Thursday, March 7, 2013

Schein at INPO in 2003

In November 2003 Professor Edgar Schein gave a speech at the INPO CEO conference.*  It was not a lengthy academic lecture but his focus on managing culture, as opposed to changing or creating it, was interesting.  At the time Schein was doing some work for ConEd and had a notion of nuclear plant culture, which he divided into four sub-cultures: engineering, hourly, operator and executive, each with its own underlying assumptions and values.

The engineering culture emphasizes elegant, possibly expensive designs that minimize the role of error-prone humans.  Engineers want and value respect from other engineers, including those outside the plant (an external orientation). 

The hourly culture (which I think means maintenance) values teamwork and has an experience-based perspective on safety.  They want job security, fair wages, good equipment, adequate training and respect from their peers and supervisors.

The operator culture values teamwork and open communications.  They see the invaluable contributions they make to keeping the plant running safely and efficiently.  They want the best equipment, training and to be recognized for their contributions.

The executive culture is about money.  They want productivity, cost control, safety and good relations with their boards of directors (another external orientation).

These sub-cultures are in conflict because they all can't have everything they want.  The executive needs to acknowledge that cultural differences exist and each sub-culture brings certain strengths to the table.  The executive's role is to create a climate of mutual respect and to work toward aligning the sub-cultures to achieve common goals, e.g., safety.  The executive should not be trying to impose the values of a single sub-culture on everyone else.  In other words, the executive should be a culture manager, not a culture changer.

This was a brief speech and I don't want to read too much into it.  There are dysfunctional or no longer appropriate cultures and they have to be reworked, i.e., changed.  But if many things are working OK, then build on the existing strengths.**

This was not a speech about cultural interventions.  At the beginning, Schein briefly described his tri-level cultural model and noted if the observed artifacts match the espoused values, then there's no need to analyze the underlying assumptions.  This is reminiscent of Commissioner Apostolakis' comment that “. . . we really care about what people do and maybe not why they do it . . . .”

*  E.H. Schein, “Keeping the Edge: Enhancing Performance Through Managing Culture,” speech at INPO CEO Conference (Nov. 7, 2003).  I came across this speech while reviewing the resources listed for a more contemporary DOE conference.

**  Focusing on strengths (and not wasting resources trying to shore up weaknesses unless they constitute a strategic threat) is a management prescription first promoted by Peter Drucker.


  1. Lew,

    I've been pondering Schein's speech for some years now, in much the way I do the Rickover TMI Restart Readiness Assessment. Each represents the considered - and invited views - of exceptionally well-seasoned management observers and practitioners.

    Each report to their natural stakeholder audience suffered a comparable fate - the appeal to balance and fortitude at integrating diverse talents - went right over the heads of that intended audience - i.e. the "leadership" of those enterprises owning and operating NPP.

    These days, I doubt it is possible to read too much into that failure of curiosity, imagination, and respect for competent authority, represented my the mindless dismissal of these two sources of exceptional risk insight.

    One and three decades later, its difficult to conclude that those who dismissed Schein and Rickover have come up with a better way to run their businesses.

  2. Schein really doesn't take into account the behavioral profiles of the individuals that make up the "cultures" of the various sub groups. In doing so we might understand what it is about the positions that draw certain behavioral profiles to certain positions. Understanding this concept might help with performance standards and compensation packages to attract the type of individuals that fit the desired culture.
    In order to communicate and be heard by the audience requires understanding the preferences, needs and motivations of the individuals that make up the group. Having the data from the behavioral profiles will help us identify the drivers behind the "themes" of each sub group and will improve the chances of the audience hearing the message and making change possible.


Thanks for your comment. We read them all. The moderator will publish comments that are related to our content.