Even if you are not interested in Space exploration, I trust you are enjoying some of the reflections this week about the first Moon landing 50 years ago this Saturday. I have been fascinated with not just the wonderful reflections, but in learning more about the skillful, manual maneuvering by the astronauts, especially Neal Armstrong, in those days when automation and computer glitches failed them and created messy situations.

I’ll come back to a few lessons about manual skills in messy situations in a moment.

If you are over 55, where did you watch the moon landing? Over the summer of 1969 I was a Boy Scout counselor at Goshen Scout Camps in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. On Sunday night July 20th my tentmate, Ken Crowley, and I went to the dining hall and joined other counselors in watching the landing on a small black and white television. The reception was poor, but we could hear Walter Cronkite clearly. It was thrilling.

I have really enjoyed watching several Moon landing programs these last weeks. If you are not sure which film to watch, I strongly recommend Apollo 11, which was re-broadcast on CNN. Unlike the other shows, all of this film’s footage has been meticulously upgraded to high-definition and the only audio you hear are real clips from that time-period, no narrations to distract us. This film is a great gift to us.

Importance of Manual Skills to Override Automation Failings. Coincidently this week I was reading the Automation chapter in Tim Harford’s wonderful book Messy-The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. Using two stories, the crash of Air France flight 447 and Japanese tourists driving into the ocean, Harford explains a concept called the “paradox of automation.”

Air France flight 447 was the plane that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on May 31, 2009 while flying from Brazil to France. Following a thorough analysis of voice recorders and other information it was concluded that the cause was not mechanical, but rather a lack of pilot skill in dealing with conflicting and confusing computer information. The problem was further exacerbated by three pilots having different opinions about what was happening and little experience flying the Airbus 330 manually. (The most experienced pilot was the Captain and he had only four hours of manual flight experience with this plane out of 346 total hours over the preceding six months.)

In March of 2012 three Japanese students visited Australia. While there they rented a car with a GPS. One day they decided they would like to visit an area called North Stradbroke. While driving there they came to the end of the road on a beach. They could see North Stradbroke nine miles away over the water. The GPS told them to continue straight ahead, which they did – and they got stuck in the water and sand and mud. One of  the students, Yuzu Noda, 21, said, “It kept saying it would navigate us to a road. We got stuck, there’s lots of mud.”

Paradox of Automation. In his book Harford writes that the term paradox of automation means that the more automation we use, the less we know how to function without it. He says there are three “strands” to this paradox:

  • “Automatic systems accommodate incompetence by being easy to operate and by automatically correcting mistakes. Because of this an inexpert operator can function for a long time before his lack of skill becomes apparent – his incompetence is a hidden weakness that can persist almost indefinitely without being detected.
  • Even if operators are expert, automatic systems erode their skills by removing the need for them to practice.
  • Automatic systems tend to fail either in unusual situations or in ways that produce unusual situations.”

In cases like Flight 447, Harford reminds us that the more capable and reliable an automatic system is, the more likely a far worse and unusual situation will arise. And those situations need skillful practiced people to deal with them.

The Moon Landing. With this paradox of automation in mind, please watch any Moon Landing show that lets you see what Neal Armstrong did to overcome computer glitches and land on the Moon – he had only seconds to spare and no fuel.  If this interests you, you can read more about how astronauts’ training prepared them for several skillful, manual overrides during several perilous events on the Apollo 11 flight.

Fortunately, most of us are not dealing with life or death situations in our organizations. How could the paradox of automation affect you and your organization and how can you make sure your team has the skills to deal with unusual situations?

Author’s Note – I had the honor of meeting astronaut James Lovell when I worked as an Eagle Scout in the VIP box  at the Nixon Inauguration in January 1969. Lovell had just returned from his December 1968 Apollo 8 mission, where he, Borman, and Anders had been the first crew to fly to the moon and orbit it many times. So, naturally, my interest in the Apollo program was heightened in the Summer of 1969.