|Lessons Learned and Technical Standards
A Logical Marriage
by Paul Gill, William W. Vaughan, and Danny Garcia
A comprehensive database of lessons learned that corresponds with
relevant technical standards would be a boon to technical personnel
and standards developers. The authors discuss the emergence of
one such database within NASA, and show how and why the incorporation
of lessons learned into technical standards databases can be an
indispensable tool for government and industry.
Passed down from parent to child, teacher to pupil, and from senior
to junior employees, lessons learned have been the basis for our
accomplishments throughout the ages. Government and industry,
too, have long recognized the need to systematically document
and utilize the knowledge gained from past experiences in order
to avoid the repetition of failures and mishaps. The use of lessons
learned is a principle component of any organizational culture
committed to continuous improvement. They have formed the foundation
for discoveries, inventions, improvements, textbooks, and technical
Technical standards are a very logical way to communicate these
lessons. Using the time-honored tradition of passing on lessons
learned while utilizing the newest in information technology,
the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has launched
an intensive effort to link lessons learned with specific technical
standards through various Internet databases. This article will
discuss the importance of lessons learned to engineers, the difficulty
in finding relevant lessons learned while engaged in an engineering
project, and the new NASA project that can help alleviate this
difficulty. The article will conclude with recommendations for
more expanded cross-sectoral uses of lessons learned with reference
to technical standards.
Lessons Learned in the Technical Sphere
In the technical arena, truly useful lessons learned must be significant
in that they have a real or assumed impact on operations, valid
in that they are technically correct, and applicable in that they
address a design process or decision that mitigates or eliminates
the risk of failures or reinforces a positive result. They should
communicate only lessons, and should not be used as a replacement
for other management information functions such as self-assessment,
failure investigation, and corrective action systems.
Lessons learned are a powerful method of sharing ideas for improving
work processes, facility or component design and operation, quality,
safety, and cost effectiveness. Properly implemented, they should
improve management decision-making during every phase of project
It is important to document lessons learned in order to convey
information on experiences, to control recurrence of a problem,
improve safety, enhance risk management, and facilitate improved
interoperability. Thus, they are an important and critical resource
that can be used by engineers, scientists, and technicians to
support, for example, the design of flight and ground support
hardware, software, facilities, and procedures. Sometimes best
practices are also referred to as lessons learned applied.
Information on lessons learned may be found in a number of different
locations, including organizational technical reports, professional
engineering journals, and databases specifically focused on lessons
learned. But locating a lesson learned applicable to ones specific
interest is generally not a very user friendly experiencehence
the motivation for developing a marriage with technical standards.
With the explosion in technical accomplishments during the past
century, especially during the last few decades, it has become
critical to rapidly communicate the knowledge gained through experience.
This is very true for activities associated with producing more
advanced products within the faster, better, cheaper philosophy.
The dependence upon word of mouth and textbooks to communicate
lessons learned, while still important, is no longer adequate
or realistic. Expecting engineers and scientists to search through
the ever-increasing number and contents of lessons learned databases
is less than productive. It is difficult and time consuming for
most engineers to search for and use such lessons learned databases.
However, there is a viable solution to this problem.
All NASA programs and projects are based on the application of
technical standards, whether produced by government agencies including
the Department of Defense, or by non-government standards developing
organizations such as ASTM. The development of these and other
technical standards have gone through an extensive review process.
Given this database of technical standards, along with the existence
of a screened lessons learned database, a productive marriage
of the two is now possible.
At the time of this printing, the NASA Technical Standards Program
Web site has incorporated over 80 national and international lessons
learned databases since June 2001, providing engineers and other
interested parties a chance to find the relevant experiences of
other professionals who have already encountered specific concerns
in aerospace engineering.
To view these, go here and then click the NASA Access or Public Access links on the
menu page. Once registered, click on the Lessons Learned/Best
Practices link for direct access to the listing of lessons learned
databases related to aerospace engineering.
Here are some examples of lessons learned databases incorporated
into the NASA Technical Standards Program Web site:
NASA/HeadquartersLessons Learned Information System;
NASA/Glenn Research CenterFrequently Asked Questions on Failures;
NASA/Kennedy Space CenterCryogenic Transfer System Mechanical
NASA/Goddard Space Flight CenterSystems Engineering Office
Satellite Mission Operations Best Practices; and
NASA/Langley Research CenterLessons for Software Systems.
On the surface, this marriage appears easily achievable but this
is not the case. It requires the talents of dedicated and experienced
engineers who must also possess the gifts of persistence and meticulous
attention to detail. The material involved must be read and interpreted
and then correlated. The lessons learned database must then be
integrated with the technical standards database. Both databases
continue to grow at a prolific rate. Once related, the lessons
learned must be reviewed and associated with the applicable technical
A NASA pilot effort to test this approach has been successful.
Consideration is being given to expand the effort beyond the NASA
Preferred Technical Standards database, which includes selected
ASTM and other technical standards. To the degree practical, this
should be done in collaboration with the standards developing
The result will be an invaluable database whereby any technical
standard required for a program or project design, development,
or operations process will also have identified with it any relevant
lessons learned. This marriage will without doubt significantly
encourage the development of faster, better, cheaper products.
Also, technical standards with associated lessons learned may
be candidates for revision or may spur the development of a new
To illustrate the results of the pilot effort regarding the integration
of information on lessons learned with technical standards, two
examples are presented as they appear within the NASA Technical
Standards Program Web site. These examples are taken from the
agency-wide Full-Text Technical Standards System within the NASA
Access site on the main menu page. (Due to licensing agreements
on the access to non-government technical standards products,
the NASA Access site is only available to those within the nasa.gov
Figure 1 provides an illustration of the Standards Document Summary page
for MIL-STD-1686 C, Electrostatic Discharge Control Program for
Protection of Electrical and Electronic Parts, Assemblies, and
Equipment (Excluding Electrically Initiated Explosive Devices),
a NASA Preferred Technical Standard. The information provided
for a user on this NASA Preferred Technical Standard includes
two lessons learned links, plus a brief description of each, that
are available on the NASA Lessons Learned Information System (LLIS)
database. The nasa.gov domain user of this standard can then easily
locate the two listed lessons learned through hyperlinks and decide
whether the contents might be applicable to their use of this
MIL-STD. The full-text content of this MIL-STD is readily available
from both the NASA Access and Public Access sites.
Figure 2 provides a similar illustration of the Standards Document Summary
page for ASTM B 117, Practice for Operating Salt Spray (Fog) Apparatus. This ASTM
technical standard is one that has been endorsed by the agency
as a NASA Preferred Technical Standard and it is so identified
on both the NASA Access and Public Access sites. However, its
full-text content is readily available only from the NASA Access
site due to licensing restrictions noted above. There is one lesson
learned entry noted from the NASA LLIS database.
Both government and industry conscientiously investigate, document,
and track all of their successes and failures. Yet, most of that
work is meaningless if an industry or government agency fails
to incorporate these experiences into ongoing and future programs
and projects and their operations. They need a viable mechanism
to identify and incorporate lessons learned into their design,
development, and operations efforts, thus reducing mission risk.
The cost of achieving the marriage of lessons learned and technical
standards will be modest compared to the significant results that
will be achieved.
This value example illustrates how the Crane Division of the Naval
Surface Warfare Center achieved cost avoidances throughout the
military services by applying design improvements acquired through
lessons learned and associated common specifications for configuration
control across several battery systems and related equipment.
The example also illustrates how a rather simple component, such
as a battery vent cap, can have an enormous impact on maintenance
and repair costs. (See the Defense Standardization Program Case
Study, Aircraft Batteries and Components. Click on Library, then click on Standardization Case Studies.)
The types of batteries in military inventories are as diverse
as their uses. Batteries range in size from small button cells
(0.03 ampere hours) to launch facility batteries (10,000 ampere
hours), and span the entire spectrum of chemistries (e.g., alkaline,
lead-acid, lithium, nickel-cadmium, nickel-iron, seawater). All
told, there are 3,800 different types of military batteries, some
costing more than tens of thousands of dollars each.
In some cases, inadequate components on the batteries also caused
unanticipated wear or damage to the systems that used them. Attention
focused especially on the vent caps for aircraft batteries. Vent
caps are supposed to retain the corrosive electrolyte, allow a
controlled release of pressure, and prevent contaminants from
entering the cells. Despite the requirements, the design and materials
of the vent caps on original equipment manufacturer (OEM) batteries
allowed leakage to occur during operation. The CH-46 helicopter
and C-130 and C-141 aircraft were using flooded lead-acid or nickel
cadmium batteries that spilled electrolyte onto the airframe structure.
The leakage not only deteriorated the battery and shortened its
service life, but also corroded the battery compartment and other
aircraft parts. The failure of the vent caps to perform properly
led to more than half of the battery failures and maintenance
The problem of faulty vent caps was addressed by replacing OEM
vent caps with standard government-designed vent caps. These included
the following improvements:
Using O-ring material and vent band materials that are impervious
Changing the physical shape of the battery to redirect the electrolyte
away from gas vent paths, thereby eliminating the expulsion of
electrolyte as cell pressure increased.
Applying configuration control through common specifications,
which eliminate tolerance issues between rival battery manufacturers
and allow one vent cap to be used on products from different companies.
In addition, major cost avoidances have resulted from reduced
damage to the battery compartment and aircraft structural components.
The documented cost for the vent cap replacements as $717,000,
which resulted in a significant $165,120,000 in cost avoidances
through fiscal year 1999 for the DoD.
Links should be established as soon as practical between lessons
learned and, where possible, the technical standards to which
they relate. This can be accomplished by government organizations
such as NASA and DoD, industry groups, and standards developing
organizations. The results can then be made available and shared
with all interested parties. Users of the technical standards
would then have immediate links, access to lessons learned and
other relevant information as they select and apply technical
standards in the normal design, development, and operations process.
The longer-term goal should be to update technical standards and,
where appropriate, to reflect lessons learned. Normal practice
in the standards community is for technical standards to be reviewed
and, where necessary, updated at least once in five years. Links
to related lessons learned would provide a basis for additions
and updates of technical standards, thus facilitating the marriage
process. For government and non-government developed technical
standards, the addition of lessons learned can be made directly
whenever prudent. To accomplish this goal, and thus reduce mission
risk, it is recommended that initiatives by those developing and
using technical standards products be established to integrate
lessons learned with technical standards.
There are no guarantees that future mishaps like the recent two
NASA/JPL Mars Missions will not occur. However, the existence
of an integrated lessons learned and technical standards system
will certainly contribute toward minimizing such risks. Only one
project saved or enhanced will repay the cost of developing an
integrated lessons learned and technical standards system many-fold.
Without this marriage the lessons learned database, and other
similar databases, will continue to find limited and very focused
utility relative to the development and operation of future industry
and government programs and projects. //
Copyright 2001, ASTM