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What they said

We work in an immensely 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.


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 and attention 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 common for four generations of the same family to work at the site. It is absolutely embedded in the social fabric of the region.

The workforce is heavily unionised and has suffered through inconsistent leadership. They report upwards through an opaque Anglo-American group contracted to the UK Government. Many leaders within the business are transient, foreign, and largely disengaged from the social responsibility so keenly felt by their local colleagues.

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What happened next

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.

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What we did

We united Sellafield’s stakeholders behind a vision for the future that inspired them to commit their working lives to achieve it.

And we drove the cultural shift needed to embrace important new safety regulations that amounted to a significant behaviour change at every level.

Presenting a vision of success was a critical first step. The overall sense of mission had become lost in the complexity of process. Ticking boxes had become more important than saving the nation and preserving employment opportunities for future generations, which is how we defined the site’s ‘higher purpose’ and which became the final chapter of our strategic narrative.

This narrative – The Sellafield Story – plotted a journey to a better place. 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.

The narrative provided a natural context for all the various workstreams and projects. We coached leaders and middle managers to share it with their teams. Over a period of three weeks all 10,000 employees engaged with the story. Excitement built quickly.

We followed this up with a sequence of 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.

One highlight is the ‘safety share’: every meeting of more than three people now begins with someone sharing a short story on the topic of safety, work-related or not. The safety share helps keep the key topic of safety front of mind for everyone (as well as improving storytelling skills).

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What we learned

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.

Things that seem small - like the safety share - can have a huge impact. This is the Promontory change model in action: our story becomes my story which influences my behaviour and very quickly this becomes our behaviour and the way we do things round here. Nobody questions why they begin meetings with a safety share any more.

One final learning point is that a ‘higher purpose’ is the most 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 better nuclear managers is the chance to create a better West Cumbria not only for themselves, but for generations yet unborn.

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