Friday, November 4, 2011

A Factory for Producing Decisions

The subject of this post is the compelling insights of Daniel Kahneman into issues of behavioral economics and how we think and make decisions.  Kahneman is one of the most influential thinkers of our time and a Nobel laureate.  Two links are provided for our readers who would like additional information.  One is via the McKinsey Quarterly, a video interview* done several years ago.  It runs about 17 minutes.  The second is a current review in The Atlantic** of Kahneman’s just released book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

Kahneman begins the McKinsey interview by suggesting that we think of organizations as “factories for producing decisions” and therefore, think of decisions as a product.  This seems to make a lot of sense when applied to nuclear operating organizations - they are the veritable “River Rouge” of decision factories.  What may be unusual for nuclear organizations is the large percentage of decisions that directly or indirectly include safety dimensions, dimensions that can be uncertain and/or significantly judgmental, and which often conflict with other business goals.  So nuclear organizations have to deliver two products: competitively priced megawatts and decisions that preserve adequate safety.

To Kahneman decisions as product logically raises the issue of quality control as a means to ensure the quality of decisions.  At one level quality control might focus on mistakes and ensuring that decisions avoid recurrence of mistakes.  But Kahneman sees the quality function going further into the psychology of the decision process to ensure, e.g., that the best information is available to decision makers, that the talents of the group surrounding the ultimate decision maker are being used effectively, and the presence of an unbiased decision-making environment.

He notes that there is an enormous amount of resistance within organizations to improving decision processes. People naturally feel threatened if their decisions are questioned or second guessed.  So it may be very difficult or even impossible to improve the quality of decisions if the leadership is threatened too much.  But, are there ways to avoid this?  Kahneman suggests the “premortem” (think of it as the analog to a post mortem).  When a decision is being formulated (not yet made), convene a group meeting with the following premise: It is a year from now, we have implemented the decision under consideration, it has been a complete disaster.  Have each individual write down “what happened?”

The objective of the premortem is to legitimize dissent and minimize the innate “bias toward optimism” in decision analysis.  It is based on the observation that as organizations converge toward a decision, dissent becomes progressively more difficult and costly and people who warn or dissent can be viewed as disloyal.  The premortem essentially sets up a competitive situation to see who can come up with the flaw in the plan.  In essence everyone takes on the role of dissenter.  Kahneman’s belief is that the process will yield some new insights - that may not change the decision but will lead to adjustments to make the decision more robust. 

Kahneman’s ideas about decisions resonate with our thinking that the most useful focus for nuclear safety culture is the quality of organizational decisions.  It also contrasts with a recent instance of a nuclear plant run afoul of the NRC (Browns Ferry) and now tagged with a degraded cornerstone and increased inspections.  As usual in the nuclear industry, TVA has called on an outside contractor to come in and perform a safety culture survey, to “... find out if people feel empowered to raise safety concerns….”***  It may be interesting to see how people feel, but we believe it would be far more powerful and useful to analyze a significant sample of recent organizational decisions to determine if the decisions reflect an appropriate level of concern for safety.  Feelings (perceptions) are not a substitute for what is actually occurring in the decision process. 

We have been working to develop ways to grade whether decisions support strong safety culture, including offering opportunities on this blog for readers to “score” actual plant decisions.  In addition we have highlighted the work of Constance Perin including her book, Shouldering Risks, which reveals the value of dissecting decision mechanics.  Perin’s observations about group and individual status and credibility and their implications for dissent and information sharing directly parallel Kahneman’s focus on the need to legitimize dissent.  We hope some of this thinking ultimately overcomes the current bias in nuclear organizations to reflexively turn to surveys and the inevitable retraining in safety culture principles.


*  "Daniel Kahneman on behavioral economics," McKinsey Quarterly video interview (May 2008).

** M. Popova, "The Anti-Gladwell: Kahneman's New Way to Think About Thinking," The Atlantic website (Nov. 1, 2011).

*** A. Smith, "Nuke plant inspections proceeding as planned," Athens [Ala.] News Courier website (Nov. 2, 2011).

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