Nuclear, O&M

Breaking Bad: Don’t Let Turnaround Myths Stall Your Recovery

Issue 8 and Volume 118.

By Mary Jo Rogers, Ph.D.

The unpleasant revelations coming out of plants in recovery are a continual embarrassment in the nuclear business. Despite the excellent safety and performance records of the vast majority of nuclear facilities over the past 15 years, every so often the declining state of a plant in trouble comes to light. With many years’ experience turning around operations and safety performance, one would think that the industry would be able to apply a formula and recover the plant relatively quickly without backsliding. Unfortunately, some facilities struggle greatly and make slow progress in their recovery or fail to ever reach high ground. Although there are key lessons learned from past turnarounds, some leaders don’t apply them out of apprehension tied to common myths. Here are three time-tested lessons and the irrational thinking that keeps people in power from using the wisdom of others’ experience.

Right Leaders, Right Roles and the Myth of Looking Bad

Turnarounds require leaders with the right vision, passion, internal mettle, and the ability to engage key stakeholders in the recovery. Top leaders need a guiding coalition, to use Jim Collins’ phrase, or a team of capable turnaround leaders who have drive, attention to detail, and the ability to work together to lead the organization to change. The myth of looking bad prevents top leaders from putting in place people that have the skills and mindset to lead the turnaround. If they remove someone, it will make the top leader, the individual, and the plant look bad. The reality is that the whole facility already looks bad. This is like a stock that has lost all its value and you are afraid to sell it for fear of giving the perception that you are holding a bad stock. Instead, the leader needs to make a good assessment of his team members and make changes as necessary. People who are not a good fit at this time in the plant’s life are often relieved when you move them out.

High Performing Teams and the Myth of Automatic Teaming

The top group quickly needs to become a high performing team in order to achieve recovery goals. Recoveries burn out even the best people, but a dysfunctional top team will chew up and spit out solid leaders and managers that you desperately need. A high performing team acts in a coordinated manner to execute on all aspects of a recovery plan, including vertical alignment and workforce engagement. The mythical thinking is that teams become highly capable automatically as team members perform their leadership and functional roles. This occasionally happens when teams have unlimited time get to know each other, their roles, the organizational challenges, and how to work together. Plants in recovery never have this kind of time. Shut down is usually the endpoint of this approach. Instead, top teams need to dedicate time and resources to the actual functioning of the team—alignment, cohesion, communication, and capability—to achieve the recovery and make it stick.

Driving Safety and the Myth of a Safety-Production Zero-sum Game

Plants in recovery have a lot of pressure to get things done. Plants with a history of good performance that continually foster safety culture appear to have the luxury of doing so because of their relatively calm operation. Commercial nuclear power plant operators have learned that driving safety and production go hand in hand to a good outcome. Think of the converse: plants that allow safety practices and culture to decay ultimately have events that hurt production in a big way. If you have a nice car that you keep in good condition so it runs well, then you drive recklessly and get in an accident, your car still ends up in the shop.

In a recovery, leaders may be tempted to push the production lever a lot harder than the safety lever. However, safety culture will keep you running well once you get there and you’ll be glad you built it up. The fear of being completely stymied by safety culture is real. It can happen when there are trust issues and workers don’t have the right picture of what good safety culture looks like. Everyone can use dynamic learning experiences on safety culture. In the end, safety and production go hand in hand.

As Admiral Rickover, father of the nuclear navy, said: you must learn from others’ mistakes; you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.


Mary Jo Rogers, Ph.D. is a partner at Strategic Talent Solutions with over 15 years working with leaders in the utility sector. She recently published the book, “Nuclear Energy Leadership: Lessons Learned from U.S. Operators,” by PennWell. Contact Mary Jo at or [email protected]

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