Saturday, March 05, 2005

Comments on Representative Hobson's Letter

From Anonymous:

I read Representative Hobson’s letter with great interest, but little surprise. His views are consistent with his legislative behavior. Our problem as a Laboratory is to quit making us such easy objects of criticism. Representative Hobson rightly targets our idiotic slogan “The World’s Greatest Science…” as the object of ridicule. Our science as a Laboratory has been “World Class by definition” for quite a while because of the increasingly inept management and the failure to apply any sort of rigorous peer review internally. It would be inaccurate to simply place all the blame on our management (Nanos, UC or DOE). This problem is long-standing and the result of collaborative incompetence from all the players starting with LANL’s scientific staff and ending in Washington DC.

UC deserves much of the blame as does Congress and DOE. Congress has increasingly pushed the time horizons in our core programs to be increasingly shorter, more engineering-oriented and less scientific in content. Look at the general quality of science in the United States as compared with the rest of the World! It is arguable that the European Union has already displaced the US as the scientific leader of the World ( East Asia is close on the EU’s heels. DOE is responsible for over-selling programs and over-administering the Labs. LANL (and our sister Labs) are responsible by willingly playing into all of these forces of mediocrity. We’ve allowed ourselves to become political “pork”. We’ve allowed the standards applied to us to be lowered. We’ve bought into programs that were poorly constructed and aided in their over-selling.

How does the current administration of the Lab fit in? All the above problems were with us two years ago and we have made no measurable improvement. Just the opposite, our problems have never been worse. Morale is rock bottom and we are losing talent at an alarming rate. The political environment is utterly poisonous and Pete’s failure to support the Lab has created a view of the Lab that is overly negative and critical. The RFP is simply pouring rocket fuel on the inferno that Nanos created. His efforts have made an already bad situation, untenable and created the circumstances that may well destroy the Lab. If he succeeds through his ineptness, he will have damaged the Nation and our National Security immeasurably.

In the interests of fairness I must admit that Nanos and his crew of misfits have done a couple of things right. The return of lab-wide classified colloquia is wonderful, and the “science roadmap” is a good idea. The problem is that his inability to provide positive leadership has turned the entire workforce against him. The negative forces Nanos unleashed will overwhelm anything positive. He has also buried the Laboratory in a flood of meaningless and ineffective safety and security paperwork. The climate of fear has made the vast majority of managers go into CYA mode and emboldened the empire-builders in support side of the Lab to increase the non-productive load on the working scientists. The ability to produce scientific results simply has no currency at the Lab; all of the emphasis is related to safety and security. Most of those who support Nanos simply do so out of fear or vested self-interest. Few have the best interests of the Lab or Nation in mind. Nanos can not succeed because he has alienated the very people he needs to produce results.

In addition, we have had a torrent of meaningless and ineffective project management and project managers heaped on us, adding more cost, but little or no value to our increasingly poorly constructed programs. Adding project rigor via technically clueless project managers is simply accelerating our decline. We are failing as a Laboratory to apply focus and sound technical judgment to a slew of important National issues. From where I sit the level of management inattention to issues of importance has never been greater and the focus on meaningless form-without-function paperwork has never been higher. New management structure has been a key player in draining science from the Weapons Program. There is a clear propensity to apply the management-fad-of-the-day mindlessly. Our management seemingly spends all of its time and effort in “fighting fires” and over-reacting due to Nanos’ fear-based style of leadership. The net effect has been to completely gut our management of scientific judgment.

Our management failings have never been more profound. I would gladly go back to the problems we had under Brown or Hecker. Nanos makes them look like management savants.

What can we do to move forward as to thwart the sort of critique that Hobson applies? We need to start by confronting our problems head on. This will be painful and open the Lab to more criticism. It will be difficult and success is not assured. We can only do this with support from DOE and Congress (are they willing or able?). First, the present management team is incapable of succeeding. Pete’s behavior, poor judgment and failed leadership have destroyed any chance of success. We will need space and support to recover from the damage done in the last two years. Second, we need to stop applying “World Class by definition” and accept rigorous external and internal peer review. We need to act decisively on these reviews. The “great science” part of the Lab and the programs need to be brought together. The great science needs to be focused toward institutional success and stop merely being window dressing. The programs need to accept the much-needed infusion of great science and the renewed collaborative spirit that once made the Lab a great place. Thirdly, we need to stomp out the culture of entitlement that is pervasive in both the “great science” and the programmatic parts of the Lab. Once these steps are taken they must be reapplied continually with increasing vigor and focus. New programs need to be undertaken only if they truly pass a rigorous scientific standard and through a collaborative effort including DOE and Congress. We need to be active in making sure this is done in a manner that the science really is serving public and National interests, not merely pork for Northern New Mexico.

We must recognize that the Lab still has a great deal of positive things going for it. We have a compelling mission that the Nation needs. Our Nation’s security is at risk and we have a large part to play in reducing this risk. Despite our losses, we still have a talented staff that needs to be unleashed. Our site represents an enormous National investment that needs to be harnessed to achieve its potential. Our prevailing institutional culture is based first and foremost on scientific excellence. These resources simply need to be drawn together in order to transform our future.

With the right approach the Lab can return to its former exalted place. Our alternative is to continue circling the drain at any increasingly alarming pace. If we don’t face up to, and start solving our problems, the Lab will transform into a place most of us will want nothing to do with. The Lab will cease being a place that can serve the interests of the Nation. Everyone is going to need to contribute in order to succeed in making the future brighter rather than dimmer.

It is true that Hobson is no friend of LANL - or the nuclear weapons program. See the following links:

It's hard to see what his agenda is, but the results are clear.
Is the original poster available to take a leadership position or able to influence the path forward (crap, there's one of those project management buzz word things) as this sounds like the most positive, realistic outlook I've seen.
In response to comment #2. Thanks for the praise; it’s gratifying to see that others have enough hope to fight for something worthwhile.

With respect to the question of leadership. Yes I am, but only if there is a foundation for success. First and foremost it means that these discussions should be held in the open! The cloak of anonimity is necessary because of the very real threat of retribution by Nanos and his cronies. This means having Lab governance that supports a successful rebuilding of LANL (LASL!) beyond mere rhetoric. It means publicly affirming what is great about LANL and its culture. It also means allowing LANL to confront and exercise its demons without unleashing a political firestorm.

I see that the only way forward is to start using a moral compass rather than a political compass to chart our way. In other words start doing the right thing, not the politically expedient thing. Quit maneuvering, and start dealing from principle. If there is one theme to how our management has screwed up so badly, it is the failure to manage from a clear set of principles. In other words, following the political compass has gotten us into this horrible morass in the first place. It brought us Nanos. It cannot get us out; we will only get in deeper until it chokes us to death. This all sounds quite idealistic, but the failure to apply ideals is at the root of the problems. We are managed in a manner that has completely lost sight of our fundamental values as an institution. We must act now or these values may be completely lost from the institution.
Hear! Hear! Thanks for an outstanding letter. I think a great step forward would be for whatever manager we have to follow the law! If Nanos had not felt it necessary to punish the innocent in the DX-3 mess we would have been saved a nightmare shutdown and expose.
Imagine if someone at headquarters hadn't decided to find a Chinese person to crucify over a leak that didn't even come from LANL.
I do disagree on project management. Project management is a good thing for engineering projects. It keeps them on time and on budget, something LANL has had trouble with. On the other hand, one cannot manage inspiration which is what drives science. Inspiration requires hard work in a safe environment, freedom to express dissent, freedom to take wrong paths until they are exhausted as possiblities, and funding. It also takes support workers.
But I do agree that there is no one entity to blame. Everyone has contributed -- DOE, Congress, mean spirited and incompetent management for decades and way too many empire builders and primadonnas.
I would go back to John Browne, but I wouldn't go back to Joe Salgado who came with the package. How soon we forget the firing of Walp and Doran for actually doing their jobs!
Nevertheless, your point is taken. LANL is on the verge of a precipice and it will take all parties from the lowest to the highest working together to push it back into a position of scientific leadership.
I think I understand - we work hard using 'doing the right thing' (which is, admittedly, slightly nebulous but which has some obvious tenets) as our guide and our energy is utilized in our goal of being at the head of the pack scientifically rather than having to expend so much to satisfy the administrivia and contend with the outfall from the political fray (even the diversion from the goal to keep up with the political game). Am I close?
Oops, let's "exorcise" our demons not "exercise" them. They are already exercised enough scapegoating our future.
Thanks for the refreshing analysis. I do want to point out a small fact: both the classified colloquia and science roadmap efforts have been conducted by a small group of mainly TSMs, a few very dedicated admins, and a couple of low-level managers. While Nano's did authorize these activities, he had little involvement in the real work it took to get this off the ground. I've found the colloquia in-particular to be worthwhile; thanks to those that put this together.
A few years back, I was forced to participate in yet another "management seminar". We were asked to write down on a 3x5 card those things that would most help move Los Alamos forward. I wrote, "tell the truth." The manager who initiated this phony seminar laughed at me and told me they wanted another sort of that wasn't obvious. Since that time, that manager has been promoted and I have left management because it is an insult to be associated with the rank and file do nothing, know nothing, ladder-climbing management that now plagues Los Alamos. A good house cleaning is long overdue. Let's start at the top of the pile.
I'll be contributing my empty office to a hopefully much smarter, less cynical, young person who has the time and energy to rebuild the place.
As a younger employee (well, at heart at least) and one whose personal circumstance don't easily lend itself to contemplating options elsewhere, I'm saddened by the awareness that many of those who are highly qualified to help rebuild the Lab are departing. I'm glad for them, don't get me wrong, but very sad for what lies ahead for those who likely will stay due to conditions outside of work.
Edit of previous post - (I should claim grammar amnesty but will give it another try...)

As a younger employee (well, at heart at least) and one whose personal circumstances don't easily lend themselves to contemplating options elsewhere, I'm saddened by the awareness that many of those who are highly qualified to help rebuild the Lab are departing. I'm glad for them, don't get me wrong, but very sad for what lies ahead for those who likely will stay due to conditions outside of work.
Dear Young at Heart:

You are right. The loss of thousands of years of technical expertise and experience (in the aggregate) cannot be replaced.

The blog has talked a lot about scapegoats. In the original version of scapegoats, two goats were selected at random. The first goat was the scapegoat. The high priest would whisper his sins and those of the people into the scapegoat's ear and send it out of camp into the desert. The second goat that stayed behind was butchered, drained of its blood, and turned into a giant shish kebab or maybe we should say "shish ke-blog."
LANL is not going to be returning to its former "exalted place."

You might as well just forget about that one.
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