The Way We’ve Always Done It: Astronaut Edition

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I've been to the Kennedy Space Center three times, I think… in 1980, 1985, and now in 2020 as an adult.

Here's a photo of me in 1980, standing in front of the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building that's still being used today. Also below is a photo I took from a tour bus — I wasn't able to recreate the exact photo, sadly:

There's so much that's fascinating about a visit to the Kennedy Space Center. Some of the lessons are very somber — from the Challenger and Columbia disasters, both of which were arguably avoidable if managers had listened to engineers.

But, one humorous example was from a display about pre-launch traditions.

Many organizations essentially have traditions — “the way we've always done it.” Through that force of habit, practices are often kept around even though nobody really remembers why. Our practice of Lean is often built upon challenging “the way we've always done it” in the process of finding better ways to do things.

We can work to do things better… or sometimes we need to stop doing things that no longer have a purpose (or no longer add value to the customer).

One example from the KSC, with the text to follow:

“Call them traditions, rituals, or superstitions, but there are some things astronauts feel they MUST do on launch day. Breakfast, for instance, is always steak and eggs, a tradition that started on the first American manned space flight.

Before boarding the Astrovan, the astronauts played a simple game of cards. The crew could not leave for the launch pad until the crew's commander lost.”

The punch line to the story:

“We play that card game every time. I have no idea why. I don't know anyone who does know why.”

— Astronaut Winston Scott

How funny. Now, this is a harmless tradition — well, maybe harmless unless it delayed a launch. It doesn't say what card game it is, but maybe it's possible for the commander to throw the game and lose on purpose.

Actually, here is a 1998 Chicago Tribune article about the game.

The same astronaut is quoted there:

“Said NASA astronaut Winston Scott, who grew up in South Florida: “We do it mostly for fun, but you can bet we do it all. And every single time.”

The article talks about the steak-and-eggs breakfast and another tradition that has lost its meaning:

“The Mission Cake: For an unknown reason, every crew is presented with a fully iced sheet cake during the prelaunch breakfast. The cake is decorated with the crew's self-designed mission patch. But it never, ever is eaten…

“Of course we don't eat the cake,” Scott said, as though that would be self-evident. “I assume it's there for ceremonial purposes. I guess the original person who first got a cake didn't eat it and now we can't either.

About the card game:

“Each crew member gets five cards; the person with the lowest card total loses. They cannot leave for the launch pad until the crew's commander loses. In this case, that would be Curt Brown.”

It seems like a game that you can't intentionally lose. Winston Scott says the same thing that's quoted on the NASA display.

What's the last time you've discovered something similar in your organization??

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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.

2 Comments
  1. Andrew Wagner says

    The Russian space program goes one better: Yuri Gargarin urinated in the right rear tire of the van that took him to the launchpad… and so every human launches by the Russian space program has done so as well.

    This has proven slightly more challenging for female cosmonauts/astronauts, but the tradition must be observed!

    I wonder, in an endeavor so dominated by rigid scientific/engineering thinking if this layer of superstition does not serve a vital purpose of reminding us to be humble about what we know and don’t know—and aren’t able to know— about the world.

    1. Mark Graban says

      Wow, I didn’t know that. Thanks for the story…

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