When things don’t go as planned

Vicky White

In a laboratory of our size, there is so much going on that there are bound to be a few things that don’t go as planned. As COO, I learn about every time someone gets hurt, some piece of property is lost, a notable operational incident happens, or a safety or security incident occurs. I also hear about projects that aren’t meeting their goals, travelers who are in difficulty, people who disregard the rules and even visitors who arrive without the necessary pre-arrangements.

I’ve learned that, in almost all cases, the people and organizations of the lab react quickly and appropriately to “off-normal” situations, getting to the bottom of what went wrong and fixing it. People in a division or section of the lab quickly and willingly go to help in an investigation or offer expertise. That is just how we should work, together as one lab!

Safety is a big area of concern when things don’t go as planned, but not the only one — there are also incidents related to legal, finance, quality, security, accelerators, detectors and computing.

Over the past five months, we have initiated six in-depth investigations in several areas to get to the bottom of serious “off-normal” situations. As more people become familiar with, and trained in, the techniques of human performance improvement, we do a better job of viewing these events as part of a bigger picture. We ask ourselves questions about what factors led to the situation, including culture, habits and management behaviors. Most importantly, we look at where such factors might lead to other types of events with the goal of preventing or lessening the consequence of these “off-normal” events.

As COO I see clearly that the strong lab ES&H program, led by Martha Michels and the ESH&Q section, is also staffed and supported by people from all over the lab. The many ES&H subcommittees of the lab continually carry out essential explorations and oversight, and each reports regularly on their work at the monthly FESHCOM meetings. It’s encouraging to see everyone from across the lab pooling their expertise, experience and energy in that way.

Several other working groups have recently been launched that focus on improving other parts of the lab, including project management, science strategy, and the time and labor system. More groups will be launched soon. I want to thank all of the people across the lab who participate in the many subcommittees, task forces, working groups, panels, reviews and audits. This is work they take on in addition to their normal daily responsibilities.

Vicky White is the Fermilab chief operating officer.