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Mastering Incident Investigation: A Key to Propelling the Space Industry Forward

By George Dyer-Wilson

The Scottish space industry is soaring to new heights, rapidly emerging as a formidable player in the global arena. With a thriving sector encompassing satellite manufacturing, launch facilities, and cutting-edge research and development, Scotland is poised to make significant contributions to space exploration and innovation.

However, as this industry continues to expand, ensuring safety, reliability, and efficiency in space missions becomes paramount. One powerful tool that holds immense promise in achieving these goals is the Kelvin TOP-SET Incident Investigation methodology.


Established almost 40 years ago and providing incident investigation services and global training in the TOP-SET method ever since, Kelvin TOP-SET is a comprehensive incident investigation system used across various high-risk industries, including oil and gas, aviation, defence, aerospace, and nuclear. It provides a structured approach to problem-solving and incident investigation, aiming not only to uncover the root causes of incidents but also to prevent their recurrence and improve business performance. Kelvin TOP-SET (the company) also investigates incidents on behalf of clients when an impartial perspective is required – one example of this was the Gulf of Mexico ‘Deepwater Horizon’ incident in 2010.


The key strengths of the TOP-SET methodology are that it is easy-to-use, logical and highly practical – it’s much more than root cause analysis; TOP-SET is a complete

incident investigation system covering:

  • The Incident Statement

  • Planning (using the TOP-SET Indicators)

  • Investigating

  • Analysis

  • Reporting and making SMART Recommendations

  • Taking Action & Review

The use of the TOP-SET Indicators encourages wholly divergent thinking for data collection prior to analysis. This ensures high-quality data are the inputs for analysis i.e. no stone is left unturned, and also helps minimise cognitive bias.


Space exploration inherently involves high risks, and even minor incidents can have catastrophic consequences. By employing Kelvin TOP-SET, space agencies and companies can systematically analyse incidents, identify contributing factors, and implement corrective measures to enhance safety protocols.


Importantly, the methodology is completely scalable and applicable to all areas of the space sector's infrastructure. Whether it's troubleshooting technical glitches during satellite deployment, resolving logistical challenges in mission planning, or addressing a slip, trip, or fall in the staff canteen, Kelvin TOP-SET provides a structured approach to address complex problems effectively.


The structured approach to investigation, and engaging, sustaining, and testing the learnings from it, provides a pathway to continued and sustained safety and business performance. Robust investigation using the established Kelvin TOP-SET process can bring multiple benefits to organisations:


1. Enhanced Safety: Safety is paramount in the space industry, where even minor errors can have severe consequences. Kelvin TOP-SET's systematic approach to incident investigation and learning from previous incidents helps space agencies identify potential hasards and trends, assess risks, and implement preventive measures to safeguard personnel, equipment, and missions.


2. Improved Reliability: Reliability is crucial for all high-risk industries. By analysing incidents and near-misses using the Kelvin TOP-SET methodology, space organisations can identify weak points in their systems and processes, leading to improvements that enhance project (or mission) reliability and success rates.


3. Cost Reduction: Space missions and infrastructure are inherently expensive, and any delays or failures can result in significant financial losses. By proactively addressing issues through the outcomes of using the Kelvin TOP-SET process, organisations can mitigate risks, minimise disruptions, and ultimately reduce costs associated with mission downtime and rework.


4. Continuous Business Improvement: The Kelvin TOP-SET methodology emphasises a culture of continuous improvement by encouraging organisations to learn from incidents and apply lessons learned to future endeavours. This iterative approach encourages innovation and resilience, driving progress and pushing the boundaries of exploration!


5. Optimising Problem-Solving Capabilities: The systematic approach of Kelvin TOP-SET enhances problem-solving capabilities. By guiding teams through structured analyses of incidents, the methodology equips professionals with valuable skills for tackling challenges, both complex and simple, effectively. This not only leads to more efficient incident investigation and understanding of the causes, but also cultivates a culture of proactive problem solving, empowering individuals and teams to address issues swiftly and strategically throughout all phases of a project. Ultimately, this fosters resilience and adaptability, crucial qualities for success in the dynamic and high-stakes environment of the Scottish space sector.


The space sector faces numerous challenges, including high costs, technical complexity, launch reliability, environmental concerns, international cooperation and competition, workforce and talent shortages, regulatory and legal challenges, and long-term planning and funding. Effective incident investigation plays a vital role in overcoming these obstacles and propelling the industry forward.


For upstream companies involved in the development and manufacturing of spacecraft, satellites, and launch vehicles, incident investigation is crucial for enhancing the reliability and safety of their products. By meticulously analysing incidents, these companies can identify areas for design improvements, refine manufacturing processes, and strengthen quality control measures, ultimately increasing the success rate of their missions.


Downstream companies, such as satellite operators and space-based service providers, also benefit significantly from robust incident investigation practices. By thoroughly investigating incidents related to spacecraft operations, data transmission, or service delivery, these companies can pinpoint vulnerabilities, improve operational procedures, and enhance the resilience of their systems, ensuring uninterrupted and reliable services for their customers.


Moreover, effective incident investigation contributes to fostering a culture of safety and continuous learning within space organisations. By openly addressing incidents and sharing lessons learned, companies can cultivate an environment that values transparency, encourages open communication, and promotes a proactive approach to risk management.


As the space industry continues to evolve and push the boundaries of exploration, the ability to learn from incidents and implement effective corrective measures will be paramount. Kelvin TOP-SET's incident investigation training equips space professionals with the knowledge and skills necessary to conduct comprehensive investigations, analyse data, and develop robust solutions, empowering the industry to overcome challenges and achieve new heights.


The adoption of robust incident investigation methodologies like Kelvin TOP-SET is essential for ensuring the safety, reliability, and success of space missions. The structured problem-solving approach offered by Kelvin TOP-SET allows stakeholders in the burgeoning Scottish space sector to mitigate risks, optimise operations, and drive continuous improvement, ultimately contributing to the advancement of space exploration and innovation to allow another giant leap for mankind.

Anyone interested in exploring this subject more within their own company can speak to George of Kelvin TOP-SET.

Written by:

George Dyer-Wilson

Partner - Marketing & Communications

Unit 2 Annickbank Innovation Campus, Irvine, KA11 4LF, Scotland


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