I had breakfast recently with a longtime friend and colleague, Al Capristo, who is the executive vice president and chief administrative officer for STP Nuclear Operating Co. in Texas.
Al’s passion is leading safe, efficient, nuclear power operations; for a long time, he has been a champion of making sure that employees at all levels feel comfortable and willing to raise safety and other concerns. What he told me gave me an insight that applies to any workplace.
In the nuclear power world, it’s critical to plan for remote contingencies whose odds may be less than 1 in 10 million. If most of us make serious mistakes at work, it may cost some money, damage a client relationship, or cause workplace injuries or even deaths. And we may find ourselves unemployed. Surely, these are bad outcomes. But in the nuclear world, errors can destroy a plant and surrounding communities leading to immediate and long-lasting health and environmental damage.
Plants simulate a wide range of catastrophes and operational responses to guard against catastrophic events that likely will not occur. Contingencies range from natural events including tidal waves, floods and earthquakes to manmade disasters such as terrorists flying aircraft into containment vessels. To add to this complexity, safety experts have to plan for the remote unlikelihood that two such unrelated events could occur at the same time. The industry demands that plants implement multiple processes, check points, required safety systems, investigative systems tests and simulations.
Each day, plant leaders deal with challenging variables and priorities that include keeping production moving, adhering to regulations and being on the lookout for remote contingencies. They face an extreme version of what most of us go through in our daily work lives. So how do they make the right decisions in such a complex environment?
Here’s what Al said that will stay with me. He had worked with an outstanding nuclear plant operator who had pondered the same question. This leader told Al that he makes every decision in his plant by asking himself if he’s being “loyal to the core.” In this case, the “core” means the reactor’s key component, which must be protected, safeguarded and maintained at all costs. The core is always the first imperative.
No doubt a nuclear power plant is an unusual industrial setting. Yet, no matter what we do, we need to have a focus that goes to the “core” of our organization’s health and driving purposes. These are based on each organization’s values and mission. When we face tough decisions including dealing with people issues where emotion, long-term working ties and immediate needs may hinder us from making hard but proper choices, we need to ask: “Are we loyal to our core?”
This means that we look at business issues first from that point of view, and second by other business priorities. Being “loyal to the core” should be the watchword for our entire responsibility to our enterprises. That’s a more powerful enduring focus than any slue of regulations and procedures sometimes driven by rote rather than reason.