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What engineers can learn from Nasa’s most successful failure

09 May 2024

Ahead of the ICE’s Inspiring Engineering Excellence conference, Emer Murnaghan writes about how tiger teams can help the industry to modernise.

What engineers can learn from Nasa’s most successful failure
In 1970, a tiger team brought Apollo 13’s astronauts back to Earth. Image credit: Shutterstock

We all want to increase productivity, reduce waste and become more profitable, impactful and sustainable.

If extinction is the alternative, who wouldn’t want to modernise this way?

Yet why are we still struggling to transform how we work?

Perhaps it’s because modernisation has no endpoint. Continuous improvement is just that – we’re always striving to go further.

Learning how to be comfortable with constant adaptation, and feel secure when nothing is fixed, is a key challenge that civil and infrastructure engineers will face.

How tiger teams can help

Perhaps this is rocket science, because we could learn a lot from Nasa here – specifically, its use of so-called tiger teams.

Tiger teams are groups of experts from across different disciplines that are convened to solve tough engineering problems or challenges.

These teams think outside the box to address often urgent issues and can be particularly useful in handling complex situations involving several stakeholders.

In 1970, a tiger team brought Apollo 13’s astronauts back to Earth alive after a near-catastrophic explosion on their spacecraft.

It’s unlikely that every member would've been sure of a successful outcome, but they all had to face the challenge head on, as the crew’s lives depended on it.

Back down to earth(works)

High Speed 2 (HS2), Expedition Engineering and the Infrastructure Industry Innovation Partnership (i3p) used the tiger team concept in 2021.

In that case, its members worked out how to boost productivity in earthworks by collaborating, challenging standard practice and promoting innovation.

More recently, at Graham, we’ve applied the approach, working closely with Expedition Engineering and expert partners in our supply chain.

I must admit that we weren’t totally convinced that this would work, but we took the risk.

Based on recent analysis of the value added, we’re feeling confident enough to roll this approach out quickly across the business.

We’re also excited at the prospect of working alongside the Get It Right Initiative and piloting its framework for error reduction.

This framework should look familiar to anyone who’s applied lean methodology (another borrowed concept, this time from the automotive industry).

The psychological conditions for change

However, the radical work starts before any new process is adopted. We must first establish the right behaviour in our organisation and its collaborative teams.

To understand this, we need to dive into the fascinating world of behavioural psychology.

Its so-called COM-B model for behavioural change suggests that we need the right capability (C), opportunity (O) and motivation (M) in place to spur the required behaviour (B).

I still have much to learn about this subject, but already I feel that COM-B is a missing link.

The members of Nasa’s Apollo 13 tiger team, for instance, had the right capability. Fate gave them the opportunity, and their motivation was to save the lives of their colleagues in space.

Inspiring innovation

I look forward to delving into such matters at the upcoming Inspiring Engineering Excellence event – and to discussing what we can all do to challenge established practice and drive innovation.

The challenges we face as civil and infrastructure engineers aren’t dissimilar – and we have little control over many of them.

The uncertainty that comes with an ever-changing climate is something we must adapt to, so that we can keep delivering infrastructure that serves others effectively.

Someone much cleverer than me once asked why anyone would do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results.

I’ll leave others to ask themselves this question while we at Graham get on with chasing tigers.

Inspiring Engineering Excellence 2024

Emer Murnaghan will be speaking with other industry experts at the ICE’s Inspiring Engineering Excellence 2024 conference taking place on 30 May at the ICE’s London HQ, One Great George Street.

She will share how the industry can change practices and drive excellence across infrastructure and the built environment.

The event is aimed at like-minded professionals seeking to hear how teams are creating real change though innovative approaches to productivity, decarbonisation and leadership.

Register to attend in person or online
  • Emer Murnaghan, innovation director at GRAHAM Civil Engineering