Adonis Diaries

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“How Human Factors are considered at the NASA jet propulsion laboratory”?

Article #47 ( written in June 7, 2006)

Professor Charles Elachy, the director of NASA jet propulsion center at Pasadena in California, gave a lecture at LAU, Byblos, during his visit to Lebanon, and was inducted a member of the Board of Director of the university.

I instructed my class to prepare written questions to submit to Professor Elachy after the lecture, but we failed in our endeavor because questions were stricly managed.  I composed a series of questions, and after discussing them with my class, I e-mailed them to Elachy on May 30, 2006.  The mail stated:

            “I teach a single course “Human Factors in engineering“, which is required for industrial engineers. This course used to be elective for the computer and other traditional engineering fields before this year, until it was eliminated as a viable choice in the curricula.

The main value of this course is to offer a behavioral change at looking at the design of projects from a different perspective. A few students in my class of Human Factors in engineering prepared a series of written questions for your lecture at LAU at Byblos, and we would appreciate your reply on the following:

1)   As a leading member of one of the most sophisticated man-made system from conception, to designing, testing, evaluation, production, operation, and execution, then would you consider that any failure in your system is ultimately a human error?

2)  Could you offer us samples of what NASA would consider as near accidents?  In such cases, would your internal investigation of any near accident try to assign the error to a person, a team, or the organization as a whole in order to redress potential hazards?

3)  I read that the engineering work force at your department in NASA is around 5000.  What is the percentage of human factors and “industrial psychology” professionals in that work force who are involved in designing interfaces, facilitator’ tools, training programs, conducting controlled experimentation, testing, and evaluating human behavioral performance in operations in order to foreseeing potential errors and eliminating safety hazards?

4)  To what extent are tailor-made task analysis, foreseeable errors analysis, and decision flow diagrams in every stage of the development process computerized as expert systems, and how embedded is the role of experts in reviewing computer outputs?

5) Could you give us a few samples of the kind of expert opinions that NASA still seek in system development? What are the impacts of expert opinions in the development cycle and how critical are they? On what system do you rely in decisions concerning the allocation of tasks to either operators or automation?

6)  Do you think that NASA has already accumulated an exhaustive list of cognitive and physical capabilities/limitations of human operators compared to machine potentials?  How efficient is a human operator currently evaluated within this growing trend in technology and automation?  What kind of guidelines does NASA engineers rely on for designing interfaces or anything that requires operators’ interactions with the system?

7) What types of inspectors do you mostly hire, such as technical versus people oriented? Would your guidelines for hiring technical or people performance inspectors differ (for example in-house hiring or outside contracting)?  Is assigning an employee to inspection jobs is generally viewed by engineers as a negative coded message for position downgrading?”

On June 4, I received the following reply from Eachy:

“Dear Adonis, my response to your questions will not be in the direct order because our work here is not a production activity.

Each spacecraft is different and they are always first of a kind.  However, we do have a system of checks and balances.

We have one organization which does the design and development (about 3,500 technical people) and a separate organization which does Quality Control (about 350 technical people).

The role of QC is not only to check on the quality of the work, but also to help the development organization do it right to start with.  So, we assign a few QC experts to each project, but they report through a different chain than the project manager.

When we have a problem we try to understand the root cause and develop procedure/training to avoid it in the future.

We do not try to blame a person but we put a number of reviews and independent checks to make sure problems don’t slip through the cracks.”

I read Professor Elachy’s response to class.  It was clear that Human Factors professionals are still viewed as more relevant in the production activity phase, although there are many cases where they were involved in analyzing missions from their inception, knowing that NASA pioneered the process of hiring Human Factors in the agency.

Update 1:Professor Elachy was awarded this year 2011, the French highest order in scientific achievement. He had done his highest studies in France before Charles Elachy was hired in the USA.

Update 2: Charles Elachy is the head of the team that landed the rover on Mars to find out if there is life on this hot planet


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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