DOE’s Michael Mikolanis And N3B’s Brad Smith Chat About Recent Study Of Nuclear Safety On LANL Cleanup Project

Michael Mikolanis, Manager of the Department of Energy Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Brad Smith, President of N3B Los Alamos, the cleanup contractor for legacy waste at LANL, speaks at last week’s community forum. Photo by Maire O’Neill/


The Los Alamos Reporter sat down last week with Michael Mikolanis, head of the Department of Energy Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office and Brad Smith, President of N3B Los Alamos, the DOE’s legacy waste cleanup contractor to discuss a recent study of nuclear safety on the project conducted by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).

The purpose of the evaluation was to measure perceptions and attitudes of members of the workforce and provide data that management can use to guide current and future culture improvements.  

Mikolanis noted that prior to Smith’s joining the project, late last summer/early fall following a heat stress event at Area G, some folks were sent out to take a look at how the workforce was reacting to what had happened and what was being done.  

“We had some signs that were not consistent with the expectations of a healthy safety culture in an organization that we were trying to foster. Brad’s predecessor, Joe Legare and I sat down and talked and we thought it would be a good idea to bring in an independent group,” he said. “We saw some things up front, so I wasn’t surprised to see there were some significant issues to address. I’m glad to see they pointed out some strengths as well because with my background, coming from the nuclear Navy, we focused on the floggings, not the positives and it is important in a non-military organization to focus on both and balance, so I was glad they focused on some positives.”  

Mikolanis said the negatives identified overall really did not surprise him, but the details behind it that they gleaned from the focus groups the interviews and the context did help him.

“I did not appreciate some of the things they said that were fed back to us like time in the field. I know we all, particularly the leaders, need to spend time in the field and but we often get inundated with the day to day things and we often lose sight of that. Again there were some really good things we need to go consider and look at changing. So no, I wasn’t surprised because there were some really good indicators,” Mikolanis said.

Smith noted that he was a corporate reach back person on the Operations Committee to the Board of Managers for his company.

“We would come in periodically on and off because they would want to rotate people to Corporate, but when you hear things and you see things and if you’re not out in the field enough there’s two sides to the coin. Some of it could be frustration. Some of it could just be, ‘You’re not telling me’. That could still lead to frustration but one is more of a ‘Why are you not telling me, why are you not sharing with me?’ The other side is just building trust,” Smith said.

Smith said if people think he is being disingenuous, or if Mikolanis thinks he is disingenuous, they are not going to have the same relationship.

“So it’s easier to just be transparent and take on the issues. Are they going to be exactly what was written or what was shared? No, but there are themes and we’ve seen several themes at other projects. This is not unique. I’ll hear, ‘Well, it’s a LANL culture. Let’s separate that out because honestly I don’t believe that,” Smith said.

He said in addition to a memo to staff, he also put out a video.

“I want them to know that this is our company. It’s not my company, it’s not DOE’s company, it’s not DOE’s project. It’s our project collectively. We’re going to succeed as a team, so part of being in the field, is getting that message down to the floor – and it’s not a one-way street. The other way this gets treated is very much a unidirectional and it’s not,” Smith said. “When we go out, we need to listen more than talk and as we do that, it builds the trust, but without actions and solutions and follow through, you lose the trust as well, because now that we’ve done this, if we do nothing more with this,  it’s just one more survey we’ve done. How do you know you’re improving? Well eventually we’re going to have to do another survey because we need to find out what’s happening.”

Smith said N3B wants to get the mission done for the taxpayers and that it’s really important for him that the path forward that is developed has steps along the way so that everybody feels that they are part of the solution.

“If someone comes in and says, ‘Well you didn’t ask me,’ now I’ve got to ask a couple of questions. One is, ’Were you not in the right cohort that we were asking?’, or did we just miss it. If we just missed it, then that’s on me, and I can say, ‘I’m sorry but now that we’re here what can we do?’ So again I think it’s looking for the palms up that I am truly trying to get real answers and solutions that will make it better for all of us,” he said.

Smith said the people on the floor, the people on the “pointy end” matter, “They have to be listened to. Whether or not they have a PhD or a degree is irrelevant. They’re the ones in harm’s way. The people who are supporting those people have to feel that they matter too but the secret sauce is how do you get the different disparate groups to work together. To me when I read a couple of the strengths in the survey results  – that people have a questioning attitude and have a personal commitment  – now how do I start leveraging that? So again, it’s not doom and gloom – it would be if I don’t leverage that.”

Smith finds it interesting that with the attrition that’s happened since day one of the N3B contract, things have gotten to the point where many of N3B’s workers are coming from totally unaffiliated fields.

“They are coming from casino management, from McDonalds, from Jiffy Lube. In those environments, what does ‘stop work’ really mean – pausing because I see something wrong, what does that really mean – because they’re looking in their context and they don’t appreciate it. So how do we create a culture where a. they know we’re serious about it because anybody can get hurt.  And b, you are directly impacting everything that happens in the surrounding area, not just Northern New Mexico, but your home,” he said. “If you’re impacting that, there’s the old parable of leaving footprints in the sand. We all leave footprints here so why not make it so you’re proud of what you’re doing. You’re on a cleanup mission. This is the best thing in the world. You actually are having a tangible outcome and as we start getting people to feel that energy and that positivity, now we can build on that too because little mistakes can lead to big consequences here and we don’t want that for them or for us.”

Mikolanis noted that when he was looking at an analysis of the statistical trends information coming back from the survey, another thing that screamed out from the statistics was the almost uniform and positive feedback on personal commitment.

“Many of the questions received diversions from those that didn’t want to identify what group they are in or there was some reluctance to participate. Then there’s the management and a number of demographics we used to split out and look at what the data was telling us. Uniformly, it was very positive that the workforce, both the hourly and exempt employees, were very positive on the personal commitment of the folks who work here. That’s a great point to build on – where everybody believes that we are committed to the mission and the safety so now we can build on that,” Mikolanis said.

Smith noted that there are always things that can be made better. “This is going to help us focus in a triage fashion on the things we need right now. But once you get those worked on, you get the next set of things that are going to follow on,” he said.

Mikolanis said a high value in the federal government is placed on contracting with companies and organizations that place a high value on learning,

“These are often referred to as learning organizations. I think we’re in a good place to be when N3B is willing to learn about its culture and move forward. The first thing you have to do before you can even begin to learn and improve your culture is you have a benchmark of where you’re starting from. That is what this assessment did. We had some troubling indicators and with a questioning attitude, my corporate partners agreed that we need to look at this a little more closely and benchmark where we are so we know how to get to where we want to be,” he said.

Asked about the bullying allegations, Mikolanis said there was discussion in the focus group and team interviews. I was concerned about the potential for a “chilled work environment” where people weren’t necessarily free to raise their concerns.

“But the tolerance of yelling and abusive behaviors – I’m really glad that people would speak up and share that with the assessment team. I believe from what I learned in the report that a lot of that seemed to be centered in the Contact-Handled Transuranic Waste organization. There are always parts of an organization or leadership that can sometimes go afoul or astray from the expectations and I’m really glad that folks felt free to raise that and point that out because we will reinforce those expectations,” Mikolanis said. “Brad and I are both of the mind that we’re not going to tolerate shouting, swearing, throwing things, abusive behavior – there’s a number of ways that can manifest itself and while I don’t have the details of what was specifically shared to the team, I understand there were some pretty bad things that were happening.”

Smith said one of the things that came up in the report was the lack of a proper orientation.

“So now there is a week-long orientation. Now instead of four hours you have specialists from human resources and various departments involved. I kick off the week with ‘See something, say something’. It doesn’t matter whether you think you’re new or not, we all have life experience that you can see right from wrong. Second thing is that you feel safe and not just see something, say something but stop. Whether you want to call to call it pause it doesn’t matter. You see something you have to be willing to pause. Third thing is bullying. I shared the survey with the new people coming in because I want them to know they are part of the culture and if you’re not willing to do this, then you need to find a different place to go, because we are on a different track, a different path and this is mine but it should be our expectation. If I find out that anybody’s been bullied in our code of conduct you’ll be gone that afternoon. We have had a couple of people who bullied and have been released in my short tenure here”

The next thing Smith addressed was diversity.

“Everyone looks at what I call the classic diversity and inclusion type stuff that is really important. There’s another type of diversity and that’s what’s between our ears, just because we all from different life experiences, why not share what your life experience is because now I’m getting more out of the person, the individual. We’re not all right, so I want people irrespective of the fact that they have seen me in different roles at N3B and just because I’m president of N3B now, I’m the same Brad, so I want them to go and say, ‘What are you doing,’ or, ‘Well done’. We need to compliment good work form. It’s easy to finger wag at what you haven’t done and a simple thank you to someone and watching the smile on their face. Some lean back because they’re not used to it,” Simple little things create a culture where you’re recognizing somebody’s contribution.

Smith said some of the recommendations in the survey report are really closely related. We have been making a lot of improvements.

“When I became N3B’s acting executive officer February 1, I put together a 100-day plan and shared it with Michael Mikolanis and DOE Headquarters. Safety culture was the first thing. People are always the driver for anything we do. Once they understand the ‘why’, they will engage in the ‘how’. We can change policies and other things, but good attitudes go a long way to overcoming issues,” Smith said.

Mikolanis said it’s going to take time to change the culture. “This is not as simple as revising a procedure to make sure I’ve added a safety component to it. That can be done with the stroke of a pen and the purchase of a piece of equipment. Changing culture can take years. You make the changes up front, and that can take 3-6 months, and the next 18 months to 2 years+ is convincing the workforce that the change is permanent and is more than just lip service,” Mikolanis said.

“I encountered an organization culture within EM-LA when I came out here but we took some actions.  Part of what I wanted this assessment to look at is to measure what kind of changes we’ve made because once you make the changes and you start set new expectations and you start making the organization behave differently. The workforce is going to watch for more than just a few weeks or months to make sure we’re walking the talk or if it’s just lip service or the flavor of the month.” Mikolanis said.

He said the changes need to be made quickly because there is a finite and short period of time to turn things around and show that EM-LA and N3B are serious about assessing and understanding.

“We’re also serious about making change based on what we’ve been told. Brad’s working on his plan. I’m also creating a plan, and there’s a third element in between that deals with the partnering and the trust issues that were identified here. That’s not something Brad can right or I can right, that’s something that we have to do jointly. N3B’s a little bit further ahead than I am at putting together an action plan,” Mikolanis said. “Our job as managers and leaders is to empower the organization. Managers are there to make sure our folks have the tools that they need to do the work safely and remove obstacles. With empowerment comes two parts – praise to reinforce the behaviors that I want to see more of. We just take that for granted where we’re missing a key opportunity – and accountability where they’re not. Some of the chilled work environment situations referred to in the evaluation were because the organizations tolerated it. There was no accountability. There may have been expectations but if you don’t enforce those expectations – that doesn’t mean terminating someone or taking them behind the woodshed. You make sure they understand those critical conversations.”

Both Mikolanis and Smith agreed on the importance of accountability and consistency to avoid confusion. Smith noted that the importance of being out in the field is to make sure what he is being told matches what he is seeing. “They always say that seasoned people can go out there and within 10 minutes know how the project’s going,” he said.