World Class Performance One Step at a Time
On December 16th I found myself in Birmingham, Alabama on my way to visit the offices of Southern Nuclear Operating Company. The purpose of my trip was to benchmark some of their work practices and processes. A few weeks earlier a friend at Southern had called and asked if I would be willing to pay them a visit to meet with a manager who had recently assumed responsibility for their workforce planning strategies, an area in which I have some expertise. As we discussed this possibility, I let them know I was interested in learning about their succession planning process. So we made a deal: we would each bring something to the table – I would share workforce planning ideas, and in return they would share their succession planning program. A Win Win situation!
As I navigated the winding, hilly roads on that crisp, December morning, it dawned on me that this kind of exchange between companies is a uniquely nuclear experience. In other industries the idea of sharing good practices among different companies in the same business is viewed as giving away trade secrets and squandering competitive advantage, but in the nuclear industry this culture of sharing has led to impressive results. Learning from one another, and holding one another accountable, has catapulted the entire industry to impressive levels of safety, cost, and reliability. The results are enough to make other industries envious:
In 1971 the average nuclear plant ran 48.2% of the time. In contrast, for the last several years the output from US nuclear plants has been greater than 90% and continues to creep higher, making nuclear plants the most reliable source of energy on the grid.
By sharing information and best practices about nuclear and industrial safety, nuclear plants have become even safer. Human performance errors and work related injuries have plummeted. Workers self report when they have made mistakes, then use the expereince to learn and improve. Today it is common for workers at nuclear plants to go millions of work hours without a loss time injury, and human errors are less frequent than one in 10,000 hours worked. That’s the equivalent of working more than four years without an error!
In the 1990’s I participated on an industry team that was looking for practices and behaviors that led to low costs. We discovered a fascinating trend – the safest and most reliable nuclear plants were also the ones with the lowest costs. As we dug deeper, we realized that the same collaborative management styles, culture of learning and discipline to follow procedures that resulted in high reliability and safety also led to lower costs.
The rest is history: over the last 20 years the cost of nuclear generated electricity has fallen from 2.7 to 1.7 cents per kW-Hr, making nuclear electricity cheaper than even coal, and by far the lowest cost of low-carbon energy.
This learning culture is one of the many improvements that followed the core meltdown at the Three Mile Island reactor. After the accident the government formed a commission to determine the factors that led to the event, and to recommend solutions to prevent it from happening again. The Kemeny Commission was named after the Chairman, John Kemeny who was the President of Dartmouth College and a former research assistant to Albert Einstein. In their report, the Commission identified there had been a 1977 event at the Davis Besse nuclear plant that was very similar to the TMI accident. In the Davis Besse event the operators correctly diagnosed what was happening and were able to prevent conditions from worsening. Following the Davis Besse event the reactor manufacturer B&W issued a warning to power plant operators with instructions on how to respond to the event.
Unfortunately news about the Davis Besse event, and the warning by the reactor vendor never reached the operators at TMI. If it had, the accident at TMI would not have happened.
So coming out of the TMI accident the nuclear industry established a mechanism to share information between reactors, and vendors throughout the industry; and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) was born. INPO, among other things, created the framework for sharing “operating experience” between nuclear utilities, nuclear reactor suppliers, and other industry participants. Initially the information sharing was almost purely technical in nature, but as the industry matured and improved so did INPO. Today the sharing of best practices goes way beyond technical information and includes topics like outage planning, supervisor development, organizational effectiveness, and workforce planning. The culture and habits of sharing between companies no longer relies on INPO to facilitate. Formal and informal peer groups have sprung up all over the industry covering topics like human resources, new construction, and knowledge management. These peer groups have also spread worldwide with the formation of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and working groups facilitated by the IAEA, a division of the United Nations.
My visit with Southern Company that day was a huge success! I took home several great ideas that would have cost me tens of thousands of dollars had I paid an external consultant. They in turn were pleased with the ideas and experiences I shared with them. Best of all, we were able to build new professional relationships and friendships that we’ll draw upon in the future. Word must be getting around, too, because a couple of weeks ago I got a call from friends at TVA. We have a similar meeting set up for a few weeks from now. That’s what it is all about – one small improvement repeated time and time again across the industry. Before you know it you’re the safest, most reliable, and lowest cost energy source in the world!