Commercial nuclear power plants have bragging rights over their consistently high safety performance and relentless focus on building and sustaining safety culture. Why other industrial complexes fail to follow in their footsteps is unsurprising: It is difficult to stay focused on something as fuzzy as culture and heavy industry has more important things to do like run their operations.
Patrick Lencioni explains in “The Advantage” that company leaders are reluctant to spend time and energy on organizational health or culture because they feel they are above all that (and don’t need to be bothered), they are hooked on the daily rush of running the business, and/or they can’t measure organizational health so why bother. Yet companies that do work to build the right culture have an advantage and generally perform better.
That has been true for nuclear power plants in the U.S. who decided together to figure it out, assess it regularly, and hold themselves accountable for building safety culture and achieving results. Even though organizational culture (values and behaviors modeled by its leaders and demonstrated by its members) is conceptual, there are practical things that nuclear energy leaders do to build it in their organizations. Here are seven steps you can take with specific actions to achieve the results (from my book, Nuclear Energy Leadership: Lessons Learned from U.S. Operators).
Leaders show commitment to high standards for safety. First gain alignment across the top leadership team on the business case for high safety standards. Then leaders need to commit to specific ways in which they will demonstrate high safety standards-and hold one another accountable to those commitments.
Respond strongly to precursors and small events. Communicate to the organization that you are raising the bar by lowering the threshold on what level of event garners attention and investigation. Consistently respond to low-level events and repeatedly explain that they are precursors to more serious events and need to be seen as learning opportunities.
Rigorously use human error prevention tools.Adopt a small set of human error prevention tools, train on their usage, and communicate broadly and repeatedly how you expect people to use them. Respond accordingly when people use them and when people fail to properly employ them, with or without a consequential event.
Measure safety performance and be transparent about your metrics.Continually measure and track safety performance, including human performance error rates, at all levels of the organization. Communicate results at least monthly, compare yourself to world class (safe environment = no fatalities) and be transparent.
Get workforce input on safety improvements. Safety teams need to have strong employee participation and they need to be credible, well-run groups. Actively seek input and communicate changes made in response to employees’ input.
Regularly assess safety behaviors, culture, and progress. Use legitimate (reliable and valid) safety culture assessment processes annually to determine trends and progress made, as well as to proactively identify organizational issues that contribute to safety performance.
Build self-criticality and a learning orientation. Leaders need to foster self-critical behavior by modeling it and by reinforcing processes that support learning. Regularly communicate to the organization that they need to be more self-critical learners in order to improve safety and overall performance (and improve their lives).
With the growth of nuclear power outside the U.S., one would expect that these practical approaches and lessons learned can be instituted elsewhere. Major U.S. vendors working outside the U.S. can take these steps with them and show their benefits. Closer to home, where a number of industries still endure multiple fatalities each year, there may be a need for greater commitment to building organizational safety culture, not just implementing solid safety programs.
Finally, for U.S. commercial nuclear power, safety culture also means that values and behaviors demonstrate that safety is the overriding priority. This may be where the rub is-even though it has been demonstrated that in the end, safety culture is the royal road to results operationally.