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A Closer View

Jeff Smith

UT-Battelle was awarded the contract to manage Oak Ridge National Laboratory in late 1999. During the transition period up to April 1, 2000—UT-Battelle's first day of the contract—the incoming Leadership Team made its home in a set of rusted Quonset huts hastily erected during ORNL's postwar expansion. The group christened the old facility, with its peeling paint, drafty windows and creaky floors, the "Winter Palace," named after the home of the Russian czars. They were offered better environs, but the feeling was that the ramshackle buildings, still used as research and office space, symbolized the very real challenge that lay ahead on April Fool's Day. The point person responsible for modernizing ORNL was Jeff Smith, an Ohio native and former environmental researcher, who would be ORNL's new Deputy Director of Operations.

Q. The focus of this issue is myths, including myths about ORNL. For instance, there is the often-heard comment that ORNL "glows in the dark." We all know that's not true, but sometimes these misconceptions aren't totally undeserved. What was your first impression of ORNL?

Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith
 

 

In October 1998 Dr. Bill Madia, who was then director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said that Battelle was considering a bid on the Oak Ridge National Laboratory contract. He sent me down on a mission to scope it out. I had only been here once, about 10 years before, and didn't remember a lot about it. So I drove down Bethel Valley Road, and I passed up the entrance to the big parking lot. There wasn't anything that caught my eye that made me feel like I'd arrived. After driving a little ways I thought, "That must have been the entrance. " So I turned around, came back and saw an old sign that read, "Visitor Portal." The sign was brown and falling apart—nondescript and certainly uninviting. That ugly sign was literally a visitor's first impression of ORNL. That image stuck with me. On April 1, 2000, our first day as the new Lab contractor, we had a symbolic media event at the visitor center, which then was a depressing little office with orange upholstered chairs and chipped countertops. We said we were going to change this place. On that first day of our contract I had the guys get that old "Visitor Portal" sign for me.

One day Nancy Gray, our former protocol officer, saw it hanging in my office and asked what it was for. I told her the story. She said, "I can't believe I never noticed it!" Her reaction was symptomatic of the problem we faced. Nancy had worked at ORNL nearly her whole career, but like other staff had seen so many bad things for so long that she simply no longer noticed. But to a newcomer like me back in 1998, ORNL's campus made a huge impression, mostly negative. I started trying to draw attention to the importance of our image, and talk about how we could make a difference.

Q. What was your biggest surprise, or biggest problem to solve, with cleaning up the Lab?

Director of Operations Herb Debban, Environmental, Health, Safety and Quality Director Kelly Beierschmitt and I had master keys to all of the locks. On Friday afternoons at four o'clock we would take walks into laboratories, basements and attics. We unlocked doors here or just walked around there, getting familiar with the place. We were absolutely amazed at how much junk had accumulated everywhere—old furniture, vacuum pumps, fans, valances—just "stuff." We would unlock closets and find them stacked full of old floor tiles. There were actually 300 doors stashed in the attic of the building that houses my office.

To clean up these legacy materials, we created the Legacy Materials Disposition Initiative, in which we committed a couple of million dollars every year to cleaning up all the old pumps, gas cylinders and other junk. We felt it important to set a visible standard of taking care of the Laboratory and keeping it clean. And, of course, there is an extremely important safety element to maintaining a clean and orderly work space.

Q. You had to weigh two contradicting goals—bring down the cost but clean up and modernize the Lab, which would cost money. What were your criteria for the decisions you made?

We had to strike a balance. During the contract proposal we told the Department of Energy that we could reduce ORNL's overhead costs substantially. We started efforts to lower the Laboratory's cost, such as reducing indirect staff, and ultimately eliminated $22 million from the cost of ORNL's operations. Then we had a choice. A large number of staff understandably wanted us to take that $22 million and reduce overhead costs for doing business with the Lab. Instead, we chose to use the savings for long-term investments that would revitalize the Laboratory. We invested $9 million in closing the salary gap for the R&D staff, which were 15% behind the market. We used the rest to drive an ambitious modernization project that included private investment leases without the need to raise overhead rates.

Q. What were the payoffs?

 

Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith
 

From a safety standpoint, we estimated that 25% of our accidents and injuries were a result of legacy problems that included working around old facilities and moving junk. We have eliminated 1.2 million square feet of poorly contained space. Now our crafts workers aren't spending their resources trying to maintain all of that space and as a result can focus on things that are much more important to them and to the mission of the Laboratory. The look and feel of the Laboratory, and the impression it makes on your R&D staff, including prospective employees, can be even more important. A division director told me in those early days that he had quit trying to recruit more people. He genuinely believed it did more harm than good to bring people to his facilities, which in his case were located at the old Mouse House. Over the past five years we have gotten out of most of the run-down, expensive-to-maintain space and moved more than 2,000 staff into modern and energy-efficient facilities. I know it doesn't sound very technical, but I don't want this Laboratory to be a turnoff. It didn't matter what kind of a technical problem we had. The place just didn't feel good. We owed it to our technical leaders to provide them a chance to express what they can accomplish.

Q. You've discussed the importance of image. Is there any other change you've tried to make?

I guess the other thing I believe strongly is that solving complex problems requires collaboration among our scientists. Creative solutions sometimes require people to get together and mix it up. We have tried to create a new campus and a philosophy that facilitate this kind of interaction. For example, several years ago one of our staff had the vision that scientific computing was going to be a very big deal. Betting on this vision, we put an acre of computing space in a privately funded facility on our campus. That vision and our subsequent investments enabled the Department of Energy to put a leadership computing facility here that will house the world's most powerful open-science computer. So I guess I would say that in addition to delivering good science, we have found it is also necessary to provide a vision, both literally and figuratively, of what a national laboratory should be.

A Closer View

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