Friday, December 02, 2005

Comment of the Week

From the


The resonant frequencies of an object tell a lot about it.

A glass rings when tapped. A solid log emits a different sound than a rotten one.

People and organizations respond to shocks and stresses different ways. Some are productive, constructive, and resilient. Others are selfish, complain of unfairness, and demand that the world align with their local interests.

The response of some elements of the laboratory to the series of impulses, from the Tiger Teams to the shut down, indicate that there are pockets of "soft" material scattered thru LANL that has degraded over the years and either needs to be re-annealed or replaced with good, solid material.

We generally do not get to prescribe the impulses we experience, but we cannot usually fake our responses.

The new contract will provide an opportunity to reconstitute the good, solid material that ought to be LANL.

What a dreadful attitude. Go abuse some people, and, when they protest, claim their response proves they deserved the abuse in the first place.

"Sir, may I have another?"
It is a rare thing, but I am obliged to agree with "dug." About 150 years ago, you might have heard someone who has just delivered 50 lashes, "Kiss the whip."
And now for something different, I believe I disagree with you both. Times of stress bring out the true nature of an individual. Some people at LANL responded honorably to the conditions resulting from the shutdown. Brad, you were one of them. Others did not, and we can all provide named examples of those people.

Further, I believe that 20+ plus years of ineffective management of our laboratory has allowed thickets of deadwood to appear here and there throughout our organization.

Unlike the author of the original post, I do not think that there is any 'annealing' process that can bring that dead wood back into productive life. I think a good old-fashioned housecleaning is past due.

Doug R., I do agree with you to a degree. The same situation can refine one man into a saint while driving another to bitterness. To a large degree, any situation is what you make of it. What bothered me about the original post was its insensitivity. I would not wish misfortune upon anyone, not even to test his mettle. I would certainly not provoke people in order to separate the good from the bad, because the ultimate nature of people is not always apparent in any single circumstance. The "fog of war" distorts more than it clarifies.

The leader is inclined to think himself superior in character where his apparent refinement is the result of his security of station. If he gets too intoxicated with his ability to create an atmosphere of crisis and glorifies mayhem as desirable in its own right as a purgative, he forgets that the man who brings evil is every bit as guilty as the man who responds badly to it.

No one is entitled to create an artificial emergency as a pretext for sounding out the "resonance" of others. People are not static objects like glasses that can be tested without influencing them towards good or ill.
Harold doesn't seem to be endorsing the nature of the impulse, but rather is observing the quality of the sound coming out of some sectors of LANL.

I think he is right on. History is packed with examples of greatness, most of whom are defined by noble responses to adversity.

Also history shows that adversity is not particularly personal or selective. A number of posts have shown that there are greater forces at work in creating adversity at LANL than the competence of the LANL or UC management.

Malicious compliance with excessive regulation, whining around the coffee pot, or raging about the legitimacy of the Peter Principal does not fit into a historically-relevant envelope of nobility.

Some of us hunker down and push on. Some run for the hills. Some get mean and lash out. Some work to make the best of a difficult situation. Some lead with courage and vision (a rarity).
Some get mean and lash out. Some work to make the best of a difficult situation. Some lead with courage and vision (a rarity).

Precisely the difference between Foley/Nanos and C. Paul Robinson.
In the world of employment there are other options available beyond "malicious compliance, whining, raging, running, or hunkering down." There is rational decision making that leads to the conclusion that LANL is so broken that repair is no longer a reasonable expectation. How it got broken is not the issue, the fact that it is broken is the real issue. Once you reach that conclusion, the rational individual seeks employment in an organization that is healthy and can offer stimulating work without the damaging affects of being in a dysfunctional environment.

I reached this conclusion 6 months ago and left LANL in September. I am now part of a healthy organization doing work I enjoy in a location we like living. This option is the real threat to LANL's future and should not be discounted. While many will remain in Northern New Mexico due to a variety of reasons, there is a significant fraction that can and will leave if the chaos is not addressed.
Good luck to you at your new job. Maybe you will have a great time, be well paid. and make an important contribution to the country.

How you prioritize those occupational priorities will determine whether leaving LANL is an option and what alternatives are interesting.
The next year and a half will undoubtedly be the make-or-break period for
Los Alamos. Many of the TSMs I've talked to are keeping their options
open, especially the ones who were hired during the big growth spurt of
TSM staff during the late 90s. With less than 10 years vested in the
UC pension, they feel no "golden-handcuffs". The other group that will
likely call it quits is the staff that are 50+ with 25+ years of service.
Not all of them left before June 30th. They didn't need to, as they
could gain another year of service credit by simply waiting out this
next year. Most of them will leave before June 1st rolls around.

Two things will need to happen to stop the exodus of scientific
expertise at Los Alamos. First, the badly broken management system
will need to be repaired. Second, the TSM staff will need to feel
some sense of funding security for their jobs. While we will likely
see some improvements in management, no matter who wins, it is the
second issue that concerns me. We are already beginning to see some
nasty TSM funding issues emerge at LANL. No one likes to be the
last man to go down with a sinking ship. If the TSM funding situation
degrades, then a lot of smart staff (esp. the younger guys) will be
looking for the exits.

One way to improve the TSM funding situation would be to aggressively
work at reducing the high cost of a TSM. Right now, a fully burdened
TSM averages around $350K. Some TSMs who work off of "other people's
money" don't have the foggiest idea of what they cost. No matter,
with declining budgets, their high cost will definitely effect their
job security. The funding pie can only be sliced into a limited
number of pieces. As for me, I've seen my costs rise from $260K in
the year 2000, to almost $400K for this year. If FTE costs are not
brought under control, and soon, then the next few years at LANL are
going to be filled with fear and anxiety. For the new managers who
take over on June 1st, I would ask that you please carefully look at
this issue. Science is what put LANL on the map. If science is
going to prosper at LANL, our extraordinary TSM FTE costs must be
brought down to more reasonable levels.

In a recent news article, Domenici went on record saying that he
thought the weapons budget would be flat or possibly decline in
the outlying years. He felt the lab would pick up this slack by
growth into other scientific areas, such as Homeland Security and
energy research. However, if the cost of the average TSM begins
to reach the $500 K mark, it is going to be extremely difficult to
spark new growth at LANL in these new areas. High FTE costs for the
scientific staff are the 10 ton elephant that is standing in our
living room. We can no longer afford to keep stepping around this
critical issue.
This TSM cost argument revolves around the idea that LANL will evolve into a work-for-others type of environment. We'll all turn into little profit centers, with contract-driven research, and a marketing organization, and so on.

I assume that we'll also go into 'hire-and-fire' mode that typifies this type of environment. You can't succeed unless you're willing to dump people -- frequently! -- as the contracts change. It's a real meat grinder -- I did that life for 5 years. 5 VERY LONG years.

I don't know about you, but I hate this idea. I came to LANL in 1999 to escape the contract R&D world.

If people want to work in a contract R&D environment, they would do better to go to BBN, Mitre, SAIC, ISI, Telcordia or other outfit that knows how to do contract R&D. If we're really talking about turning LANL into a contract R&D outfit, we're making a mistake. A lot of people came here (me included) in order to escape that kind of environment.

The really successful breakthrough labs are rarely, if ever, contract R&D labs (at least now nowadays). Go back and look at the big breakthroughs -- they usually came from block-grant-funded labs such as LANL in the old days, or Bell Labs, and so on. Labs start to go downhill fast when the adopt "short term focus" so they can succeed at contract R&D.

Ron has hit the nail precisely on the head in terms of what delinates LANL from other R&D organizations, but I am afraid that forces have been at work for quite some time to disrupt the block funding model. In the old days (even to the early 90's) funding came in large chunks for a collection of tasks. More and more DOE (not just work for other agencies) sub-divides monies into smaller chunks for specific deliverables. (i.e. more and more external micromanagement) This is driven government wide as more and more stringent Federal Aquisition Regulations take effect. This makes "block grant" type of management of research at the lab (i.e. local management of priorities and local control to go off on risky tangents) increasingly problematic. More and more conflict arises between the management of all those individual cost account goals, and the overheads taxed on them to do other things. The days of large block grant funding at ANY institution in this country is very, very sadly over and we need to adapt to this new environment. We need bold leadership to still provide long term stability for R&D at the same time as manage the smaller chunks that our support comes in.
"This TSM cost argument revolves around the idea that LANL will evolve
into a work-for-others type of environment." - Ron Minnich

That's not my point, Ron. You are reading far more into the idea
of FTE cost reductions than is really present. I, too, never want to
work for a "hire-and-fire" contractor like SAIC or Mitre. I have too
many family obligations to get involved in that type of financial
Russian Roulette. That's partly why I work at LANL. Here, there is
some semblance of a "safety-net", where individual TSMs short on funding
are given some time to secure additional funding. The day that I
perceive that this "safety-net" doesn't really exist at LANL will be
the day that I begin looking for a saner place to work.

All projects, whether WFO or funding from DOE, have a budget. That
budget can be divided among a limited number of staff. If our TSM
staff costs keep increasing as they have in the past few years, then
these budgets will have to be doled out to fewer and fewer staff.
This is already happening to TSMs within the ASC community at LANL.
If the FTE cost situation at LANL is not placed on a saner level,
science will suffer, and anxiety will increase as all TSMs compete
for smaller and smaller slices of a limited budget pie. FTE costs
at LANL aren't just some form of "funny money". They are real and
have the potential to adversely affect the whole workforce. For
those who seem unconcerned about their costs, I would ask you:

"Do you have any idea what you cost per year?"

You might be surprised if you actually broke down the figures and
included all the overhead burdens, Program Manager taxes, etc., that
are taken out of each dollar that LANL receives from the budget
you charge against on your weekly T&E.

DOE doesn't write out blank checks to LANL. WFO work, which has
been 25% of LANL's budget until recently, is also controlled by
sponsors who have limited funds. FTE costs at LANL have always
been high. However, over the last few years they have gone from
high to completely crazy. It's the dirty little secret which our
upper management likes to keep hidden from sunlight. And why shouldn't
they, I suppose. It has a limited effect on their job security,
as they will always get to take a cut off the top of any incoming
funds. In the end, Ron, even a smart guy like you will begin to see
a smaller pot of money to do your research if LANL's outrageous FTE
costs are not reigned in to more reasonable levels.

It would be nice to believe that LANL lives in some "Magical Science
Kingdom" where staffing costs are of no real concern. During the
Cold War years, we came close to this ideal. These days, however,
the dreams of a "Magical Science Kingdom" are dead. Even our patron
saint, St. Pete, has no power to bring this dream back to life.
Oddly enough, one of the reasons for these horrible overheads is that in certain regards, we're still who we claim to be.

There are still areas in which we are, for all intents and purposes, "unique," "the world's experts," insert your favorite bit of puffery here. Consequently, there are still sponsors who need work in those areas and are willing to pay the overhead to get it done. This in turn removes or at least diminishes the incentive to reform the overhead system to respond to the marketplace. The fact, meanwhile, that there are other customers who are NOT willing to tolerate these inflated overheads, and send their funding elsewhere -- funding, not entirely coincidentally, that tends to be for the "fun" stuff where we're competing on the world stage with other similarly capable players -- gets lost in the noise, unless you happen to be one of the people who depend on that fun stuff, in which case you're screwed.

Actually, I'm pretty sure both competitors for the contract are aware of this problem. The interesting and important thing is whether the successful bidder will have any ideas for something to do about it. Neither team strikes me as well endowed with innovators who will look for something creative to do. Meanwhile, the number of sponsors who are willing to pay that overhead for our "unique" skills is decreasing.
Remember that in 1995, Hecker did attempt to fix the overhead problem by reducing the major cost of overhead: people. This did not turn out very well. St. Pete is not going to permit a RIF of voters. SO, the best that we can hope for is attrition which is difficult since we just hired about 500 new people in the non-technical ranks in the past year, yet another legacy of Admiral Butthead.
The next contractor can always bail if they find the situation unworkable, or consider their hands to be tied too much by politics to effect changes.

Like previous posters have said, it looks like one's job security in the coming year or two will be a function of how many people leave voluntarily. The opinion of many is that LANL cannot get too many people to leave, even by incentive if need be.

Unless the pot of money increases, or a lot of people leave, dealing with the upcoming fiscal reality is going to be difficult, and likely unpleasant. Imagine when the new contractor finds the cost of parts of LANL's operations are many times that of industry's best practices - and not for any reasons related to what LANL does, but simply because they have too many people.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?