Friday, February 13, 2015

Congressional Panel Slices and Dices Culture in Report on DOE/NNSA

A U.S. congressional panel recently released a report* detailing its recommendations for improving the performance of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).  NNSA is an agency within the Department of Energy responsible for maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, reducing danger from weapons of mass destruction, providing the Navy with nuclear propulsion, and responding to nuclear and radiological emergencies.**

The panel’s report has a host of recommendations and action items for making NNSA more effective, including changing the agency’s management culture to be more mission performance oriented.  The report’s key points would fit on one page but of course they aren’t presented that way; this is a 188 page government report with a 16 page executive summary.

What caught our eye was how many different types of culture were mentioned in the report.  While the report’s focus was putatively on management culture, the authors also referred to DOE, civilian, enterprise, risk management, risk aversion, safety, entitlement, non-inclusion, governance, corporate, compliance, security, professional, organizational, reliability and generic “culture.”  I am not making this up.

With so many types of culture, one might think there must have been a significant effort to define culture.  Well, no.  I saw only one definition of culture: “A common definition of management culture is, “This is how things are done here.”” (p. 39)  Could they have done better?  You be the judge.

Lots of insight into culture?  Not really.  I saw one systemic observation about culture: “In a healthy organization, management practices and culture are mutually reinforcing in creating productive behaviors: management practices shape the culture; the culture shapes behaviors and reinforces the management practices.” (ibid.)  We’ll award E for Effort here because this can be true although not always.

So it’s culture this and culture that but it’s left as an exercise for the reader to determine what exactly culture is and how the various sub-cultures contribute to an understanding of the larger picture.

Our Perspective

Every member of the panel has an opinion of what organizational culture is.  However, without a precise definition and a representation of how culture relates to other organizational factors (including hard ones like practices and soft ones like leadership and trust) there is no shared mental model.  And without that, there is no clear appreciation of how their proposed interventions might leverage (or antagonize) the existing culture or even work at all.  This lack of effort on culture is especially disappointing given that one member of the panel was the NRC Chairman back when that agency was agonizing endlessly over the proper definition of safety culture.

But let’s look at the larger reality here.  Most people (myself included) will never take the time to wade through a report like this and that’s probably the way the serious stakeholders (DOD, DOE and their contractors) want it; they are willing to play along with Congress rearranging the lounge car chairs as long as the money train keeps running.

*  Congressional Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise, “A New Foundation for the Nuclear Enterprise” (Dec. 2014).  Thanks to Bill Mullins for recommending this report. 

**  National Nuclear Security Administration website.

1 comment:

  1. Having read many such reports from within the DOE and DOD plus GAO domains during the past 25 years, I have become inured to the amount of verbiage created to obscure or highlight the central message.

    Thus for example while there is all the diverse reference to various forms of culture one can find the preeminent intent in this regard in the appendix on draft changes to statutory language. Here we find the following section:

    "Where appropriate, the Director will rely on national and international consensus standards for achieving these objectives, with the understanding that that goal is to improve performance while reducing inefficient transaction-centered regulation. The orders and directives should account for unique nuclear and high-hazard conditions that may require special considerations (such as in the use of beryllium); and they should establish performance-based, risk-informed guidelines.

    • Within one year, the Director shall provide the cognizant Committees a report on its plan to transition from compliance-based transactional regulation and oversight of the weapons complex to the adoption of industrial standards with expert validation of performance-based approaches and results."

    Herein is found the specific intention of this effort and the various interested stakeholders who promoted it into existence. We might term this the "death to the DNFSB oversight" provision. Of course for those familiar with the details of DOE's safety regulation by contract process, it is also a death knell for the provisions of results-based Integrated Safety Management.

    Generally, this represents a long standing effort to return the management of the Nuclear Weapons enterprise to the "expert system" days of "the scientists know best." The other standard was, The Mission (as defined by DOD) always comes first. Effectively the regulatory reforms of 1988 might appear to be in jeopardy of reversal.

    As we are no longer at the raging height of the Cold War it is difficult to predict just how much enthusiasm there is, even in the Republican Congress for giving carte blanche to those National Lab Scientists and their Bechtel, et. al. corporate administrators. What seems clear though from any distance is that the work of NNSA is grindingly difficult under the limits of the decision not to test weapons by live fire.

    What is actually rather laughable is the notion that there is such as thing as "transaction-centered regulation" - this is a real mish-mash of wishful thinking for a return to the heady days of 1980 - I wouldn't count on that happening.


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