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What small businesses can learn from the space shuttle program

Paying attention to small mistakes can help prevent larger ones, notes a new management study.

Space Shuttle Atlantis touches down to end Mission STS-132 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida May 26.

Chris O'Meara/Reuters/File

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A disastrous NASA space shuttle mission, compared with a successful mission, has yielded advice for how any organization, including small businesses, can learn from mistakes.

Researchers studied NASA’s response to a October 2002 Atlantis flight in which a piece of insulation broke off and damaged the left solid rocket booster but did not impede the mission or the program. According to the researchers, there was little follow-up or investigation in response to the Atlantis incident.

The shuttle Columbia was launched next and another piece of insulation broke off and damaged the shuttle's left wing. This time the shuttle and its seven-person crew were destroyed on re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. This disaster prompted the suspension of shuttle flights and led to a major investigation resulting in 29 recommended changes to prevent future calamities.

The difference in response to the two cases, the researchers said, came down to this: The Atlantis was considered a success and the Columbia a failure.

The research focused on companies and organizations that launch satellites, rockets and shuttles into space — an arena where failures are high profile and hard to conceal. But it has implications for even the smallest businesses, said Vinit Desai of the University of Colorado Denver who worked with Brigham Young University’s Peter Madsen on the project.

IN PICTURES: The space shuttle

“Small organizations should work to actively identify and seek to learn from small mistakes,” Desai told BusinessNewsDaily. “Small mistakes are sometimes more frequent than larger ones, but since they are often less costly, they can be easy to dismiss."


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