The Lab News State of Labs Interview 2000: Sandia's top two officials talk frankly about a host of issues and concerns
The past 12 months have been among the most difficult ever for Sandia. Ramifications of spy allegations that arose just over a year ago at another national laboratory cascaded throughout DOE and the national labs system and affected everyone from top management to staff-level employees. We sat down recently for the annual Lab News State of the Labs interview with Sandia President Paul Robinson and Executive VP Joan Woodard to get their take on the situation as they see it now. (Joan was speaking that morning at the Nuclear Security Decisionmakers Forum in Albuquerque and joined the interview midway.) In the course of the interview they discussed security matters, the loss of trust, congressional retaliations, new oversight attention, the intense budget pressures, workforce issues, the reduction of funding for exploratory research, the necessity of maintaining nuclear expertise, and the stresses and strains everyone at Sandia have been put under this year. Morale issues, internal competition, external competitive pressures, the brain drain, and employees’ concerns over job quotas and ratings also were addressed. Paul even ended with an apology. They were interviewed by Lab News Editor Ken Frazier and staff writer Bill Murphy.
LN: This past year has to have been one of the roughest for the Labs, and you, in a long time. The controversy over spy allegations, which tainted us by association at least; the subsequent security standdown; the increased emphasis on security and counterintelligence; the polygraph controversy; the serious budget shortfall and the continuing uncertainties in Washington about resolving it; difficult relationships with DOE headquarters, among other problems. How would you characterize how this year has been?
Paul: At the State of the Labs event and in the Labs Accomplishments message, I quoted Charles Dickens in that it was clearly the worst of times but also the best of times. It was both of those. Let me talk about some of the bad news first.
The spy allegations have had two major phases that people should not forget. The first was an espionage case that was opened up involving the People’s Republic of China. The case started with what is called a walk-in document; someone walked into an embassy, said they wanted to help the US, and delivered a set of documents. Indeed as our people looked at those documents they found some things that looked like stolen secrets, regarding the W88 Trident warhead. That started the process of investigations. The process had everyone under suspicion who might have had access to the documents. In the end, it turned out that hundreds of agencies of the US government had had documents with the same information as that. Which meant it was not the full secrets, but it contained geometrical information that is shared with US explosive ordnance people around the world. Still I do not know of a distinct source of where that information came from. And in this wonderful spy-on-spy world, there is fair amount of belief that the individual who delivered the document might not have been sincere, but could have been sent there by the PRC security bureau, just to stir the pot.
In the course of the investigation, the one case at Los Alamos led to a discovery of a large amount of data having been downloaded from a central secret computer file to an open one with subsequently portable tapes made from it. That, on the heels of the other one, raised the level of concern enormously, and the Cox commission of the Congress suddenly raised the level of its criticism, primarily against the laboratories. It was not one laboratory. Every laboratory was asked, What is the possibility that this could have occurred at your laboratory? And the answer was, "We cannot be sure that it could not have occurred." I am pleased to say we have no evidence that it has ever occurred here.
The result was the security standdown, the intensive training, the enormous growth in our counterintelligence — subjects which I guess I should admit we had become somewhat lax about at all the laboratories, across the government in fact — after the end of the Cold War.
One of the most painful parts of this has been the surveys looking at news articles about Sandia, whether they are favorable or unfavorable. We had been in the high 90s for favorable articles. Suddenly almost all the negatives referred to stories about security, and I would say there was a measurable loss of trust by the American people in DOE and the laboratories at the same time.
Internally, though everyone shared in that loss of trust and the question of suspicion, in particular the ethnic Chinese community — our employees who are citizens in every way with the rights of every citizen — fell under suspicion, and it’s understandable how upset they felt about that. The activity led in two directions for us. One is to pay much more attention to our own security procedures and to how we treat "need to know," which I think also had perhaps become somewhat lax. Probably more important, the more we dug into the possibilities, we saw that what I call "the revolution in engineering and manufacturing," which computers and wide-band information systems had allowed, simultaneously provided an opportunity for "a revolution in espionage." If someone got access to a computer, either physical access or by hacking their way in, the amount of material that could be stolen in a matter of seconds changed from any earlier times. And we began a cybersecurity activity as a trilab with Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore. Pace VanDevender, our CIO, has led that effort, with the consent of the other labs, to start developing technology fixes to make it very difficult, if not impossible, for someone to download large amounts of classified information that they are not supposed to have.
Congress now sees our challenges
LN: In that sense there has been a constructive effect of all this?
Paul: I believe an appropriate level of attention and concern has come out of this. Vic Reis, who used to be the Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs, remarked that he had felt frustrated in his first years in this administration because he just couldn’t catch anyone’s attention to think about nuclear weapons, their importance, and the role they play for the country. He said suddenly, even though there was a large negative sentiment attached, there was no question in the minds of the senators or the congressmen that this is not child’s play, this is very important.
I have spent at least 25 years of my life having to give frequent congressional testimonies. There has never been a period as intense as the last year. Sometimes two or three per month over a six-month period. Then yet another round would start after a recess of the Congress. We have tried to use these occasions to make the Congress understand exactly what our work is. Vic may be right. A lot more members and staff of Congress have actually set foot on this site in the last year than probably 10 years prior. And I am pleased to say that they go away with a different view than they come with. I believe that in the House as well as the Senate, we have more people who understand the challenge of our mission, and understand the challenge of maintaining security, particularly cyber security. I am hopeful that this will pay dividends for us in the long run. It is always better to have people who do understand.
LN: Does that seem to be bipartisan?
Paul: We have worked to make it so. We have not seen partisan attacks on these issues, which I think is good.
Loss of trust, loss of budget
LN: What about the budget situation? It seems like all this increased attention hasn’t resulted in a better understanding of the need to get our budget for the current year resolved and then get onto the 2001 budget. It has been very agonizing, I know, for you and the management team.
Paul: The loss in confidence as a result of the fear that there had been major losses in secrets probably couldn’t have come at a worse time during the budget cycle. Committee chairmen who would have had an easier time making their arguments, like Pete Domenici and his appropriations subcommittee, found it a lot more difficult to convince others that we need more money to fix these problems. There was an initial feeling of retaliation. Now, most of the retaliation as the bills were passed did not result in extreme decreases in our budgets, but certainly very tight budgets to get through the year. But a whole bunch of bothersome provisions were added that have given us a lot of trouble. Such things as Laboratory Directed Research and Development being decreased from 6 percent to 4 percent of our budget. Thus, some of our principal discretionary decisionmaking was reduced by a third. There were travel restrictions placed on the laboratories. There were restrictions regarding project management. Projects now must go through a much more rigorous and, I’m sorry to say, more bureaucratic set of approvals. There were restrictions on offices in Washington for laboratories. There were restrictions on assignment of people to support Washington agencies.
Now I’m going to admit that in every one of those cases, if you looked at the lab community as a whole — and this is not just the three weapon labs, but the totality of DOE labs — you could find some notable problems that should have upset the Congress, and which it did. But in this climate of mistrust, what was proven for one lab was assumed to be true for all labs. And so punishment was meted out to every laboratory regardless of whether they were doing an exceptional job in a particular area, and I will say Sandia was exemplary in almost all those subjects. The one subject was our travel budget. Were we traveling too much relative to others? It took us awhile to put our own data together, but in the end we found we were far lower than either Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore in Department of Energy travel. Our much larger set of reimbursable customers had given the bulk of the difference in our traveling. Thus, we were not the source of any of the issues raised.
The area that I believe we have managed the most carefully — and consequently, I think feel the most injury from — is the Laboratory Directed Research and Development. We have a sound process for managing that. We work hard through several steps internally to make sure that we apply LDRD work to our missions and in support of our missions. We have a very good story to tell. We are going to keep trying to tell that story and work our way back in the Congress to 6 percent or more. When I joined into the laboratory system out of graduate school in 1967 the level of discretionary spending was 20 percent of the budget. It has been slowly declining ever since.
LN: Do you feel an optimism about seeing that come back somewhat?
Paul: I thought it would be an easier job to do this year. My counting of votes in the Congress suggests perhaps not for this year. Primarily because they are trying to advance the markups of budgets and get them approved prior to party conventions and the presidential and legislative elections. It’s going to be hard just to get air time to plead our case.
LN: What is the bottom line right now on our budget situation in the current fiscal year and the next one? There had been many discussions whether we had to find ways to reduce staff. What is the situation?
Paul: We were very short of budget. We piled all the numbers together and got the appropriation bill signed by the president only in December. So we were nearly a quarter of the way through the year. When we approached the Department of Energy with this problem, as well as our key legislative contacts, the sentiments all were, "This would be the worst possible time to do a downsizing of personnel." We leveled with them that we were going to need a lot of help if were going to avoid that. I am pleased to say we have gotten a lot of help from the Department of Energy, particularly Defense Programs, General Gianconda and his staff. We have the declared support of many in the Congress; not only because it’s an election year, but also because of the arguments made by the Chiles commission that perhaps the most difficult challenge for the nuclear weapons program is, How do you maintain the stockpile stewards who design the weapons and transfer their knowledge to new people? You can’t do that while you’re in a layoff situation. I am more sanguine that we will avoid manpower reductions as a result of that.
Now I would have answered that, for the ’01 budget regardless of what had happened for fiscal year 2000, a lot will depend upon who wins the election and what their priorities are. There is no question in my mind that the budget will get redone. We are spending a lot of our time thinking about transitions. If you look at the history of presidential transitions, the biggest changes occur in the first year of the four-year administration. We need to sharpen our arguments, to make our case for why the work of the Laboratory is important and a good case for what the budget needs are. If you noted my testimony of late or some of the speeches, I’ve made that theme apparent. I think this is a cusp. We will see some changes. I’m not ready to predict which way they will go.
Stresses and strains on everyone
LN: The time and worry you’ve had to spend on all these problems we have been talking about — it’s got to have taken a toll on you. How have you have stood up to it personally? Paul: This has been my toughest year in the job. There is no question about it. In this job your life is hardly your own. The calendar dictates what will happen. This year there have been more sudden reversals in calendar and quick trips to be made, issues to pick up. For many of the testimonies I have had less than a week’s notice — to think through, write these things, and to go in for the testimony and questions.
One of the lessons I learned very early is when you pick someone to be a first-level manager, the most important initial quality to look for is, who is it who doesn’t need a boss? Right away there is a self-starter who can help a team and others move forward, and you are not going to have to spend a lot of your time managing that person. Well, I have been delighted with how the Laboratory has responded while a lot of us in senior management have been away fighting these problems. The Laboratory has hardly skipped a beat! The proof of that is the technical accomplishments. I would put this year’s list of technical accomplishments to compete favorably with any other year we’ve ever had.
Now, I’ve missed spending more time with people on those. But I still have one worry. I worry whether we are eating all our seed corn, with everybody working hard at near-term accomplishments. Maybe because of the stress on the entire system we are losing some of the capabilities that made us good as a laboratory. In particular we must give our people more time to think. I see a lot of symptoms that some of the stress I’ve been under are also being felt by other employees.
There are a lot fewer people in the library, if you go over there, than there used to be, checking out what’s new. There are a lot fewer people attending technical seminars. I’ve tried to ask what is the root cause. It does seem to be one of, "We are just too busy meeting our commitments."
Low morale and root causes
LN: Employees have indeed been severely affected by the budget shortfalls and all these stresses we have been talking about. What message do you have for employees about this?
Paul: One of the things we are going to have to do for ourselves — because I am convinced no one else will do it for us — is to tend to our own health as a laboratory. We must be a laboratory that can produce important ideas, not just this year or this month, but for the next 10 or 15 years. We’ve been giving a lot of attention in strategic planning to directions, also looking at some of the tools we have in-house to get people to collaborate, and to have more time to think.
We in fact did create a small organization to think full-time — Gerry Yonas’s Advanced Concepts Group. They are doing that job well. My hope is that this will not only be a tremendous period of intense thinking and looking at new possibilities but something that’s going to lead to a spread of that same type of thinking back into the Laboratory. We envision people moving in and out of this group, carrying back some of that approach.
Thinking is really still job one here at the Laboratory.
LN: There probably is a morale problem among the troops out there because of the stresses and strains and uncertainties.
Paul: Oh, I am convinced of it.
LN: What can be done about it?
Paul: I think the most important part is not to treat low morale as a symptom but to start to look at root causes — the questions of why people came to the Lab, are we giving them an opportunity to contribute in the way they believe they can, or has this become just another job? I think that would be very detrimental to morale and the long-term future of the Laboratory. This really is a special place.
LN: Does this tie back into the LDRD issue? We are losing ground in our discretionary funds, our LDRD program, which encourages thinking and getting outside the box. As that gets pared back doesn’t this Lab look more and more like just another job?
Paul: I believe that is one of the key arguments. LDRD was not just research, it was new ideas and programs as well. I think everyone is injured by what took place. The mission focus has also been a difficult one. The talk I gave March 28 at the Nuclear Security Decisionmakers Forum [Lab News, April 7] noted that nuclear weapons don’t have the same position and importance in the nation that they had during the Cold War, and that’s still more than half of the mission work of this Laboratory. So people naturally ask, is this work still important?
Living without a weapons-design program
LN: Would a testing regime make the Labs more attractive to more talented people?
Paul: I don’t think whether we have nuclear tests or not is as big an issue for this Laboratory as it is for Los Alamos or Livermore. Sandia had already reached a point where we felt our part of the stockpile could be done through laboratory tests and calculations.
The biggest problem for us is the lack of a major weapons program. It has now been 10 years since we have had an active weapons design program. The nuclear posture review, which set the policy guidance in September 1994 and which the Clinton administration has relied on throughout both terms, had suggested that we must maintain the ability to design and manufacture new weapons, but not to actually build any new designs. We were to spend our time surveilling and trying to maintain the stockpile existing at that time.
We have worked hard at how to do that, and I am not sure we can say it can be done. When you have a complicated system of 6,000 parts that have to be assembled in a system architecture and you haven’t actually thought through and assembled that architecture for 10 years, are you confident that you could now do that? We have one approach we are going to emphasize that I hope will be the key to providing a lot more focus to our people. Although we aren’t as heavily involved in the use of computers to substitute for nuclear tests, we have been clearly improving computing and modeling abilities, by orders of magnitude, the past few years. Can we use those computers to evaluate, in a clear way, how well our systems will perform and what their possibilities for failure may be? Can we make a commitment that as we replace the nonnuclear components — Sandia’s components in the weapon — we will not put in any replacement that we cannot prove is better than what we had already?
As long as I’ve been in this business, I’ve seen first hand there is no way to keep technology treading water. If you’re not advancing, you are declining. That sense of advancement, pushing the state of the art, being the leading edge, but also taking pride in the challenge of your mission responsibilities, I think is a sound formula that people can devote their careers to. Against the importance of a job like that, the troubles we’ve seen become more irritations than the dominant features they’ve been the last year.
LN: You expressed concern in your talk about the loss of veteran weapons people and the difficulty of replacing them with young people who would have that same level of expertise when they can’t do design and testing of weapons. What was the response to that?
Paul: Unfortunately, in that talk I felt I was preaching to the choir. I got strong agreement from the audience on that. But we must find a way to engage that same debate at a national level with decisionmakers both in the administration and in the Congress.
Joan joins the interview
LN: Thank you for joining us, Joan. I know you have been speaking at the Nuclear Security Decisionmakers Forum. In fact we were just talking about that meeting. What point were you making today?
Joan: I talked about the role partnerships play and particularly discussed how they are a central part of our ability to do the stockpile stewardship program. I traced the history of partnerships. I contend that partnerships started with the creation of Sandia, through the partnership between government and private industry to run this laboratory under a government-owned, contractor-operated scheme. I traced the development of new mechanisms for partnerships, like CRADAs and user facilities, and discussed from a period of time when we had dedicated money for partnerships to the current situation where we have a challenge before us to build partnerships into the core of accomplishing the various missions and projects of the laboratory, and to continue to develop industry customers.
Focusing on future threats
LN: The issue of losing that capability developed over the 40 years of the Cold War and the danger of the work here becoming just another job because maybe the mission focus isn’t what it was — aren’t we ultimately missing the patriotic aspect of it? There was a clear and present danger out there perceived every day. You just don’t have that now. Is there any way you can have the same sense of purpose here?
Paul: The time scales of science are by necessity longer time scales. If we were good students of history we would realize that we have always had these periods of cessation of the threat. People during the 1920s were passing treaties. The Treaty of Versailles was going to end war for all time, and everybody was relaxing. But there were some important things going on then. People decided to take a relook at how, for example, naval forces operate and fight. There were a number of advanced concepts groups created by the Navy, and they created the concept of carriers, they created the concept of submarines in a very different way than before, and began to develop and try out those systems. So when World War II started, the technology was there. I think that’s the challenge, to motivate ourselves. This is absolutely not the time to let up. Quite the opposite, this is the time to build new strengths, to anticipate what the threats are likely to be. Military surprise has also been a big part of history. That’s one of the challenges we’ve asked of the Advanced Concepts Group, to try to think ahead to what are the potential threats and what are the promising directions in technology; so we can do our work now in order to be ready when the time comes.
Perhaps the most successful thing we have done in the past five or six years in our LDRD program, the laboratory on a chip, was a Grand Challenge. It would require more than any organization here could possibly do on its own. We could only do it by joining together, joining together the California and New Mexico sites, in fact. The challenge was picked up, and we are making enormous strides in the state of the art of being able to detect chemical and biological species.
Already you can look at the potential for the program that the Russians carried out during the Cold War and only very reluctantly shut down — if they have shut it down — though the deterrence kept those weapons from entering the scene. As that knowledge spreads to smaller states that have aggressive tendencies toward the US, can it work the same way, or must we be better prepared to deal with it? I think we are making a big step forward. Then some people said if you could prove [a chemical or biological species] is there, I bet we could decontaminate it and destroy it before it could do much harm. That latency is one difference about biological weapons as opposed to others. And our folks have done some beautiful things with foams that will destroy very quickly chemical or biological species — all of them that we know.
Disconnects, dollars, and pay decisions
LN: Our research receives excellent plaudits, as you have noted, and we routinely get national awards for what we are doing, but somehow it doesn’t always result in our being rewarded with budgets commensurate with that success. We are still under intense budget pressures. Why is there such a disconnect?
Paul: The budget processes in Washington for at least a decade have not been tied directly to merit in any way that one can see. They have in fact all been squeezed. The research budget for DoD continues to be squeezed by the need for readiness, and folks in the Pentagon have made the choice to put readiness above R&D. So the whole pie has been getting smaller in DoD, ditto in DOE. This year the nondefense part is particularly hurt in the FY00 budget. I think those are playing against each other, that it is not the same meritocracy. I believe we are seen by the technical community as perhaps stronger than ever. I’ve had the privilege of representing us several times at the National Academy, and for any of the major research focuses of Sandia — one was in materials science — the advances are absolutely revolutionary. Amorphous diamond, the sol gel technologies that Jeff Brinker’s group are developing, these are absolutely revolutionary, and they are going to change a lot of fields.
LN: All of us remain proud and amazed when we read about Sandia’s technical achievements and accomplishments, and yet we are functioning in an atmosphere where the economy is superhot and high-tech companies are after the best people and are able to provide high pay and stronger incentives. How serious is the "brain drain" problem for places like Sandia and what can be done about it?
Paul: By virtue of having two labs, we got to see it up close and personal first at our California site. As Silicon Valley has filled up and expanded, the completion of the freeway, Interstate 680, has meant that you can get to the Livermore area from Silicon Valley in an hour or an hour and ten minutes. So people have been moving in there from adjoining Silicon Valley companies, and they have been trying to recruit their neighbors, who work for us, to work in Silicon Valley. We have had a higher number of people, particularly younger people on board, change jobs than we have ever had before.
Joan: At both sites — California and New Mexico.
Paul: Yes. It’s still not alarming, but it’s more than we had seen before. We were talking before about history moving out of phase with other developments. Here we still are with a decline in the students majoring in engineering and science, even though the job market is just gobbling up people who are scientifically trained. Companies are willing to pay enormous amounts, more than they ever have before.
Now one key decision we had to make is, can we still continue to pay our people as well as the R&D community in industry can pay? We’ve always said we must not abandon that principle. And so our raises for Sandians in technical fields, particularly those fields benchmarked as having gone up very much higher, have been very high for two years in a row. That’s also given us some of our budget pressures, but there is no alternative.
Entrepreneurs and new incentives
LN: We’ve been asked if the phrase "exceptional service in the national interest" is possible if we’re only able to pay industry-average salaries.
Paul: I’m really glad you asked that. Because everybody pays "the average," at least on average they do. If there is a difference as we look at a comparison with other organizations it is how they pay some people a lot more, some a lot less, but on average it’s the same amount of money per unit of people. We meet that average too.
Joan: It is important to recognize that we compare to the best companies that we think are our best counterparts in terms of R&D labs. We compare to the 17 top R&D institutions.
Paul: There are some other factors that can make ourselves attractive that I don’t think we’ve perhaps focused on. Joan and I share this duty of having breakfasts with randomly selected employees, to find what they think is important. I am amazed at how the word has not quite gotten to people personally that we have very generous patent rewards that we never used to have. Our patent royalties continue to grow at an exponential rate.
We have a program every December when the books get completed. We give 20 percent back to the inventors with a cap of $100,000 above their salary. Now nobody’s hit the hundred, but we are getting some people who are closer. Figuratively there are people who could buy a new BMW and drive it away from the royalties ceremony if they wanted to.
LN: So that’s a new factor over and above the salary package?
Paul: Right. And if you look at industry, that’s unheard of. In industry, the company retains all rights. The other one is our entrepreneurial leave of absence. We’ve worked hard on that. The dot.com companies offer people stock options, even though it’s a mixed blessing — more go bust than go boom with those options. Still, having a lot of instant millionaires walking around primarily because they had technical degrees and worked hard is a problem for us, when our people have probably better degrees and work just as hard or harder. We now have more than a hundred entrepreneurial leaves of absence, including some brand new millionaires who have made their way. So we think it’s attractive for us to mention in recruiting that, if in your future you see a need in the marketplace for a technology you’ve developed, we will help you get the license rights and help you form a company. Technology Ventures Corporation has been extraordinarily successful in helping to form these new companies. A number of them have now gone public, and there are some multimillionaires in that process. What would make me feel good is a number of the multimillionaires coming back to work at Sandia. We have had some people come back from entrepreneurial leave because they missed their life here in the Laboratory too much.
Keeping the work vital, exciting
LN: Which is an interesting testimony to the intangible you talked about at the Employee Dialogue Session — the research and development in biomedical areas.
Joan: Recently a brochure was being developed for recruiting, describing the total rewards concept at Sandia. Folks in our research and engineering groups critiqued the brochure and said, all these other things are really nice and are important to have, including making sure that our compensation is competitive, but the reality is that the number one thing that draws people here is "the work." That’s why to me the most important thing that the management and leadership of the Laboratory needs to be focused on is the vitality and excitement of the work we do.
Paul: One of the other factors — and that’s why the cut in LDRD is particularly harmful — is people also come here for more freedom. When that big idea hits, they want to have some freedom to pursue it. People do that in-hours as well as out of hours. A lot of sweat equity is expended around here.
LN: You’re leveraging — to use that business terminology — the LDRD investment, because if you’re paying people for something they’re passionately interested in, they’re going to put in double time.
Paul: Absolutely. And some of the companies that we benchmark against for salary are declaring policies that a certain percentage of employee time should be used to stretch, look at new ideas, look at the future. Now, with the degree of bean counting that goes on in the government, it may be hard for me to declare exactly what that number will be. But we’ve got to find a way to make that a bigger part of Sandia’s job. It always was in the early days of the Laboratory.
Joan: In the context of rewards and freedom for our staff, we are also looking at other mechanisms by which we can ensure that new technology and intellectual property gets out into new startups or other small companies. For people who don’t want the risk of leaving the laboratory, are there other mechanisms we can set up to allow them to transfer their technology? We’re blazing some new territory on policy that may involve some kind of consulting arrangement for technology transfer that would complement the entrepreneurial leave process.
LN: Speaking of those things, earlier you mentioned Jeff Brinker. That’s a new model for the Labs, too, isn’t it.
Paul: Yes, Jeff is a tenured professor at UNM and a half-time technical staff member with us.
LN: Is that good for the Labs?
Paul: Oh, I think it’s wonderful for the Labs and the country.
Joan: In fact, it’s very important that where we do extend that kind of relationship that there is a benefit for the Lab and the country. With Jeff, there is clear benefit. We’re open and looking for other opportunities like that. But we’ll put it through that very important filter to make sure there is mutual benefit.
People see need for world-class labs
LN: Joan, Paul earlier got a chance to answer about the effects of stresses and strains and the issues that concern him. We want to make sure you have a chance to express yourself on how this past year has been for you personally and substantively. How has it affected you? And also any other particular issues that you’d like to discuss.
Paul: Joan frequently asked me during her first six months in this job — "My god, is it always like this?" To which my response was, "No, it’s never been like this."
Joan: And in fact, recently I’ve told people, though hesitantly, wondering what the future will bring, "Gosh, after going through last year I feel like I could handle just about anything."
LN: You’ve been through an initiation by fire.
Joan: I’ve — actually, we’ve — been through every kind of fire you could imagine.
LN: I wonder if John [Crawford, former executive VP] knew something we didn’t?
Joan: In fact, during one of his recent visits to the Lab he stopped by here and, after reflecting on the last year, he said, "I had no idea it was going to be this way, Joan, honestly." During this year I was inspired to see the number of times folks throughout the Labs pulled together and undertook huge challenges. Like Project Evergreen, which was our challenge to get "green" in all our security measures by the end of December. A huge undertaking. The response was enormous and very positive. Similarly, when you reflect on the technical accomplishments, you see we are able to do tremendous work during traumatic times.
I wish I could say, looking to the future, "Boy, things are going to be calmer." It’s hard to imagine that all the things that happened this past year — strikes, budget problems, whatever — will happen again next year, but you know, it is always possible.
Another part of this last year has been very encouraging to me. Whether people look at the work of the national labs as insurance, national security insurance in the form of deterrence, or if they look at the Labs as world-class national labs, many have stepped forward with concern about what has happened. And I think that concern will materialize itself in the next year or two years into specific actions that will allow us to regroup and create that very exciting work environment that we have enjoyed for many years in the past.
LN: So there are grounds for optimism?
Joan: I think so. Even folks who are not necessarily strong advocates for nuclear deterrence have responded to the notion that "A country like the United States ought to have world-class national labs. We must make sure we don’t unconsciously let them deteriorate and ensure that they stay at the world-class level."
Sandia’s unique approach
LN: We’re nearing the end of our allotted time. I want to make sure you’ve made the points you want.
Paul: One of the things I wanted to at least have a chance to talk about today: We have made two major sets of management changes. We did some tightening up with the vice president structure, and everyone agreed to pick up more weight. We also appointed some new vice presidents as others retired. I am really proud of the management team here. I mentioned earlier how you pick people who don’t need a manager and are self-starters, but you must pick people you can count on to work with others as a team. I don’t think we’ve ever had a stronger team, since I’ve been at Sandia, than this team right now. I’m also convinced that that teamwork is going to pay off positively for us as well. Because Sandia is not a place to come and do individual bench-science research. We attack important missions and applications and we do great science and technology along the way, but the hallmark has always been pulling a lot of disparate skills together into making something that couldn’t be done anywhere else.
And it’s amazing, most of the companies that we’ve created — it’s hard to imagine how they could have ever been created in Silicon Valley or anywhere else. I think the country as a whole has a serious problem. You’ve seen the recent Hewlett Packard ads about how HP started in a garage, and a lot of the startups start in garages or really small benches with just a few people. But, you cannot make a one-tenth feature size [i.e., 0.1 micron] enhanced UV lithography in a garage.
Those major steps take a lot of people with different skills coming together. So I think we are still going to be a key part of the nation’s science and technology engine, but in ways that just cannot happen anywhere else. The one I mentioned [EUV lithography]: Private industry is paying the full bill for that, for us to do it. They wouldn’t be paying us if they could do it in-house.
The other thing I wanted to say goes for the entire management team of the Laboratory. Joan and I were pleased this Monday to receive from Rick Glass, the DOE field office manager, our evaluation from the DOE appraisal process, and once again we are appraised as "outstanding" [see story on page 10]. In fact, in three of the four major areas measured we were "outstanding." The one area that pulled us down I can at least be philosophical about. We had some glitches in a shipment to India of an export-controlled device; even though we caught it before it was delivered to anyone in India, it should not have happened within our system. We’ve gotten smarter as a result of that and have corrected some things. Similarly the Paragon [computer sale and repurchase], for which we took a lot of criticism, I believe most of it unjustified. Those pulled us down to the "excellent" category in operations and were cited in the report. But in particular, the management was scored "outstanding," which had gone unscored in the previous year because of disconnects in Washington with Vic Reis leaving. But this year, with headquarters input as well as local input, we got an "outstanding" score. And they don’t give everybody those scores, so I think it’s a source of a pride for us as a Laboratory.
Joan: Both Mike Zamorski of the Kirtland Area Office and Rick Glass of the Albuquerque Operations Office did a lot personally to ensure that the appraisal actually took place during this chaotic time in Washington. They deserve a lot of credit for getting it through. And I told them this morning that I wanted to make sure they realized how much we appreciated and did not take it for granted what they do to help support us. Especially this past year, what a nice message it has been.
In stressful times, return to ‘respect’
LN: Anything else?
Joan: There is one more thing I’d like to mention. It picks up on the question you asked earlier on the stress of the last year. You know, stress has taken a toll on a lot of folks around the Labs. I see it. I have the most concern about the increased person-to-person stress in the Laboratory. Scarce resources. The whole pervasive scarcity mentality has put us into a hyper-competitive climate throughout the Labs. There is a lot of internal competition, and the mutual support between people has gotten a little bit thin. We need to come back to the basic value of "respect" that we hold very highly. In times when we feel that scarcity, the enemy is not each other. The enemy and the challenges are outside. There are wonderful places around the Laboratory where the work environment is very positive — but unfortunately there are also places where the work environment is very stressful, and yet it’s something that is in our control to change. In stressful times, don’t lose sight of the importance of respect.
Paul: Let me try two other subjects. I’ll try to make them short. One that I believe presents an opportunity for real promise is the creation of the NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration]. It may have taken a step like the espionage threat to force the Congress to ask for things that seem so obvious to me on the face of it. Organizations that used to be very closely linked and need to be interacting — such as arms control, the nuclear weapons program, the nuclear intelligence activities, the nuclear material and control activities, and the security that envelopes all of those — need to be closely interactive and not a divided house. That realization is very strong and bipartisan.
Bureaucracy can’t reform itself. I would put that as a question rather than a conclusion, because I don’t believe it always operates this way, but it seems that way a lot of the time. But there is a tool, and I think at Sandia we have seen some progress in trying to control our own bureaucracy, and that is through the use of quality principles. Quality is the one antidote for bureaucracy that I know. People who have the most bureaucratic entanglements can break out and streamline things. Sandia’s purchasing organization has done remarkable things this past year, praised by their customers for the progress they’re making. We’re still in a target-rich environment with our own internal bureaucracy, but I think the mood of the Congress to try and streamline some of the bureaucracy problems that have plagued us at headquarters presents a real opportunity for us.
Quotas, ratings, IJS all need fixes
The last subject — and this will come by way of apology. If I look at what our least successful areas have been I can almost generalize them today: the law of unintended consequences. We did reform the performance-review process. It’s still the subject of lots of consternation. We believed everybody should have the chance to be reviewed. We tried to make the process a quality one where each individual starts with assessing themselves. How well have they done? What have they done? And then have a real dialogue with their manager, who is their customer in such matters. The whole question of ratings and quotas of ratings has been a very sensitive issue. It’s one we’re taking seriously. It’s one that Edward Deming, one of the original fathers of quality, had big fights with. Everyone in an organization wants a chance to be outstanding. And so, our artificial quotas have made some people feel like they’re second-class. That’s one of those grand unintended consequences, right there. I am sorry for that.
Similarly, the IJS [Integrated Job Structure]. The concerns have calmed down a lot, but we’re still not there with a uniform system across the Laboratories that allows people to progress through their organization. The people wanted those things, we surveyed them. We all wanted a way to show that we’re making progress , and to be able to match pay toward market better than we could before. We’ve certainly achieved those aims. But the unintended consequence along the way is, "People aren’t being treated the same throughout the Laboratory." And as we look at the data, we conclude, that’s indeed happening. We’ve got to fix it. So we’ll continue to make changes, and I promise we’ll do a better job in anticipating these unintended consequences.
Last modified: April 20, 2000