Flowcharting Keeps NASA Processes Grounded in Efficiency
A successful space program
requires more than state-of-the-art technology and hulking
astronaut suits. Without strong organizational procedures
and effective process management, the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration’s programs would be hard-pressed
to launch even a grapefruit into orbit.
The Kennedy Space Center’s impetus to change its
organizational procedures grew from an increasingly vast
landscape of paper documentation. As the volume of paper
increased, employee understanding and process management
spiraled further into obscurity. The cleanup endeavor took
on a sense of urgency as the deadline to transition to ISO
9001:2000 crept closer; it soon became apparent that the
paper-based system was a relic NASA could not afford to
maintain. Project managers at the venerable institution
set out to meet the process improvement requirements of
the new standard, modernizing facets of the organization
left behind by the rapidly advancing technologies employed
daily at NASA. With the help of Corel’s iGrafx FlowCharter,
NASA was soon able to balance its organizational procedures
with its outer space technology.
“We were asked to totally change our culture and
the way we conducted business,” says Jim Lichtenthal,
a project manager for NASA’s Process Management division.
“Process improvement was a new discipline for us.”
Lichtenthal and his team were faced with the mammoth task
of translating hundreds of thousands of pages of textual
process descriptions into a format that was quickly understood.
Pursuant to a consultant’s recommendation, the team
began experimenting with flowcharting, a visual diagram
of the sequential path of information through a system,
the operations and their sequence. This type of pictograph
is traditionally an easy-to-understand and effective tool
for identifying gaps.
The space center selected iGrafx FlowCharter to replace
its text-based documents on account of its simple operability
and robust tool set. The Process Management division clearly
defined the center’s processes by conducting interviews
and documenting procedures using FlowCharter, compressing
lists of actions into graphic representations that staff
members could easily comprehend. Aside from defining the
center’s processes, the process flowcharts also revealed
procedural disconnection and discovered processes that had
FlowCharter also helped to liberate storage rooms at the
space center. Lichtenthal and his team deduced that flowcharting
diminished the amount of text-based documents by five to
10 times, freeing scores of rooms formerly brimming with
paper-based documentation. Fifty-page process descriptions
were reduced to fewer than 12 diagrams and stored electronically,
out of sight but not out of mind.
“Process improvement forced us to rethink everything,”
says Lichtenthal. “It seemed only logical that we
should meet the same exacting standards that thousands of
our suppliers were already meeting.” With FlowCharter,
processes at the space center improved decidedly. Because
flowcharts are easier to update than text-based process
documentation, Lichtenthal’s team was able to change
a process document in a few days instead of the months that
were previously required. Using the same process framework,
a documentation system for the space center’s hundreds
of processes was born, making everything accessible through
updateable links. Management now uses the system to view
major process areas, determine process performance and identify
areas of improvement.
Lichtenthal expects all of the processes at the space
center to change yearly; with FlowCharter, adaptation and
improvement have become ingrained in the organizational
culture. The center continues to revise and update its system,
introducing more tools to enhance its reflective understanding.
“Creating a system that was easy for our employees
to use and understand was the major reason we switched from
text documents to flowcharts,” explains Lichtenthal.
Although FlowCharter fulfilled this prerequisite, it also
exhibited other valuable characteristics. “We found
that the textual documents sometimes didn’t reflect
the sequence of events that made up the procedure,”
he adds. “Often, the text documents had process gaps
that didn’t show up until we tried flowcharting them.
Just by converting the text to flowcharts, we immediately
gained a better understanding of our activities.”
NASA has long fashioned itself a purveyor of understanding.
Using the fruits of human ingenuity and intellect, the space
program provides people on the ground with a more complete
view of the world in which they live. It’s only fitting,
therefore, that NASA now uses advanced technology in the
form of iGrafx FlowCharter to explore and understand itself
as a business enterprise.
- Allows creation and storage of an unlimited number of
diagrams per file
- Uses customizable data fields for business and process
- Offers single-click Web publishing