We work in a highly complex organisation demotivated by constant changes in ownership and direction, which is distracting our leaders and workforce from their important mission: to clear up Britain’s toxic nuclear legacy.
That mission is itself depressing – since we’re being asked to remove the need for our existence. We need a new purpose to give our 10,000 employees hope.
Sellafield is Britain’s largest nuclear facility. It has (for the moment) stopped generating power to focus on managing the legacy of the weapons programme of the 50s and 60s: large silos of the most toxic substance on the planet.
These silos are crumbling and require constant maintenance, which draws resources from the intermediate challenge of making nuclear waste safe and the ultimate, 100 year mission to decommission the site.
Sellafield accounts for 51% of employment in West Cumbria. It is absolutely embedded in the social and economic fabric of the region. The social consequences of any policy shift are keenly felt and often resisted by the heavily unionised workforce.
We united Sellafield’s stakeholders behind a new purpose, with a clear vision for the future that inspired them to commit their working lives to achieve it.
While doing so, we drove the cultural shift needed to embrace important new safety regulations that amounted to a significant behaviour change at every level.
We crafted it with union leaders and site managers, basing it around one fundamental note of optimism: the prospect of once again generating clean energy for a better world. We cleared this with HM Government in advance. No longer was the vision to decommission, but to become ready to compete for new contracts and build a new legacy for West Cumbria.
We followed this up with workshops based on the story which helped Sellafield employees discover and own for themselves the changes they needed to make to deliver the new vision. We built mechanisms for sharing illustrative stories drawn from personal experiences which recognised and rewarded new ways of working.
Sellafield managers and supervisors, hitherto sceptical of any attempt to change behaviours that have been embedded for generations, have embraced the narrative.
They use it as a context for their daily activities because it makes their lives easier. If they’re working on something that contributes to the narrative, they keep doing it. Everything else, they do less of or stop doing altogether.
We’ve seen a marked improvement in union-management relations, a 14% drop in absenteeism and the introduction of the safety share has driven safety-related incidents to an all-time low.
New employees have someone talk them through the narrative on their first day. It is the framework for their safety briefings and is also useful for HR teams who seek to set new standards in the workplace.
Regulators are aware of it and embrace it as an example of best practice in improving safety by embedding positive safety practices.
Introducing new ways of working is much easier when you’ve got a clear narrative and a vision of success which every stakeholder can believe in.
If the story is clear, simple and contains answers to employees’ ‘what’s in it for me’ questions, then anything is possible.
A ‘higher purpose’ is a powerful motivator. As one team member put it: ‘I’ll know we’ve succeeded when John Lewis opens in Whitehaven.’ What drives Sellafield to be a better nuclear manager is the chance to create a better West Cumbria not only for themselves, but for generations yet unborn.