What I Learned From Astronaut Mike Mullane: A Few Notes on Teamwork

How many industry conference keynote speakers have you listened to who made you wish you had a pillow and three clear seats on either side of you? There was nothing gained as they sucked up the oxygen in the room. There was no impact in your life, no takeaway.

Yep, I’ve been there, too… until last month at the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance (VTCA) Spring Conference. Astronaut Mike Mullane’s presentation entitled “Countdown to Teamwork” was an excellent reminder to each and every person in the room that we are all a part of the decision-making process and work best as a team.

On January 28, 1986, the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger (OV-099) broke apart 73 seconds into mission STS-51-L, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members, including a co-worker of Astronaut Mullane. The loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger was a prime example of losing the teamwork battle and the tragic consequences of a series of decisions made without all necessary parties involved.

From tragedy comes a lesson. Whether you are an engineer, contractor, scientist, designer, manager, inspector, executive, elected official, or other participant in a project life cycle, you have an influence on the project’s schedule, budget, safety, and quality. And, let’s not forget the importance of “support” staff—human resources, recruiting, accounting, marketing, and specialty disciples like materials testing and geotechnical engineering. It takes a team to deliver projects from concept to grand opening. We all have responsibilities and should be accountable for our actions and inactions.

Through my own experience working with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), I have seen many benefits from a focus on teamwork. More than a decade ago, VDOT implemented a transparent performance measurement protocol named The Dashboard. To support credibility for the department and for the transportation design and construction industry, VDOT set progressively higher goals over the years for on time and within budget project delivery. Safety and quality were also added to the metrics. VDOT placed increased emphasis on a project management philosophy as opposed to silo operations. As a result, communication transcended departments and disciplines. Meetings became multidisciplinary, and partnering gained a new breath of life within our industry.

Transportation engineers have the dubious honor of designing and overseeing construction of some of the most creative and phenomenal projects in our community, whether locally or regionally. Partnering and teamwork must be more than buzzwords on such projects; working together is crucial to project success.

A prime example would be EBA’s involvement in Phase 2 of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project. Our firm is providing quality control inspection and materials testing for this 11-mile, $1.2 billion project, but not in a glass bubble. We work with designers, owners, operations, and safety personnel to deliver the project. Our interactions with the operations side of the house help to reduce costs and schedule impacts. Our coordination with the safety department creates a safer work environment and protects the traveling public. In short, everyone’s role counts.

When was the last time you stopped to consider how your efforts can impact the lives of thousands on a daily basis? Consider the takeaways from Astronaut Mullane’s presentation. Are you challenged to be a positive influence in the “countdown to teamwork”?

EBA Engineering is committed to making a difference for our clients. Contact us to learn how we can partner with you today.


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