Comments on a Very Effective Communications System: Marshall Space Flight Center’s Monday Notes


Reaching the Moon was no small accomplishment. Effective management was the key to success. Communications is the key to effective management.

Why was the Apollo program of the 1960s so successful? There are many reasons but I would contend that central to its success was the management structure that its leaders put into place.

This management was recognized as critical to Apollo’s success in November 1968, when Science magazine, the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, observed:

In terms of numbers of dollars or of men, NASA has not been our largest national undertaking, but in terms of complexity, rate of growth, and technological sophistication it has been unique….It may turn out that [the space program’s] most valuable spin-off of all will be human rather than technological: better knowledge of how to plan, coordinate, and monitor the multitudinous and varied activities of the organizations required to accomplish great social undertakings.

Books have been written about these management structures, the best of which is Stephen Johnson’s The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European Space Programs (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

One of those management approaches was pioneered at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) by its director, Wernher von Braun. This was the “Monday Notes,”  a management tool he developed during the early 1960s.

Originated as a means of enhancing communication among managers, it was especially intended to deal with the communication gap while Kurt Debus, working much of the time in 1960-1962 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, was away from Huntsville, Alabama, where the Marshall center was located. Simplicity was the key:  no form was required, one-page maximum length, only header was the date and the name of the contributor.

Von Braun asked each of his senior managers to send him once a week a one page, paragraph style description of each week’s progress and problems. Submitted each Monday morning, it dealt with the previous week’s events and von Braun encouraged his reportees to offer totally candid assessments, with no repercussions for unsolved problems, poor decisions, and the like. This “Monday Note” became so successful as an informal communication tool that von Braun asked about two dozen other officials at MSFC to also send them in. Soon, those sending in notes were not just immediate subordinates, but also lab directors, project managers, and other selected key personnel.  In many instances they were two of three levels below the Marshall Center Director.

Von Braun read each note and wrote marginal comments congratulating success, asking questions, making suggestions, or in some instances giving more negative feedback. After the review by von Braun, his secretary duplicated the entire package of Monday Notes and marginalia, and sent a set to each of those who submitted them.

These Monday notes made possible important communication between leaders at MSFC. These became another tool—in addition to briefings, informal meetings, and memoranda—for the Center Director to keep informed of problems and progress. These provided easy and direct access to the MSFC Director for managers two or more levels below; no middle-management edited the notes before they went forward. They also prompted the senior leadership at MSFC to pause once a week and reflect on what had been accomplished and to consider the problems to be resolved.

Everyone who has discussed the role of the Monday notes at Marshall have concluded that the feedback function from the MSFC Director was critical to their success as a management tool. It made possible a greater degree of vertical communication at the center, but it also facilitated horizontal communication between organizations, because each person sending a note got copies of everybody else’s, thereby learning what other organizations were doing.

Every week managers at MSFC stopped to read what their peers had communicated to von Braun and how he had responded. It served as a court of last resort in resolving differences between organizations at MSFC. The notes also sometime acted as legal briefs presented to an arbiter. Subordinates used the notes as a tool to place before von Braun their perspective on difficult issues and to advocate their particular solution. They knew they could get the attention of senior management and a resolution to a problem when raised in this manner.

The requirement to send a Monday Note also prompted many of the subordinate managers to improve internal communication in their organizations. Many required their subordinates to work up similar short notes for them, from which they prepared their inputs to von Braun. It forced virtually everyone in a leadership capacity at MSFC to pause once a week to reflect on what had been accomplished and to consider the problems to be resolved.

The “Monday Notes” illustrated two general principles in management. They:

  • Made healthy conflict between organizations and persons at MSFC a realistic and useful management tool.The freedom (as well as the forum) to disagree was critical to the success of the organization. Disagreements that surfaced in the Monday Notes ensured that a variety of options and solutions were advocated. Evidence indicates that von Braun encouraged this type of conflict, and was delighted that the notes were used to express it.
  • Built redundancy into the management and communication system at MSFC. They ensured that all sides were heard. They created additional channels of communication both up and down the organization and across offices at MSFC.

So if these Monday Notes were useful to Apollo, did the Marshall Space Flight Center continue to use them afterward? What happened to the Monday Notes? Over time these notes became too bureaucratic—they were at one point institutionalized with forms—they ceased to be useful management tools. At that point they tended to be thought of as just one more report to file, and the time taken in doing it was time wasted in the accomplishment of the mission. Immediately, the quality of the notes fell, and they ceased to provide as much information to the MSFC leadership.

Key Managers for Apollo (L-R): Charles Mathews, Dr Wernher von Braun, Dr George Mueller. and Gen. Samuel Phillips.

Moreover, after von Braun left as director in 1971 his successor stopped making comments on the notes; they ceased to be useful for top to bottom communication.

Why the “Monday Notes” worked well:

  • This communication system seemed to work best when it was a relatively informal, free-wheeling method of providing information directly to the Center Director, and back to all the key official. When it was formalized and institutionalized, the bureaucracy beat the liveliness and out of the system. In that setting it became just one more form to be filled out, just one more report to be filed.
  • The system also worked well when it had two-way communication direct to the top and direct back to the bottom in the form of marginal comments.
  • The notes were also successful when they were freely distributed to all contributors.
  • The notes also worked best when they allowed the raising of controversies and explanation of divergent positions on important matters within MSFC.

I don’t want to make too much of MSFC’s Monday Notes; it was but one tool for more effective communication. Other tools could work, the key was and remains communication in any complex endeavor. The notes served well the purpose for which they were created by Wernher von Braun at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

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2 Responses to Comments on a Very Effective Communications System: Marshall Space Flight Center’s Monday Notes

  1. Jane Bozarth says:

    GREAT recap! I first encountered discussion of the Monday Notes in grad school; my work now, in social media, makes me think of them often. There are so many lessons to take away from this that are readily applicable to today’s struggle to maximize use of new tools for sharing information across organizational silos.

    Like

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