Thursday, December 8, 2011

Nuclear Industry Complacency: Root Causes

NRC Chairman Jaczko, addressing the recent INPO CEO conference, warned about possible increasing complacency in the nuclear industry.*  To support his point, he noted the two plants in column four of the ROP Action Matrix and two plants in column three, the increased number of special inspections in the past year, and the three units in extended shutdowns.  The Chairman then moved on to discuss other industry issues. 

The speech spurred us to ask: Why does the risk of complacency increase over time?  Given our interest in analyzing organizational processes, it should come as no surprise that we believe complacency is more complicated than the lack of safety-related incidents leading to reduced attention to safety.

An increase in complacency means that an organization’s safety culture has somehow changed.  Causes of such change include shifts in the organization’s underlying assumptions and decay.

Underlying Assumptions

We know from the Schein model that underlying assumptions are the bedrock for culture.  One can take those underlying assumptions and construct an (incomplete) mental model of the organization—what it values, how it operates and how it makes decisions.  Over time, as the organization builds an apparently successful safety record, the mental weights that people assign to decision factors can undergo a subtle but persistent shift to favor the visible production and cost goals over the inherently invisible safety factor.  At the same time, opportunities exist for corrosive issues, e.g., normalization of deviance, to attach themselves to the underlying assumptions.  Normalization of deviance can manifest anywhere, from slipping maintenance standards to a greater tolerance for increasing work backlogs.


An organization’s safety culture will inevitably decay over time absent effective maintenance.  In part this is caused by the shift in underlying assumptions.  In addition, decay results from saturation effects.  Saturation occurs because beating people over the head with either the same thing, e.g., espoused values, or too many different things, e.g., one safety program or similar intervention after another, has lower and lower marginal effectiveness over time.  That’s one reason new leaders are brought in to “problem” plants: to boost the safety culture by using a new messenger with a different version of the message, reset the decision making factor weights and clear the backlogs.

None of this is new to regular readers of this blog.  But we wanted to gather our ideas about complacency in one post.  Complacency is not some free-floating “thing,” it is an organizational trait that emerges because of multiple dynamics operating below the level of clear visibility or measurement.  

*  G.B. Jaczko, Prepared Remarks at the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations CEO Conference, Atlanta, GA (Nov. 10, 2011), p. 2, ADAMS Accession Number ML11318A134.

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