Saturday, May 31, 2014

Lessons from the VA:

A Reminder for the Nuclear Community

I hesitate a little to talk about the recent revelations from the Department of Veterans Affairs of apparent widespread falsification of records of patient waiting times.  There is still much we don't know about what happened and where the blame should be assigned.

However, as the story has unfolded in the past few days, I have been reflecting on nuclear safety culture and how it requires constant vigilance to maintain the standards we set to assure the safe operation of nuclear power plants.  I think it is timely to say a few things that are already apparent.  

In the nuclear community, we have established a principle that safety is paramount.  Further, we have realized that everyone has a stake in ensuring safety, that ensuring safety requires adherence to the rules and procedures, and that ensuring safety requires the willingness to stand up when necessary and identify when rules and procedures aren't being followed.

Of course, as everyone knows, the understanding of what is required to ensure safety developed in response to instances where things went wrong because someone fabricated a maintenance report, or ignored a critical step in a procedure, or failed in some other way to adhere to the highest standards.  And as we also know, it is very easy to "fall off the wagon."  But overall, the nuclear industry has established and maintained high standards.

Furthermore, management has learned that they get the performance they ask for, whether they ask explicitly or implicitly.  The nuclear industry has made great strides in creating an environment where, most of the time, employees feel free to report problems.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that other industries and other organizations need some of the same kinds of standards.  Whatever we learn from the VA fiasco in the future, it is already clear that staff and management were responding to a short-sighted focus on performance statistics and paying insufficient attention to other signals.  If it turns out that the problem was that the organization didn't have sufficient funding, staffing, and facilities in the first place, then what has happened is all the more tragic.

Whatever the outcome of this situation, I hope that the VA will look to the nuclear community for examples of how to create a culture where employees feel free to bring problems to the attention of management.  In the meantime, I hope the nuclear community will look at this example and reinforce their efforts to sustain that culture.


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