Friday, February 6, 2015

Corrosion in the Culture of the DNFSB?



We have posted many times on the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board’s (DNFSB) efforts to get the Department of Defense (DOE) to confront and resolve its safety culture (SC) issues.  Now it appears the DNFSB has management and cultural issues of its own.  In a stinging report* by an outside consultant, DNFSB board members are said to have a “divisive and dysfunctional relationship” and the organizational culture is called “toxic.” (p. iii)  This post highlights the cultural aspects of selected issues and the proposed fixes.

Major issues that can affect culture are the board itself, the negative tone of oral and written communications, and the performance recognition system.

DNFSB is a small agency (100+ people) and most work in the same office.  There is no place to hide from the effects of troubles at the top.  The Board’s basic problem is that the members don’t have a shared mental model of the DNFSB’s mission and strategies.  And, because the members are political appointees representing both major parties, creating some kind of unity is a major challenge.  The report contains many recommendations related to improving board functioning but the reality is it’s mainly a political issue.  Board dysfunctionality is a cultural issue because hydra-headed leadership distracts, confuses and ultimately demoralizes the agency staff.  Most alarming to us, to the extent investigations are driven by board members’ interests rather than by science and safety considerations (a perception reported by some staff), the board’s shortcomings can impinge on the agency’s SC. 

Communications problems start at the board level and permeate the agency. Negative communications, e.g., condescending language and personal attacks, lead to a culture of disrespect.  The recommendations for communications include “Immediately ensure a professional tone in all communications, both among board members and throughout the Agency.  Consider use of an internal communication code of conduct.” (p. 3-2)  In our view, business communications should focus on the issues, be respectful and exhibit a modicum of integrity.

Performance recognition recommendations include “Assess staff sentiment with regard to priorities for nonmonetary incentives, and develop offerings accordingly.” (p. 3-5)  Nonmonetary recognition was mentioned by an employee committee tasked with identifying underlying causes for DNFSB’s declining scores on the periodic federal employee viewpoint survey.  We’re not sure why monetary recognition is off the table, perhaps because of perceived budget problems.  Our feeling is if some type of above-and-beyond behavior is worth recognizing, then an organization should be willing to pay something for it.

There are also a couple of more straightforward management issues: frequent disruptive organizational changes, and the lack of management and leadership competence.  If not addressed, such issues can certainly weaken culture but they are not as important as the ones described previously.

Change management recommendations include “Develop a change management organizational competency . . .  [and] a change management plan, . . .” (p. 3-3)  As an aside, the NRC Inspector General (IG) provides IG services to the DNFSB; an October 2014 IG report** identified change management as a serious challenge facing the agency.

Increasing competence corrective actions include “Institute tailored management and supervisory training for technical staff management and supervisors. . . .” (p. 3-3)  This is not controversial; it simply needs to be accomplished.

Our Perspective 

If the report accurately describes DNFSB’s reality, it looks like a bit of a mess.  The board’s chairman recently retired so the President has an opportunity to nominate someone who is willing and able to clean it up.  Absent competent leadership from the top, the report’s recommendations may make a dent in the problems but will not be a cure-all.

We wish them well.  If the DNFSB’s focus wanes, it bodes ill for efforts to spur DOE to increase its management competence and strengthen its SC.


*  J. O'Hara and P.M. Darmory, “Assessment of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Workforce and Culture,” Report DNF40T1 (Dec. 2014).  Thanks to Bill Mullins for recommending this report.

**H.T. Bell (NRC) to Chairman Winokur (DNFSB), “Inspector General’s Assessment of the Most Serious Management and Performance Challenges Facing the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board,” DNFSB-OIG-15-A-01 (Oct. 1, 2014).  ADAMS ML14274A247.

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