NASA vs. Industry

There is a belief that free-enterprise is ALWAYS more efficient than government.

In my opinion, NASA shows that to not necessarily be true.

Free enterprise is better at short-term productivity. Sacrificing the long-term for getting things done in the here and now. Which is fine as long as we can recognize that to be the case.

If you go to NASA’s website, you can wade through and find piles of research and even lessons learned. They are all searchable and neatly organized. Having built such a thorough library, knowledge can be shared efficiently from one project to the next. When you are working on large enough projects, it’s incredibly important economically and for productivity to not produce the same errors you did previously.

I’ve been into hundreds, possibly thousands of companies, and nearly none of them had great documentation for best practices, standards, or lessons learned. The worst of them said, “It’s all in our senior people’s head.” For the best it was, “We have them scattered in disparate places. A collection of different improvement projects from different leaders over time.”

The long-term knowledge sharing never became a priority. There was too much to be done now.

After a conversation like this it always makes me wonder, “Why can NASA be so good at this, while free enterprise falls flat?”

I come up with a few answers:

  • Not having to be focused on the bottom line every minute, hour, day, week or month allows NASA to invest in the long-term. These items would only be expenses on the balance sheet of a private company weighing it down from getting loans, paying people more, showing larger profits, getting outside investment or even going public.
  • It’s much more likely NASA is going to be around for decades or centuries since it is backed by the government. No one knows the lifetime of a private company. It can be smashed by competition. It can be ran incompetently. It can be purchased. The founder can die and leave no one to run it. There is just so much that makes the life of it shorter than a government agency that it’s possible taking the time to do all that work won’t pay off if you don’t stay in business long enough to benefit.

There is a definite lesson to be learned here about being committed to something even in private industry. When you are committed, you can invest in the long-term more than a competitor who isn’t. If you pick an industry and build a business that you know you will stay in for 40+ years, you shouldn’t run that business the same as someone looking to start, grow and then sell a business in a 5 year time span. What you can do if your committed is pay people more to find better talent who help grow things more, document more, build better practices. You can invest in training people, developing them, and give them room to grow as people. You can provide whitespace in people’s schedules in order for them to improve the company.

There is value in long-term thinking, but it’s not often seen because rarely do we find people who are in it for the long-term. Most are in it for the short-term, some renew their lease over and over again, and a tiny few start with the vision to stay for decades.