Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Catching Up on DOE’s SCWE Extent of Condition Review

Hanford Waste Treatment Plant
On May 29, 2014 DOE submitted its partial response to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) Recommendation 2011-1 in a report* on DOE’s Safety Conscious Work Environment (SCWE) extent of condition review and recommended actions for ongoing safety culture (SC) improvement at DOE facilities.

(Quick history: The June 9, 2011 DNFSB report on DOE’s Hanford Waste Treatment Plant (WTP or the Vit Plant) said the WTP SC was “flawed.”  The report’s recommendations included that DOE should conduct an extent of condition review to determine whether WTP SC weaknesses existed at other DOE facilities.  DOE agreed to perform the review but focused on SCWE because, in DOE’s view, the issues at WTP were primarily SCWE related.)

This post summarizes the report’s findings then parses the details and provides our perspective.

 Report Findings and Recommendations

The report was based on data from eleven independent SC assessments and thirty-one SCWE self-assessments conducted by individual organizations.  The DOE review team processed the data through their analyzer and homogenizer to identify four primary SC attributes** to focus on for continuous improvement in DOE:
  • Demonstrated safety leadership
  • Open communication and fostering an environment free from retribution
  • Teamwork and mutual respect
  • Credibility, trust and reporting errors and problems
Further processing through the bureaucratizer yielded three recommended actions to improve the SC attributes:
  • Form a DOE SC Improvement Panel to ensure leadership and focus on DOE's SC initiatives
  • Incorporate SC and SCWE concepts and practices into DOE training
  • Evaluate contract language to incorporate clear references to SC  (pp. 3-4)
Our Perspective

We reviewed the DOE independent assessments on January 25, 2013 and the self-assessments on March 31, 2014.  From the former we concluded that issues similar to those found at the WTP existed at other DOE facilities, but to a lesser degree than WTP.  The self-assessments were of such varying quality and credibility that we basically couldn’t infer anything.***

The Analyzer

The DOE team reviewed all the assessments to identify specific issues (problems).  The team binned issues under the SC attributes in DOE's Integrated Safety Management System Guide and then counted the number of issues under each attribute; a higher count meant a more serious problem.  They performed a similar exercise to identify positive organizational trends (strengths) mentioned in the assessments. 

We could be picky and ask if all the issues (or strengths) were of essentially the same importance or magnitude but the team had a lot of data to review so we’ll let that slide.  Concurrently identifying strengths was a good idea; it harkens back to Peter Drucker who advised managers to build on strengths.****

The Homogenizer

Here’s where we begin to have problems.  The team focused on identifying SC attributes and developing recommendations that applied to or affected the entire Department, essentially boiling their results down to a one-size-fits-all approach.  However, their own data belies that approach.  For example, the Leadership attribute “Open communication and fostering an environment free from retribution” was identified as both an issue AND a strength. 

In plain English, some organizations don’t exhibit the desired communication attribute and others do.  One proper fix is to identify who is doing it right, define what exactly they’re doing, and develop a method for transferring that approach to the problem organizations.  The report even says this attribute “is an area in which management can learn lessons from those sites where it was deemed a strength so that best practices can become commonplace” but this statement is buried at the end of the report. (p. 22)

The DOE entities exhibit a wide variety of scale, scope, mission and organizational and technical complexity.  The Department’s goal should be to recognize that reality, develop it as an overall strength and then build on it to create site- or organization-specific interventions.

The Bureaucratizer

The proposed fixes would basically create a top-level coordinating and oversight group, enhance SC and SCWE training and modify contracts.  The recommendations reflect a concerted search for the lowest common denominator and a minimum amount of real change.

If the SC Improvement Panel is established, it should focus on setting or refining SC policy and ensuring those policies are implemented by line management, especially field management.  They should also be involved in evaluating major SC issues.  If things aren’t going well, this group should be the first to ask the hard “Why?” questions.  But most of the panel’s proposed tasks, viz., maintaining SC visibility, providing a forum for evaluating SC status and overseeing training improvements, are low-value make work.

“[S]afety culture training for all personnel, up and down the management chain, will be updated and/ or developed to ensure that roles and responsibilities are understood and personnel have the capabilities needed to play their part in continuously improving DOE's safety culture; . . .” (p. 24)  This is a standard fix for almost any perceived organizational problem.  It doesn’t require managers to do anything different.

Modifying contracts to incorporate clear references to SC is only a beginning.  What are the carrots and the sticks to incent the contractors to actually develop, measure and maintain an effective SCWE and strong SC?

Bottom Line

This report comports completely with an organization that resembles a fifty foot sponge.  You can kick it as hard as you like, your foot goes in deep and you think you’ve had an effect, but when you withdraw your foot, the organization fills in the hole like your kick never happened.  I thought I heard a loud pop on May 29.  I now realize it was likely DNFSB Chairman Winokur’s head exploding when he read this report.

But Wait, There’s More

Remember the question the DNFSB initially asked in 2011: Do WTP SC issues exist elsewhere in DOE?  Well, the answer is: “Review of assessment results from both [independent and self assessments] indicated there is a SCWE extent of condition that requires additional and ongoing actions to improve performance.” (p. 28, the penultimate page of the report)


*  J. Hutton (DOE) to P.S. Winokur (DNFSB) May 29, 2014 letter transmitting DOE Consolidated Report for DNFSB Recommendation 2011-1, Actions 2-8 and 2-9 (May 2014).

** DOE considers SC in three focus areas: Leadership, Employee Engagement and Organizational Learning.  Each focus area has a set of associated attributes that describe what a positive SC should look like. (pp. 4-5)

***  The report puts the self-assessments in the best possible light by describing them as learning experiences for the organizations involved. (p.9)

****  Drucker was referring to individuals but, in this case, we’ll stretch the blanket to cover organizations.  For individuals, weaknesses should not be ignored but the energy required to fix them, if it’s even possible, is often too great.  However, one should keep an eye on such weaknesses and not allow them to lead to performance failure.

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