest temperature experienced by the O-rings in any previous mission was 53°F, the January 24, 1985 flight. Since he had no low temperature data below 53°F, he could not prove that it was unsafe to launch at lower temperatures.

Larry Mulloy, MSFC Solid Rocket Booster Manager
Larry Mulloy, who was the manager for the launch regarded the data as questionable and challenged the engineer’s findings. He was anxious to launch the Challenger for several reasons, including economic considerations, political pressures and scheduling backlogs. Unforeseen competition from the European Space Agency put NASA in a position where it would have to fly the shuttle dependably on a very ambitious schedule in order to prove the Space Transportation System's cost effectiveness and potential for commercialization. NASA wanted to launch the Challenger without any delays. Larry Mulloy, felt the data was inconclusive and challenged the engineers' logic. Mulloy bypassed Lund and since the data was inconclusive, they had to proceed with the launch.

Bob Lund
Roger Boisjoly and Bob Lund were the first ones to come up with the decision not to launch the Challenger. Mulloy actively tried to circumvent the original decision.
During this meeting Jerold Mason tried to persuade Bob Lund to re-evaluate his decision and was quoted as saying:
"Take off your engineering hat and put on your management cap."
Bob Lund, an experienced engineer turned executive, eventually re-evaluated his decision for the launch the next morning. He started having doubts over his leadership. Pressures and influences from various parties surrounding his leadership also contributed to the decision to launch.

Approach for teleconference
They approached the teleconference to take a management decision to show effective leadership skills not much concerned with the safety of the team. Organizational barriers prevented effective communication of information and held professional differences of opinion. Individuals with valuable experience were ignored and side-lined if they deviated from the desired objective. Data and statistics should have been given the top priority so that they might serve the greater good. Engineers should have been able to point out critical safety information to their managers. They should not be seen by their managers as troublemakers because it is their duty to show failures in the project. Managers should have taken engineers seriously without thinking that there is professional difference between them and engineers. Every level of the project should have communicated and share information with the entire team to prevent problems during or after the project. If there was a better communication between members of the project and if managers were more responsible about pointing out and solving problems in the project, launch could have been postponed to a later time or could be cancelled because safety is the most important thing in critical projects like this. Clearly, the decision to launch was a regrettable mistake that could have been avoided

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