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Nuclear Safety Culture Assessments & Relational Coordination

Nuclear Safety Culture Assessments & Relational Coordination

Nuclear Safety CultureThis article will review some of the problems encountered in addressing deficiencies found by nuclear safety culture assessments, and how Relational Coordination can help management design more effective solutions.

There has been a spate of nuclear safety culture assessments posted on the internet. Many of them identify amazingly similar problems such as:

  • Issues are not raised because it is now painful, takes too long to place in process and to follow through: you have to demonstrate that you are right against a done thing.”
  • Problems between Engineering and Environmental and Nuclear Safety
  • Process and communication issues at WTP are in need of improvement across project interfaces so as to establish and sustain trust among the organizations and the employees.
  • “No lack of safety culture – only personality clashes and communication issues.”
  • Overall safety construct implementation does not support the project schedule;
  • A lack of systematic integration of safety and design indicates a less than adequate safety construct and has itself negatively impacted the safety culture
  • “I don’t think anyone here is not concerned with safety; it’s just not their priority due to cost and schedule pressure.”

The typical actions taken to address deficiencies found by nuclear safety culture assessments are:

  • More Surveys
  • All hands meetings
  • Stand downs
  • NSCQS training
  • Revise training for engineers
  • Restructure corrective action program
  • Develop metrics
  • Communications training such as Crucial Conversations and SCWE.

Many organizations report little or no improvement as a result of these actions. (There are exceptions). Improved communications across project interfaces and issue resolution tools are needed to support safety culture improvement.

Relational Coordination (RC) (2006) offers a framework that could break up this logjam. Typically nuclear sites evaluate work processes through the lens of of technology, systems and procedures. It is agreed that all of these must work in coordination. Yet, as illustrated by the data in safety culture assessments, the most frequent breakdowns happen in the human performance systems (otherwise known as relationships) .

There are two points of order here. First, the survey itself is valuable in pointing out the potential weaknesses in the culture but focus groups provide the most valuable insight. Second, once the location of the breakdowns in communication and coordination are uncovered I believe that RC provides the dimensions and technology to guide us on how to mend them. What is RC?

Relational coordination is the interaction between communication, relationships, and standards carried on during the work process.  It has been found that coordinating work through relationships of shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect, supported by frequent, timely, accurate, problem-solving communication increase levels of trust and open communication.  At their most effective, these communication and relational dynamics provide the basis for coordinated collective action under conditions of task interdependence, uncertainty, and time constraints.(Gittell 2009)

The model is simple but penetrating. The perceived lack of trust and communication is triggered by  weaknesses in one or more (usually more) of these seven dimensions. Is the information being transferred in a way that is timely, accurate, without blame, and within a framework of common language and goals. The RC technology also tracks the strength of the communication between individuals, roles and or functions.

RC reflects the latest thinking in Complexity Theory according to Ralph Stacy (2001), which states that the social interactions between people are the basic units that determine human  performance. In nuclear we have placed a distinction between human performance and culture, however they are completely interdependent. It is the expectations about the way we do things here that influences human behavior. If this is true the continuous social interactions between and among organizational members are continually forming or reinforcing culture. If this is true than the quality and nature of those social interactions is extremely important. This explains why pride or disrespect engender such different outcomes.

There is a protocol available that utilizes the RC survey and software to map out the quality of human interactions and can be very helpful to structure an intervention. However, even an awareness and adoption of the concept that these dimensions are important can help management make better selections on how to spend resources addressing the issues brought up by nuclear safety culture assessments. Will we set up every increasingly complex CAP systems or will we address the root cause: how the information is transmitted an understood?


Ralph Stacey (2001). Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations: Learning and knowledge creation.

Jody H. Gittell (2009). High Performance Healthcare: Using the power of relationships to achieve quality, efficiency, and resilience.