The One Thing That Almost Messed Up the First Moon Landing 50 Years Ago

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This past Saturday was, of course, the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. It still puzzles me why mankind hasn't been back on the moon in my lifetime — see an article about that.

The first trip to the moon was an exercise in science, planning, practice, and contingency plans — like the speech that President Nixon thankfully didn't have to deliver.

I'm sure all of the trips had that same discipline. I would guess they didn't say, “Well we did it once, so let's relax and let our guard down” the next times.

No matter how many times we've done something — as important as surgery or as silly as a podcast or a webinar — checklists can help us prevent the human error that we're all prone too.

So, this article caught my eye the other day:

NASA almost forgot to take a flag to the Moon

NASA almost went to the Moon without packing an American flag.

In fact, at the moment the space agency decided it wanted to take a flag, it was so close to the launch of the first Moon landing, there was a scramble to figure out what kind of flag, how to get it to fly on the airless Moon, and even where to carry it on the spacecraft.

The headline is a bit misleading.

It's not like they “almost forgot” (as if it was on a checklist and somebody didn't follow it). They thought up the idea of taking a flag too late for it to be included in mission checklists.

It's more like they “didn't think of it until the last minute,” which is different.

Following the wrong checklist (or double-checking insufficient standardized work) might not be enough to get any job done properly.

The moon landing also goes to show how difficult it can be to develop standardized work for something you haven't done before. You can work to develop a process in a test environment. You can practice. You can try to anticipate what could go wrong. But, we can't always anticipate everything.

Case in point:

“It took both of us to set it up and it was nearly a disaster,” Aldrin said. “To our dismay the staff of the pole wouldn't go far enough into the lunar surface to support itself in an upright position.”

They planned, they did… and they had to quickly adjust based on their study of the real situation. They couldn't have anticipated this, right?

Well, it seems the astronauts didn't follow the procedure they were given:

“The reason Armstrong and Aldrin had so much trouble with the flag was that they ignored Kinzler's instructions and training.” 

You can read more of the detail about that in the Fast Company story.

This story is compelling to me because it shows we're all human — even our heroes and greatest explorers and scientists. We sometimes don't think of things… we sometimes decide to do things our own way… which is fascinating to me.

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

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