Thursday, July 2, 2015

“Mac’s Old Team” and New Awards: Details Matter

How do I know it’s summer in Indiana?  Usually, it’s when I’m a) checking the corn fields against the old “knee high by the Fourth of July” aphorism; b) checking the forecast for thunderstorms and/or temperatures over 90 degrees; c) driving to Jasper for the Grissom Scholarship Golf Tournament and Awards Banquet.  This year was no exception on any of these, although there was an important difference: on the day before the tournament, I was already in southern Indiana, attending a weeklong vacation for a subset of car geeks: the 60th Porsche Parade in French Lick and West Baden Springs

Barrett’s 1989 944S2 at West Baden Springs for Porsche Parade 2015

Great!  I already have my clubs! I’m only 25 miles away!  I’m driving my classic German-engineered toy!

What am I going to talk about?

Fortunately, I’m among friends at the Sultan’s Run golf course: people who laugh at my jokes, people who have seen my golf game improve (ahem!), and people who are eager and excited to hear about new projects and new updates in my work with NASA.  I’m also excited to reconnect with “new old friends,” some retired engineers from McDonnell Corporation who helped to design and build Project Mercury.  I admire these engineers (and their wives) for their commitment, honesty, passion, and their unique legacy.  I look at them, smile as they greet me and shake my hand, and an idea comes to mind. 

Tonight’s talk isn’t about big rockets, or shiny mission control centers, or stunning new pictures of far-away galaxies.  I love all of those things, but in the elements of my current research projects in healthcare information coordination, and weather information technology for general aviation, and teams conducting planetary analog research, there is a theme that could be easily missed.  Details matter. 

At the Porsche Parade, one of the Porsche engineers talked about the weeks and months of effort associated with the color of a special edition of their signature car.  How do we match the color to the iconic reference of Porsche in the USA?  What color is it?  How do we manage the logistics with our suppliers?  What do we call it?  All this for a shade of blue?  (Actually, it’s called Club Blau, danke.)  And we’re only making 60 cars?  (60th Porsche Parade, 60th year of the car club … you get it?)  Well, this is for a company that is taking pride in the cars that have driven from all over the US (including Alaska), and have a rich racing history, and celebrations of vehicles with over 500,000 miles on the odometer, or the same owner after 50 or 60 years.  The process of selecting Club Blau is part of an important signal: Details Matter when you want excellent, iconic, legendary engineering.

There are a few pharmacists in the audience, so I’m pleased to talk about our work with medication delivery safety.  If you’re in the world of getting the right dose of the right drug to the right patient at the right time (that’s four of the six “rights”), 99% isn’t even close to good enough.  In 2014, there were 4.2 Billion prescriptions filled in the US—90.15 million in Indiana alone.  If Indiana pharmacists were only 99% correct, there would still be over 901,000 people getting something wrong in their prescriptions.  To get this down to under 10 people, we’d need “seven nines” accuracy: systems of people, and technology, and information making an error less than one in ten million.  You don’t get there with casual integration or poor thinking or blame after the fact.  You get there with a relentless focus on details and systems integration and always thinking, “How can we make this better?” 

Astronaut Scott Kelly is on board the International Space Station for a year.  That’s a long time.  And yet, that’s not even a third of a planned mission to Mars.  How do we get astronauts to work together with robots, and science investigators, and mission control engineers, to do excellent science and keep everyone alive and not waste valuable time, expertise, or access to unique veins of knowledge on another planet, moon or asteroid?  My project work in Idaho, and now in Hawaii, looks at how to improve the quality and effectiveness of communication to ensure the right details get to where they need to be, and that knowledge and information are exchanged well, even with 20 minute communication delays.

I admit, all of that sounds a long way off for a 17 year old student who just graduated from high school.  That’s for old folks, not for me, right?   To paraphrase an often-seen reference, Objects in the future are closer than they appear.   Yes, the “Old Mac Team” engineers are senior and retired now, but how old were they when they were moving to Cape Canaveral, or flying to meet with a contractor with a stuck gyro on their lap?  They were in their mid- to late-20s, at most 10 years older than this year’s Grissom Scholarship winners.  Perhaps an even closer example was dedicated this past April, and exists right now on the Purdue campus.  With some prodding from me, the smartphones came out, and people began to view images of the VOSS model of the solar system near the corner of Martin Jischke Dr. and Nimitz Dr. on the West Lafayette campus. 

VOSS EPICS students prepare for dedication and open house, April 18, 2015

That’s an impressive and iconic landscape feature.  I fully expect that, in just a few years, it will be common to hear people say, “Let’s meet at the Sun.”  But what is most impressive and memorable about this effort is that it started as a student project, led by a young woman who took on a major leadership role in the VOSS project as a sophomore for an EPICS team in 2010.   Getting VOSS from an idea to a landscape icon and sculpture on campus is not a single task; it’s a long and complex series of lots of little tasks.  It’s not just which artist to pick for the design, or how big to make the sun.  It also involves how big the bolts need to be, and what pieces need to be in the planet plaza to represent a star chart for Janice Voss’ birth, or having the sculptures be deemed suitable for a campus safety audit.  

Barrett with VOSS artist, Jeff Laramore

In a tribute to James McDonnell, his son John noted, “he did everything in life with meticulous attention to detail, to the point that it could be excruciatingly, maddeningly exasperating to those around him; but he also inspired those same people with a sense of important mission and high purpose.”  In order to do wonderful, amazing, transforming, legendary things…

Details do matter.