How to Manage a Nuclear Plantby Jeremy Whitlock
Paul Lafrenière spent ten years as manager of the Technical Unit at Gentilly-2, a CANDU-6 station near Trois Rivières, Québec. Before that he participated in Ontario Hydro's commissioning of Bruce-B in the late 80's, following a stint at AECL's Montréal office.
At Gentilly-2 Mr. Lafrenière worked not only on matters of concern to daily operation, but also on a station-wide managerial effort to improve performance. At the time of Mr. Lafrenière's arrival at Hydro Québec, Gentilly-2 was a poor performer to say the least, largely due to a restriction placed on it for years by the utility to run at 50% capacity. Mr. Lafrenière found himself managing a highly competent, but dispirited and unfocused, workforce, with realistic threats from the AECB to shut the station down.
Upon his departure, Gentilly-2 was performing consistently at about 80% capacity, putting it among Canada's current top CANDU units. The first thing that turned things around was a decision by Hydro Québec to run Gentilly-2 at full power. That precipitated an enormous challenge for the operations, management, and technical staff, and Mr. Lafrenière's presentation Thursday evening was essentially a debriefing of the way the challenges were met and conquered.
Simply put, "it's all about people", was Mr. Lafrenière's underlying message, and he wove that theme through five main aspects of managerial and operational improvement at Gentilly-2. Through it all, one wondered if Ontario Hydro and Carl Andognini should have been listening in, because a lot of it sounded strangely familiar.
The first aspect was the simple reality that production and reliability had to improve. Consistent AECB concern, couple with the station's promotion to 100% demand in the late 80's, made this the number one driving force. Gentilly-2 employees suddenly found themselves with new goals and expectations, and had to learn quickly how to work as a cohesive team. During the 1990's the drop in the station's backlog of operational "actions" from over 400 to less than 50 is proof of their success.
The second aspect was operational safety, and this required nothing less than a cultural shift at all managerial and staff levels. Workers gradually changed from a reactive mindset, striving only to keep the regulator satisfied, to a proactive approach, implementing improvements on their own initiative.
Thirdly, the management style underwent a significant metamorphosis. This included improved communication with staff regarding managerial direction and goals, and "scorecards" by which performance at all levels was measured and rewarded. Labour relations improved, and performance along with it, through empowerment exercises that let the workers contribute to the planning. At the same time, consistent annual budget cuts of 4-6% in the early 90s were an added incentive for improved efficiency and relations.
The fourth aspect was summed up as "culture". Employees met their formidable challenges by getting over both historical differences and alignments among sub-groups. They not only evolved a team spirit, but also realized that external help from other utilities could be valuable, and that a forthright, honest approach between management and staff was the best. A new pride of ownership developed, especially prevalent at the conclusion of a successful outage.
Finally, the entire improvement process was consolidated in a complete reworking of the station's operating, safety, and QA manuals. Procedures were described in logical flowsheets, and all engineering was centralized as much as possible.
Mr. Lafrenière answered several questions from the enthusiastic audience, and there was some controversy over certain managerial approaches in his prescription for success. As the new head of Chalk River's reactors and facilities, Mr. Lafrenière was asked about his first impressions. He is confident in the abilities, dedication, and pride of the people he now works with, but perceives some needed improvement in both lateral and vertical communication, as well as team spirit. It is clear that he feels comfortable and prepared in his new assignment.