The Laboratory Integrated Prioritization System Project


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Copyright 2005 by K. Ferlic,   All Rights Reserved

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From “The unfoldment of the calling”: As a line manager he was faced with a very unusually situation. The Directors of the three of the most prestigious government laboratories in the United Stated went to the Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs and said they could not do everything on their plate with the money that was given. They said they could not do all the safety upgrades and do the Weapons Program for the Department of Energy. No speculation on their real motives are made here but within a matter of hours, the author, as the Acting Director of the Research, Development and Testing Facilities was sitting in the office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs for Safety and told, “You and I are going to Albuquerque and meet with the three laboratory directors. We are going to fix this problem and it is your responsibility to make it happen.”

The Laboratory Integrated Prioritization System was important not because of what it was and how it worked. That of course is interesting in itself. But its is real important was for what it revealed about how the decision makers were, or were not, making their decisions. It had the capability, or rather its results had the capability, to reveal too much about the decision makers, their more private agendas and quirks in their logic. It began to reveal much of what was normally kept unseen and what individuals preferred to keep unseen and unexposed. This was not the intent of the System but it can be said it was a direct by product of its application.

The essence of the problem being faced by the Laboratory managers was that there were an extraordinary number of demands being place on the organization infrastructure, circa 1992. Unfortunately the demands were coming from a variety of different directions for a variety of different reasons. Nothing any one person could do seemed to allow them to get organizational control. So in some ways, the plea by the Laboratory directors just reflected their own frustration and inability to get control over a once very stable and manageable situation. Yet, their plea was not totally unjustified for there were excessive and unreasonable demands being made. Because there were so many real problems, many individuals could raise issues that were not really a concern but because of the number of concerns one could not really differential what were real issues as opposed to perceived issues.

In response to their plea a meeting was held and the author and his Laboratory counterparts were told to fix the problem. Initially the Laboratories were very reluctant to have the Department of Energy even suggest they could help them prioritize the Laboratory needs. Most Laboratory personnel just wanted the Department and others to just back off their demands and let the Laboratories do what they wanted. Also, for years the Laboratories did not really work together. The tended to work separately in parallel fashions. They resisted any attempt to have uniformity. Creativity and creative freedom was of course the excuse.

However, that was not going to be the case this time. The Laboratory Directors raised their problems to too high an individual. The author’s counter parts were told rather simply and directly by the author, “Either we fix this together in a way we can all live with or I am going to fix it for you.” Several years later the author asked one of his key Laboratory counterparts, “What made you all finally work together?” The counterpart replied, “Well, after your conference call we realized that you were serious. In the past, Department people would talk but not act. Your reputation preceded you and we knew you would act. We all figured it would be better if we lead than you lead. So, we decided to work together for we then could present a united front on our preferred and chosen approach.”

When we got started building the System, everything that needed to be addressed was put on the table. There was a brainstorming session to identify all that needed to be address and prioritized. What came out of the brainstorming session were plenty of issues to put on the table but something else came out. The integrated prioritization system would be a tool for the decision maker. That is, the decision make would use it to help them get clarity about an issue. Their staff would participate but it was about giving unbiased information on the issue. The goal was to allow the decision maker to make the decision on the facts.

What was clear was that whatever was created had to integrate and somehow effectively prioritize all that when into managing a large Laboratory. It needed to address maximizing health and safety. It had to address both public health and safety and the worker health and safety for the types and kinds of health effects to include, chronic, acute and loss of life. Environmental protection was high on the list in a variety of ways. One needed to be aware of the types and kinds of environmental resources impacted such as sensitive or endangered species, wetlands, historic or archeological significant land, surface or ground water impacts and the like. Regulatory compliance and the types and kinds of consequences whether Federal, State or Local, needed to be considered. As a result of the National Security interests of some of the Laboratory operations, safeguards and security issues had to be consider. The types and kinds of potential information and/or material loss needed to be included with sabotage and other types of threats.

But the Laboratories were in the business to do research. They had programmatic interests and needs. If they could not do the program work then their was not much reason for them to exist. The System needed to somehow look a maximizing strategies for the position and effective use of resources. The prioritization needed to look at the impacts on the value of the applied science and technology related to mission. One needed to understand how mission capability was affected and whether or not proposed actions cause a benefit or loss to mission capability. Similarly, the impact on the quality of facility and equipment management needed to be considers. Were the impacts long term or short term and did they improve capabilities of the Laboratory or decrease them. Then, of course, one needed to look at cost saving and effectiveness for anything that was done.

Often overlooked in other approaches but considered in this System was the need to look at maximizing the employee ability and efficiency and employee motivation. Then, last but not least, the prioritization system needed to look at the public assessment. One needed to consider if what was proposed was or was not acceptable to the local population. Many mission had been stopped or impeded because of public sentiment. The public had to be considered.

When all was put on the table it seemed almost like an impossible mission. Was it possible to really come up with a way to effective integrate the prioritization of these seemingly different issues. But the list did not stop there. There were some other things that needed to be considered.

It addition to addressing safety and workplace hazards. It had to address the knowledge of the hazard and possible compensatory measures one could take. It had to push towards control of the hazard. The System had to address quality. It needed some way to identify clear specifications and a way to meet those specifications. It has address the context and environment of the workplace. Somehow it needed to address: cultural beliefs of the workers and public around the workplace for they differed from place to place, the physical location of the workplace, alignment of the workforce to or with the organizations, alignment of the workforce with itself and alignment of the organization and the community. The System had to somehow address the personal beliefs structure and expectations of the individual that was brought into the workplace for those beliefs often biased decisions. All this information then had to be feed into the technical management decision process. One had to not only become aware of the influences on the issue, they had to become aware of the personal beliefs and expectations one has and the awareness of the decision itself.

As the work on trying to create such a System, clarity came around other issues. Namely, the System had to address responsibility in some way. The System needed to bring an awareness of responsibility. Namely, one needs to recognize and understand what one sees and why. They also realize they have a choice of action. The decision maker needed to recognize that no decision is a decision and they are nevertheless responsible when they don’t decide.

In many ways the System needed to create a favorable call to the adventure. A call to an adventure is about accepting or rejecting the challenge of a choice of action that will significantly impact your life. The call to adventure challenge raises the question in the decision makers mind, “Are you able to do what is required are you willing to do what needs to be done?’ In this regard, the issue that came up was that training. The training must provide the tools for discernment and give the understanding to provide the confidence to accept the challenge. That is, the training must empower the decision maker and those who use the System. The decision maker had to know and have confidence that one could effectively and adequately balance all these competing needs.

To add to the complexity, invitation were provided for the stakeholders in the results of the prioritization could participate in the process. Every attempt was made to get all parties involved. Only one group really failed to participate, namely the safety organization for the Department. But they did send a representative to observe. The reasoning which was offered for their nonparticipation was that if they became involved they would become part of the problem and be helping to manage the problem.

Having spent a majority of his professional life in safety, the author knew there was justification and logic not to participate. However, the evidence suggested that many of the safety organization’s “pet” projects were not totally justified based on the facts as they could be determined. The safety organization was the first to be revealed that many of their decisions were not justified based on the facts as they wanted to claim. Although sensitivity studies within the model on safety issues could be use to demonstrate how to enhance safety, and where safety needed to be further emphasized, the safety organization was of the opinion they had to make their own decisions as to what was important and how importance would be determined.

In the end, a System was found where all of these competing and seemingly different needs could be prioritized against each other and it worked. In fact, it worked too good. Decision makers found that when they had to look at all the information, they were no longer free to make the decisions the way they wanted to make them. Rather they had to make them on the facts. There were other reasons for their decision which they were not they were willing to express. But in the time period the Laboratory Integrated Prioritization System was used, the author began to understand the deeper issues that were affecting how decisions were being made. The author came to see often the decisions makes were unaware of the biases they were carrying. The experience with the Laboratory Integrated Prioritization System only further encouraged the author too look deeper at creativity and how and why individuals seem blinded even when presented with the information. The Laboratory Integration Prioritization System was bringing to the light that managers were making what appeared to be seemingly fact less based decisions. The question was, “Why, why were managers making decisions in the way they were making decisions?”

On a side note, the Laboratory Integrated Prioritization System became the author’s first real exposure to the internet although he did not fully understand what the internet was capable of providing at the time. When the Laboratory Management and Department of Energy Management failed to show interest in the System it was made available on the internet in 1996. The description of the System and the references available for the System at that time is was posted on the internet our provided in the file “Laboratory Integrated Prioritization System Description and References" Funding ended with the retirement of several of the key individuals. Its availability is unknown. However if you are interested in a system that can integrate and prioritize all the types and kinds of things addressed above, the references provided on the original website should help you get started.

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