The principles of Lean and continuous improvement methodologies originated from manufacturing, but there’s no doubt that they have been applied to other industries quite successfully, such as nuclear energy. The nuclear industry believes that there is no defect or opportunity that is too small to go after, and there’s always room for improvement. This important principle is a cornerstone belief of what many refer to as a High-Reliability Organization or HRO.
Once you look at the essence of these disciplines, the lines of distinction blur. It is in this vein that the below interview took place. In addition to HRO practices, popular continuous improvement methodologies can benefit the nuclear industry. (Spoiler alert: it’s almost impossible to sustain the practices without complete buy-in, leadership support, and a simple process). I recently had the opportunity to sit down virtually with Kelly Robinson, who has a PhD in leadership, to hear his experience with leadership and continuous improvement in the nuclear energy industry.
How was continuous improvement brought into the nuclear plant?
A small plant in New England was looking to implement a continuous improvement program. The plant’s CEO was determined to improve things, so they brought in a management company to talk through process improvement. The management company’s main lesson was identifying waste, such as extra steps in processes, and how to eliminate it. In Lean, we know this as the 7 Wastes of Lean. Once the team at the plant was trained on process improvement, it was now time to start implementing the practice daily.
The plant put together informal teams whenever someone found items that needed to be improved. Once they got to the green light to solve it, they implemented the improvement and presented the improvement idea to the council with a simple, informal PowerPoint template.
One of those small projects involved developing a tool to seat a heavy channel that guides reactor coolant over the fuel during new fuel inspection. With the tool, the person would be able to direct the work from a much safer location. It was so successful and so obviously a better way to handle the situation that it spread through many nuclear plants beyond that small plant in New England.
How did the plant’s leadership team support the continuous improvement program?
- Held annual employee reviews: Employees were encouraged to show at least one process improvement they worked on during the year.
- Rewarded employees with gas cards: When an employee participated in the improvement and presented the improvement to the monthly council, they received a gas card for their contribution and work.
- Talked about improvement ideas in a monthly meeting: Employees had a time and place to present their ideas to leadership monthly.
Without leadership implementing regular cadences for improvement meetings and recognizing employees, the continuous improvement program would have been almost impossible to sustain. With the leadership’s help, the plant’s program excelled for five years, and they implemented hundreds of improvements.
Why did the continuous improvement efforts die?
Eventually, the small plant was acquired by a larger company. The change in leadership from the acquisition and a shift in focus caused the improvement culture to dissipate at the plant. What was once a simple approval process that included informal PowerPoint presentations and gas cards for participants became a complicated process, elaborate formal presentations, and a complex “point” system (instead of simple gas cards) with a ton of bureaucracy. As much as continuous improvement relies on the frontline employees’ voices and leadership support, creating a complex improvement methodology can ultimately break your improvement culture.