SMA Leadership Profile: Grant Watson

SMA Leadership Profile: Grant Watson

8-minute read
Grant Watson Profile

Grant Watson unknowingly spent his entire career preparing for his new role, a role that didn’t even exist until this year. As the director of the newly-formed Institutional Safety Management Division of the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA), Watson’s 25 plus years in Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA), as well as his executive role as Langley Research Center’s SMA director, give him the knowledge and experience to succeed.

“When I sit back and look at my career, since the first day on the job at Kennedy Space Center performing hazard analysis on Shuttle Ground Support Equipment, I have been training for this job,” said Watson. “It’s the natural path that I started on day one. To be honest, I never expected to do this job or to be a safety person, it was sort of happenstance. Toward the last part of my career at Kennedy [Space Center], I started to really realize that safety is who I am. I like to be the conscience on the shoulder of people and make sure they are safe and healthy.”

Watson cites a trip to Stennis Space Center for an SMA directors meeting as a prime example of his passion for Institutional Safety, and facilities in particular:

“I was at an SMA directors meeting at Stennis a year ago, and as we were walking around and seeing all these huge facilities for propulsion testing, people were talking about flight hardware that would be coming to be tested in them. And I thought, ‘Yeah, the flight hardware is cool but look at this huge facility. It reminded me that I think it’s cool we can go into space … I think it’s even cooler we can build a facility that can simulate space.”

With his passion and experience clearly aligned, Watson is ready to tackle the establishment of this new division. First up, introducing the new role and socializing it across the agency.

The formation of the new division started with a realignment of the existing OSMA safety program executives (Cliff Arnold, Lifting Devices and Equipment, Pressure Systems, and Propellants and Pressurants; Sandy Hudson, Explosives and Pyrotechnics Safety, Payload Safety, and Range Flight Safety; and Jerry Piasecki, Occupational/Facility/Operations Safety) and OSMA’s Aviation Safety lead (John Lapointe) into the new division.

“These OSMA employees have always owned the policies and programs for safeguarding people and assets and they have done an excellent job through the years working with the centers to protect our people — NASA’s excellent safety record proves it,” said Watson. “We are not forming the division because something is broken. We want a small OSMA team focused on Institutional Safety and increasing the visibility of Institutional Safety across Headquarters organizations.” 

And such a big-picture shift does not come without hurdles.

“One of the challenges is, when you say the words Institutional Safety, there’s a very traditional definition,” explained Watson. “It’s Occupational Safety and its facilities. Your mind doesn’t necessarily go to Range Flight Safety and Payload Safety and Aviation Safety. But, when you look at these areas and you look at their functions, it’s protecting people and assets. The paradigm of creating this division is we’re the division of policies and procedures responsible for protecting people and assets. So it’s not about, for example, payloads — it’s about the safety of the operations on the ground. The division is being formed to own the policies and programs for safeguarding people and assets.”

In addition to normalizing this new way of looking at Institutional Safety, Watson is responsible for the following areas within the Institutional Safety realm:

  • Facilitating a team dynamic across the centers
  • Advocating for centers at the Headquarters level
  • Establishing delegated safety program leads
  • Driving policy direction and change
  • Implementing Institutional Safety Authority

Facilitating a Team Dynamic Across the Centers

Every NASA center and facility has its own Institutional Safety experts, and Watson hopes to strengthen the collaboration of these experts. Today, these experts tend to collaborate across the agency in their area of expertise under the leadership of the OSMA program executives. He wants to bring all these experts together as an agency team so they can collaborate and build off what each is doing. This also will allow the program as a whole to identify systemic issues and fix them. While having this division at Headquarters may give some the illusion that Headquarters owns Institutional Safety, Watson makes one distinction clear: This new division is an ally in center Institutional Safety efforts, not the owner. In addition, Watson notes this new division is an OSMA organizational change, not a part of the Mission Support Future Architecture Program, or MAP, which has NASA consolidating areas like procurement and human capital management and bringing the resources to a centralized, Headquarters level.

Strengthening team dynamics will help Watson archive a primary goal of the new division: identification and mitigation of agency Institutional Safety risks.

“Terry Willcutt, our chief of SMA, told me too often people or organizations outside OSMA, like the Inspector General, tell us our Institutional Safety risks,” said Watson. “Terry wants this new division to identify the risk before others do. For this to happen, the agency needs a collaborative Institutional Safety team and the centers need to know that Headquarters really is here to help.”     

Advocating for Centers at the Headquarters Level

Watson is aware that MAP, while unrelated, affects centers’ abilities to solve certain Institutional Safety issues locally, as they had before.

“I need to be an advocate for the centers at the Headquarters level,” said Watson. “Even though OSMA itself isn’t consolidating [under MAP], we have to respond to it. There are going to be issues that used to be solved at the center level that now centers will need someone at Headquarters to go to these offices and say ‘We’ve got safety issues at these centers that need to be solved and you have the resources to do so.’”

Establishing Delegated Safety Program Leads

It’s a slight nuance, but a delegated safety program lead is not the same as the more familiar delegated program manager sometimes seen throughout OSMA’s structure. A delegated program manager, like the Range Flight Safety delegated program manager, is a full-time designated role covering that program area. In contrast, a delegated safety program lead is not a full-time position. Instead, OSMA is giving a portion of a Full Time Equivalent (FTE) to a center in exchange for a portion of a designated expert’s time. These experts will support the OSMA program executives and help define the program and its needs. They will also lead the agency safety working group for their safety discipline. 

According to Watson, his favorite part about this program, initiated by the OSMA program executives before Watson joined Headquarters, is that “OSMA has added members to our team who are experts at implementing the policy we are responsible for developing.”

Overall, this effort will ensure the specific safety disciplines are getting the support they need to focus on the areas necessary to keep the agency safe.

Driving Policy Direction and Change

Driving policy direction and change is another key aspect of Watson’s new role. He wants to make sure that NASA policies keep people and assets safe while also allowing centers to implement them in a way that best makes sense for their unique environments.

“I want to drive policy change in a direction that is good for the centers and the agency,” said Watson. “I personally have found our policies tend to be 120% perfect. We don’t want any risk in our safety policies. We go over and above.”

This risk-intolerance is something Watson has carefully considered. While his instinct as an SMA professional is to say safety is number one, he ultimately decided that safety is critical, but mission success is NASA’s number one mission. He recently addressed these beliefs in the Langley Leadership Message Series. Read an excerpt from this message here.

“We give no wiggle room to ensure we hit the requirement, no questions asked,” said Watson. “We have a tendency to write and interpret requirements very strict at the agency level to ensure we meet them, but then when centers apply them, there’s not enough freedom for them to do it in a more cost-effective way.” 

As an example, NASA’s Safety Culture often goes above and beyond. Watson references a conversation he had with Arnold. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has Wire Rope Inspection (WRI) requirements for cranes in regular service, while NASA’s implementation of this requirement tends toward a monthly detailed inspection of all cranes, regardless of operational usage/designation. These detailed inspections add additional safety risk since they are performed at significant heights through the use of aerial lifts. After visits to NASA centers, Arnold noted that some cranes can go many months without being used, except for conducting these monthly WRIs. Arnold told Watson that if NASA changed the way it is implementing this OSHA requirement, the centers could reduce risk to personnel and implement a more cost-effective crane inspection program.

In addition, Watson considers many of the existing policies prescriptive, something he hopes to move away from. He acknowledges that OSMA has been working toward less prescriptive policies for years, he just wants to continue in that direction. He also wants to bring more of a “people factor” into the policy equation.

Implementing Institutional Authority

The final piece of Watson’s role leading this new division is defining and implementing Institutional Safety Authority. He explains that the role of Technical Authority (TA) is often muddied in actual practice.

Officially, TA is part of system of checks and balances the agency established to ensure program and project safety and mission success. Some centers and personnel — including Watson as SMA director at Langley — use the term TA for owners of Institutional Safety requirements, which is not aligned with agency policy. 

Also, it’s not uncommon for programs and projects to feel they own all requirements, Institutional Safety requirements included, as a result of their defined TA. As a solution, Watson feels it’s important to clearly define TA, as well as a new authority: Institutional Safety Authority.

“We’ll get a clear distinction between the two [authorities],” said Watson. “The distinct names will make it clear who owns the Institutional Safety requirements and who owns the program and project requirements.”

This distinction becomes extremely important when accepting risk and approving waivers. The new Institutional Safety Authority “path” will include center directors, SMA directors and the appropriate Institutional Safety Subject Matter Expert. Watson wants to ensure these three individuals are involved in risk acceptance and waivers to any policy involving the protection of people and NASA facilities.

While the specifics and rollout are still to come, Watson wants to begin laying the groundwork for this role from the beginning.

All of Watson’s initiatives for this new Institutional Safety Management Division ultimately boil down to efficiencies, risk identification, and ensuring the right resources are in place to support NASA’s Institutional Safety personnel and goals. His vision is for a collaborative environment that makes the entire program operate optimally across the agency. From implementing a more wholistic approach, to assessing center safety and health, to increased partnerships between safety and health programs, to more center-friendly policies, Watson is focused on one thing: collaboration.

And with his combined experience as an executive and Institutional Safety aficionado, Watson is the man for the job.