The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently conducted a four-day workshop* on leadership and safety culture (SC). “The primary objective of the workshop [was] to provide an international forum for senior managers to share their experience and learn more about how safety culture and leadership can be continuously improved.” (Opening, Haage) We don’t have all the information that was shared at the workshop but we can review the workshop facilitators’ presentations. The facilitators were John Carroll, an MIT professor who is well-known in the nuclear SC field; Liv Cardell, Swedish management consultant; Stanley Deetz, professor at the University of Colorado; Michael Meier, Regulatory Affairs VP at Southern Nuclear OpCo; and Monica Haage, IAEA SC specialist and the workshop leader. Their presentations follow in the approximate order they were made at the workshop, based on the published agenda.
Shared Space, Haage
The major point is how individual performance is shaped by experience in the social work space shared with others, e.g., conversations, meetings, teams, etc. Haage described the desirable characteristics of such “shared space” including trust, decrease of power dynamics, respect, openness, freedom to express oneself without fear of recrimination, and dialogue instead of argumentation.
The goal is to tap into the knowledge, experience and insight in the organization, and to build shared understandings that support safe behaviors and good performance. In a visual of an iceberg, shared understanding is at the bottom, topped by values, which underlie attitudes, and visible behavior is above the waterline.
Leadership for Safety, Carroll and Haage
Haage covered the basics from various IAEA documents: “management” is a function and “leadership” is a relation to influence others and create shared understanding. Safety leadership has to be demonstrated by managers at all levels. There is a lengthy list of issues, challenges and apparent paradoxes that face nuclear managers.
Carroll covered the need for leaders who have a correct view of safety (in contrast to, e.g., BP’s focus on personal safety rather than systemic issues) and can develop committed employees who go beyond mere compliance with requirements. He provided an interesting observation that culture is only one perspective (mental model) of an organization; alternative perspectives include strategic design (which views the organization as a machine) and political (which focuses on contests to set priorities and obtain resources). He mentioned the Sloan management model (sensemaking, visioning, relating and implementing). Carroll reviewed the Millstone imbroglio of the 1990s including his involvement, situational factors and the ultimate resolution then used this as a workshop exercise to identify root causes and develop actionable fixes. He showed how to perform a stakeholder assessment to identify who is likely to lead, follow, oppose or simply bystand when an organization faces a significant challenge.
Management for Safety, Haage
This presentation had an intro similar to Leadership followed by a few slides on management. Basically, the management system is the administrative structure and associated functions (plan, organize, direct, control) that measures and ensures progress toward established safety goals within rules and available resources and does not allow safety to be trumped by other requirements or demands.
Concept of Culture, Deetz
Culture is of interest to managers because it supports the hope for invisible control with less resistance and greater commitment. Culture is a perspective, a systemic way to look at values, practices, etc. and a tacit part of all choices. Culture is seen as something to be influenced rather than controlled. Cultural change can be attempted but the results to not always work out as planned. The iceberg metaphor highlights the importance of interpretation when it comes to culture, since what we can observe is only a small part and we must infer the rest.
Culture for Safety, Meier
This is a primer on SC definition, major attributes and organizational tactics for establishing, maintaining and improving SC. One key attribute is that safety is integrated into rewards and recognitions. Meier observed that centralization ensures compliance while decentralization [may] help to mitigate accident conditions.
Systemic Approach to Safety, Haage
A systemic approach describes the interaction between human, technical and organizational (HTO) factors. Haage noted that the usual approach to safety analysis is to decompose the system; this tends to overemphasize technical factors. A systemic approach focuses on the dynamics of the HTO interactions to help evaluate their ability to produce safety outcomes. She listed findings and recommendations from SC researchers, including HRO characteristics, and the hindsight bias vs. the indeterminacy of looking ahead (from Hollnagel).
Being Systemic, Deetz
This short presentation lists the SC Challenges faced by workshop participants as presented by groups in the workshop. The 16-item list would look familiar to any American nuclear manager; most of you would probably say it’s incomplete.
Cultural Work in Practice, Cardell
Cardell’s approach to improving performance starts by separating the hard structural attributes from the softer cultural ones. An organization tries to improve structure and culture to yield organizational learning. Exaggerating the differences between structure and culture raises consciousness and achieves balance between the two aspects.
Culture comes from processes between people; meetings are the cradle of culture (this suggests the shared space concept). Tools to develop culture include dialogue, questioning, storytelling, involving, co-creating, pictures, coaching and systemic mapping. Cardell suggested large group dialogs with members from all organizational elements. This is followed by a cookbook of suggestions (tools) for improving cultural processes and attributes.
It’s hard to avoid being snarky when dealing with IAEA. They aim their products at the lowest common denominator of experience and they don’t want to offend anyone. As a result, there is seldom anything novel or even interesting in their materials. This workshop is no exception.
The presentations ranged from the simplistic to the impossibly complicated. There was scant reference to applicable lessons from other industries (which subtly reinforces the whole “we’re unique” and “it can’t happen here” mindset) or contemporary ideas about how socio-technical systems operate. The strategic issue nuclear organizations face is goal conflict: safety vs production vs cost. This is mentioned in the laundry lists of issues but did not get the emphasis it deserves. Similar for decision making and resource allocation. The primary mechanism by which a strong SC identifies and permanently fixes its problems (the CAP) was not mentioned at all. And for all the talk about a systemic approach, there was no mention of actual system dynamics (feedback loops, time delays, multi-directional flows) and how the multiple interactions between structure and culture might actually work.
Bottom line: There was some “there” there but nothing new. I suggest you flip through the Carroll and Cardell presentations for any tidbits you can use to spice up or flesh out your own work.
A Compendium was sent to the attendees before the workshop. It contained facilitator biographies and some background information on SC. It included a paper by Prof. Deetz on SC change as a rearticulation of relationships among concepts. It is an attempt to get at a deeper understanding of how culture fits and interacts with individuals’ sense of identity and meaning. You may not agree with his thesis but the paper is much more sophisticated than the materials shared during the workshop.
* IAEA Training Workshop on Leadership and Safety Culture for Senior Managers, Nov. 18-21, 2014, Vienna. The presentations are available here. We are grateful to Madalina Tronea for publicizing this material. Dr. Tronea is the founder and moderator of the LinkedIn Nuclear Safety Culture forum.