Sunday, August 07, 2005

Conflict adverse managers

From Anonymous:

I was thinking about the recent content of the Blog, the good
thoughtful posts on Lab productivity and leadership right next to the
heaps of bile that are seemingly ever-present. What might the good
and bad side of these posts have in common?

Many people have observed an almost systematic “quality” of LANL
management: conflict aversion. The desire to avoid conflict at all
costs seems to permeate every aspect of Laboratory management. It
explains the lack of rational focused peer review that our programs
suffer from. Rather than offer positive criticism that might result
in a better product, the manager offers up empty platitudes so that
everyone can feel good. This comes through how personnel problems
are handled, where people who dare to bring up or deal with problems
are often viewed as bigger problems than the slackers who do little
or nothing. Managers are not chosen to get things done, they are
chosen to get along with everyone and make nice with all the
employees and other managers. Perhaps worst of all it explains the
Laboratory’s seeming capitulation to the micro managing of DOE and
its overwhelmingly negative impact on every aspect of the Lab’s
operations.

I remember being drawn to the chapter “Confront the Brutal Facts” in
Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” because it described management
cultures that were so refreshingly different from our own. There he
describes great companies that all have a character of always
focusing on solving their problems rather than basking in their
accomplishments. Management meetings described by Collins are
energetic debates where problems are laid open for all to see,
dissected, analyzed and solutions are crafted and acted upon.

LANL’s culture is almost the direct opposite. One might go so far as
to attribute some of the nasty posts on the Blog as an outlet for the
disaffected at LANL who have suffered the years of inattention by
management. Rather than deal with conflict upfront, it is
continually put off until it boils over. LANL is full of festering
wounds that management has ignored for years. Some of the most
vitriolic posts on the Blog merely expose these institutional
injuries. The entirety of the LDRD and Great Science versus Weapons
Program debate is associated with the Lab’s management’s inattention
to this issue for many years.

Why has LANL management developed this character? And what can be
done to start choosing people who deal with problems forthrightly
rather than avoid them?

Perhaps the change will come in the form of Lock~Mart, in any case we
would be best served by starting to change right now.


Comments:
Another interpretation of the bipolar behavior on the blog, unfortunately, is that the years of passive UC mismanagement have resulted in a large share of "dead wood" having accumulated at LANL, which really needs to be cleaned out.
 
I could not agree more. I am embarrassed by the immature, vitriolic garbage that has been posted here lately by people claiming to be from LANL. I think a good house cleaning at the lab is the best thing that could happen to Los Alamos.
 
8/07/2005 11:23:01 AM said:

"I could not agree more. I am embarrassed by the immature, vitriolic garbage that has been posted here lately by people claiming to be from LANL."

That's a problem with blogs. Anyone who reads this blog can say they are from LANL and sound like they are . Actually, anyone can say they are me just by using my name.

I hope people who are trying to learn about the problems at the Lab understand this.
 
I agree, I’m sure that no LANL employee would anonymously post any self-serving messages. They are a famously noble and successful group, with the exception of those hired after about 1955.
 
My hypothesis is that a lot of LANL culture was cast by the cold war mentality.

The US was intensely paranoid, and nuclear weapons were seen as one of the few, if not the only, means of deterring or defeating the USSR.

Consequently, LANL was blessed with tremendous importance, and cursed by the same.

I believe I see this exmplified in the rapid and intensive extermination of malcontents, critics, and percieved threats, the most famous incident is probably the witch hunt for Oppenheimer. That certainly had to set the example of what happens to people who questioned the the status-quo.

No body was above the importance of fighting the cold war, and anyone who even be the subject of the slightest perception of an impediment to fighting the cold war was dealt with by reprisals, retiring-in-place, harassment, clearance-revokation, and lots more.

Consequently, dissent and criticism are self-censored. Managers go-along-to-get-along. Effective push-back against DOE and political stupidity doesn't exist. Everyone is afraid of their own shadow, like a dog that's been beaten too much.

UC probably contributed to this up until recent times by neglecting it's obligation to manage LANL. UC has not historically 'managed' LANL like it does a campus. LANL was basically self-managed, and wrapped like a burrito with UC's marveous retirement system and benefits. When UC was finally forced to attempt to 'manage' Los Alamos it botched it so badly, we now are heading into contract competition. Not that it wasn't already too late for UC to actively 'manage' LANL anyway.

In great organizations, internal reviews, criticism and intensive self-awareness results in quick effective observation, diagnosis and correction of problems. Problems include things we see on the hill every day, including poor management, do-nothing employees retired-in-place, bloated costs, run-away-bureaucracies, shameless empire building and the supression of well-intentioned internal evaluation teams through intimidation and veiled threats.

Now that high level of importance is gone with the cold war, but the culture remains and corrodes the institution from the inside out.

Deficiencies are growing right now that could be dealt with but are not because criticism, instead of being viewed as an opportunity to fix vulnerabilities before they become disasters, are viewed as blame to be inflicted upon those who own the deficiencies.

This reenforces a brittle insitution with problems that build in a repeating pattern until they explode in a thunderous diasaster to relieve the pressure of neglect, then build again up to the next one.

Los Alamos has incredible people with incredible talents that could continue to contribute incredible value to the United States.

But we've got to get over the cold war, and our fear of blame, witch hunts and self-incrimination so we can identify and fix problems before they become the next front-page disaster.
 
To 8/07/2005 03:44:05 PM, your reply to my original post was fantastic! Exactly the sort of thoughtful content that the Blog needs. You gave me something to think about with regard to the root cause of our problems. Thank You.
 
To 8/07/2005 03:44:05 PM, your reply to my original post was fantastic!

8/07/2005 04:43:03 PM: Thanks. Re-reading it, I wished I had spotted and fixed more of the grammatical errors, but I was on a roll.

After 16 years at LANL, and having read many of the books about the institution at the end of the war and during the cold war, this hypothesis has been with me for a while.

A troubling discussion last week with an individual who worked on an internal evaluation team, who has since experienced bizaare, anonymous intimidation and decided not to do the evaluation work anymore helped solidify my thoughts.

Your original post precipitated them out.

We are as an institution plunging headlong into the next crisis if we fail to solicit criticism, diagnose the problems, and fix them ourselves.

--8/07/2005 03:44:05 PM
 
I believe one reason for the conflict aversion is the fact that it is nearly impossible to deal with problem employees. Firing someone who is not doing their job is nearly impossible so the manager has to resort to other techniques to try to get work out of some people. Then, if the manager is not careful, s/he is hit with unfounded harrassment complaints to the extent where they ask "why am I doing this?" and either step down from their line position or leave.
 
It is not difficult to fire people at LANL. This is a common myth. LANL can fire any contractor without giving a reason, or any employee without reason during the probation period which is two years for TSMs.
If an employee gets past the probation period, firing is still a real possiblity, but employees are allowed to file grievances if they feel the firing has violated their rights. This is called due process and is provided for by law.
If the manager has a good reason for firing the person it can be quite simple. If the manager is intimidated by the fact that employees are entitled to due process they don't belong in a democracy. Due process just makes it possible to reexamine the reasons for firing after the fact. Employees almost never win grievances because they are all judged by the next highest manager who inevitably backs up the firing manager.
Conflict adverse managers are just cowards. They have nothing to be afraid of. The firings I am aware of are usually cases where the employee raised an issue that makes LANL look bad. Another common reason for firing at LANL is bullying, that is picking on a weak person so the bully/manager can feel like a powerful person.
Generally the unproductive person is kept around because he or she rarely stirs up any controversy. It is hard to work without offending someone, so we see a lot of disfunctional employees hanging around forever. Unproductive people make the best employees for incompetent managers.
 
There is a very real problem at LANL in dealing with unproductive employees. It traces to LANL's inadequate performance planning/evaluation process. As setting "real" goals, and measuring progress against those goals, is not adequate in most Groups the whole basis for addressing poor performance is undermined. If a manager decides to "deal with" a poor performer by assigning clear goals and measure, the employee can yell "harassment" as they are being singled out for special treatment. The answer to this of course is that ALL employees should have clear goals and measures against those goals, as they do in many major companies.
On discussing this with my LANL management, they are opposed. Too much work and not enough time, and they don't like performance planning anyway. So, this essential part of management, setting clear goals and measuring performance against goal, is missing at (most) of LANL. This also means that LANL management does not have a clear understanding of what their staff are doing, and their progress. This problem goes back for decades. Another name for it is lack of accountability, the chronic LANL management problem.
It is most unlikely that UC will address this, as they have ducked it for decades. Some very well intentioned past HR Directors, going back to 1980, have foundered on the issue of performance planning and measurement. LANL managers have always fought it, and with good reason; as it would expose not only poor performance but bad managers.
 
As expressed in the previous post, many LANL managers have no idea what their employees are doing and more than that, don't care all that much. As long as the lack of accountability doesn't get exposed and the status quo is maintained, all's well.
 
Pete Nanos Sighting ...

I spent Friday meeting with NNSA and DHS regarding the events in London. On my way to my hotel, I saw a car slowing down in front of me on the DC beltway. It looked as if the front tire had a blow out. I pulled behind the vehicle and started to get out and see if the driver was OK or needed any help[.

It happened to be our ex-director Pete Nanos. He started ordering me around like I was some sort of lackey. I had never met him at LANL, and I can see why everyone hates him. I though I'd do the good deed and help him change the tire. He was so bossy and just plain ungrateful, that he was in the driver's seat calling on his cell phone while I pulled the spare out of the trunk.

What an asshole! While he was on his cell, I pulled a Leatherman from my pocket and punctured the sidewall on the spare. The Admiral was so busy that i just walked back to my car, got in, and drove off.

I thought of a lot of things to say after I left, What a jerk!
 
8/08/2005 11:33:14 AM
You should have ran the motherf*#@&* down and done us all a favor!!
 
Thank you, 8/07/2005 03:44:05 PM for you insightful comments. I have thought much along the same lines for the past few years and have come to the conclusion that UC is unable/unwilling to deal with the mess they have made. In this respect, DOE and Congress were right: LANL needs new management and a new operating paradigm. My vote is for Paul Robinson.
 
To 5:29 pm:

I can't believe that there are still folks who don't understand that LANL will have "new management" independent of who wins the contract. If not Lockmart, it will be Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANSLLC). UC did not bid on the contract. Significant portions of LANL management will not be based on UC's ideas.
 
To address the original post. You are correct, LANL management is largely populated by people who simply cannot engage a real problem. They substitute passive-agressive behavior for leadership. The reason, I believe, is simple: they are rewarded for it. So, how can we fix that? I believe the answer is just as simple, quit rewarding passive agressive behavior and start engaging problems. Here is a challenge for ANY Los Alamos manager. The next time somebody in your organization comes to you with a problem, ANY problem, try to fix it. Do not pretend it doesn't exist. Do not try to candy coat it. Do not pass the problem along to some admin with no authority. Do not set up a database to archive problems for further statistical analysis. Do not try to make the person feel better. Do not counsel them like a little child. Do not tell the person that you know there is a problem, but that you are helpless to do anything about it. Do take responsibility. Do admit to yourself that solving problems is what you are being paid for afterall. Do make it your mission in life to actually solve that one problem. Do go and solve it. Do enlist others to help you. If you find that after doing your level best to actually solve the problem, that you cannot. Resign - you are not the kind of "leader" needed in Los Alamos right now. I claim if every manager solved one (only one!) problem every week (while creating no more!) this place would be transformed in 6 months. Of course, the immediate response is going to be, "...but management can only do so much." So, here are the rules for worker bees. If you see a manager actually trying to solve a problem (doing things on the "Do" list) help them and support them. If, on the other hand your manager is just another "Do not" list person, ignore them and move on; they have nothing to offer and you waste your time following them.
 
ESA is trying to solve a problem, Girrens has taken a group leader who didn't want to be a group leader, Hayden, and made him a program leader RRW???? Hayden is busy saving all of his favorites by making them members of his new program while throwing all of his old group to the dogs. RRW will save the Lab, yeah right. Hayden and his main cronie will destroy it like they have MEE. Some problem solver.
 
I am glad that this thread is going on.

From Hugh Gusterson's books (Nuclear Rites and others), it is clear that conflict aversion, bullies, and victims are part of the predictable culture of a weapons lab.

There are ways out of the difficulties engendered by the end of the Cold War, fear of retaliation, and loss of a strong mission.

The most common way is to get sensitive talented leaders and reward them for fixing things. Punishing leaders for trying to fix things has been tried before. It tends to drive away many of the people with leadership skills.

I hope that not only will the winner of the contract fix some of the ongoing difficulties of the lab, but that people who understand what neeeds to be fixed and how to fix it will start talking with each other beyond the confines of the blog.
 
8/08/2005 05:29:09 PM here. In response to 8/08/2005 08:04:01 PM, it is my understanding that the new LLC is a shell for UC as the lead and Bechtel as the junior partner. UC and Foley will continue to "manage" the lab's S&T mission and the administrative/overhead stuff will go to Rectal.
 
"...our fear of blame, witch hunts and self-incrimination so we can identify and fix problems before they become the next front-page disaster."

Fear, intimidation, retaliation, false accusations, character assasination, threats, rumors, lies...all in day's work at ES&H. Business as usual.
 
4:56, you really think UC is going to win?
 
It is highly unlikely that the UC-Bechtel team will be awarded the contract. In the remote circumstance that they do, there is no way Bechtel will be in a subordinate role.

Next year either Lockhead-Martin or Bechtel will be running LANL. UC will on the sidelines or out of the game completely.
 
poster 8/09/2005 05:29:50 PM

You are completely correct about the division ES&H or HSR. This happens here all of the time. Business as usual.
 
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