The recent nuclear reactor problems in Japan reminded me of an important message from Weick and Sutcliffe’s Managing the Unexpected. Their book is about how some organizations have built systems that are able to quickly and effectively adapt to unexpected events. In that book, Weick and Sutcliffe highlighted some of anthropologist Constance Perin’s work in Shouldering Risks: The Culture of Control in the Nuclear Power Industry. 

Weick and Sutcliffe credit Perin for recognizing that the real product of a nuclear power plant is not electricity. They offer the following excerpt from her book:

A station’s primary product is a cultural commodity: civic and market trust in its managers’ and experts’ competencies.

Weick and Sutcliffe expound further on Perin’s statement:

The main product in nuclear power generation is not what you think it is. The mistakes that managers dare not make involve trust, not the interruption of electricity.  Profitable production of electricity is secondary to establishing and sustaining that trust. Without trust, there is no production. Implementation of principles associated with reliable anticipation and reliable containment are the means to preserve that trust.

Managing the Unexpected has many great lessons, but this one means the most to me. As the manager of a major science facility, we are privileged to perform some amazing and exciting scientific research. In the performance of this research, we must routinely manage many dangerous hazards, including high voltage, radioactive materials, hazardous materials, chemicals, lasers, and explosives. We even have to worry about rattlesnakes and other beastly critters.

While the tendency is to concentrate on the production of shots or data, we must always remember that our true product is trust. In order for our facility to remain open, the line workers, our management, the Department of Energy, Congress, and the American Taxpayer must have trust in our ability to manage these hazards and operate safely with high quality. As Weick and Sutcliffe so eloquently write, the moment we lose that trust, we lose our ability to operate and there is no production of shots or data.

The two major components of this ability to maintain trust are: 1) anticipating the unexpected event, and 2) containing the negative consequences of the unexpected event.

At our facility, we embrace anticipation and containment through a comprehensive work planning and control system. This system uses a standardized company policy, Lean Six Sigma principles, and Human Performance Improvement insights to ensure that we plan work well, which includes analyzing hazards, mitigating negative consequences, and executing the job safely. The successful control of these hazards and subsequent assurance that we will produce good data provides the trust that is our main product to all the stakeholders. To work at our facility, you need to know that there is no aspect of our work that is more important. Safety and quality are inseparable and both must be pursued without compromise to either.

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