April 2000

‘An agenda and a clear vision’

Keeping lines of communication open vital for UT-Battelle, says Bill Madia

If Bill Madia hasn’t yet settled into East Tennessee, it isn’t for lack of trying: He’s building a house, and his office door at the Winter Palace (Building 2001) has rustic Cades Cove scenes affixed to both sides. Shortly before UT-Battelle assumed the M&O reins at ORNL, this highly sought-after interview subject gave a precious chunk of his time to ORNL Reporter.

The cardigan Bill Madia wore to a set of all-hands meetings was one of the first outward signs to Lab employees that things might be different under UT-Battelle.

I have some questions but you can take this anywhere you want to go.

I’ve made an interesting observation of a Lab characteristic: No matter where I go or speak, how big or small, it gets recorded and transcribed and reported and e-mailed. I’m not used to that. I’m a very open and candid person. Should I be more careful?

No. There is a hunger for information. What are the other differences you see when comparing ORNL with other Labs?

I generally try to be positive and stay away from comparing and contrasting. We have an agenda and clear idea on where the Lab needs to go. Communication—healthy, open candid, diverse communication—is extremely important in creative environments. Maybe not as important in a manufacturing plant, but in a national laboratory folks need to feel a sense of ownership—have opinions felt and heard. That is extremely important.

This Lab by far has the greatest hunger for information—our culture requires it—but the appetite for information is overwhelming. I’ve had two requests to speak just this morning. I try to say yes to all of them.

Is there a general tone at these meetings?

I see no particular trend beyond, “Are you going to do anything weird to us? Will we all have to wear lab coats?” Or it’s rumors, like, “Will UT-Battelle stop all Work for Others?” I would have never thought to put that in a presentation! That’s why I need to hear what they have to say, without fear of retaliation. Then the real concerns come out, and that’s what you want.

The new facilities initiative surprised a lot of people.

Our most negative surprise was the condition of the physical plant. I worked here as a graduate student in the early ’70s on the tandem Van de Graff. I had this image of ORNL—it was newer and more modern. On my subsequent visits, almost yearly, I’d go to Wigner, or HTML, kind of nice places. But then we started coming here every day and going to Building X and Y, and we saw where a lot of folks spent their time. On many evenings I’ll drive around, pull off and talk to people. This is an old plant, and staff has gotten used to it. Some of my earlier comments may have been harsh, but we’ve got the cafeteria right in the middle of a tank farm. Imagine someone from Motorola or the new Ford research lab, what their impression is.

The quality of the physical plant doesn’t communicate the quality of the science.

Would you care to explain how third-party financing would work with the building program?

We can’t do this on our own. I’ve been working with the Department of Energy at all levels. Its multipurpose national labs desperately need infrastructure modernization. And, frankly, you don’t get any resistance! Everyone recognizes the magnitude of the problem. But our chances of getting capital funds from the government are low.

Our previous experience allows for third parties, like the state, to construct facilities on the federal reservation. Clearly, there are land-use issues that have to be resolved, but we can either accept the status quo or pursue reasonable policies that allow private construction on the Oak Ridge Reservation. A good example is the Joint Institute for Neutron Sciences, funded by $8 million from the state.

There are clear precedents, such as the state’s investment in the Holifield facility. The only viable path we see in revitalizing the physical plant is this four-part strategy: First, build the Spallation Neutron Source, our major facility. Second, the state has committed $26 million (JINS and three new buildings). Third, third-party financing. And fourth, renovate what we already have, such as the 4500 complex.

Have you encountered things we do here that you wish you’d done elsewhere?

Lots! One example: This is the best Web page system I have seen. I can fire up the internal Web page and do more than any Lab I’ve been to.

"Am I going to turn ORNL into an applied laboratory to the detriment of basic science? I'd never think about it. There is a very healthy balance in the ORNL portfolio."

This Lab has a very healthy culture of science moving to technology to commercial applications. I think it’s an artifact of being managed for 50 years by for-profit companies. Folks are always looking for where the science and technology will lead. It’s deeply ingrained in Oak Ridge culture.

I get the question all the time: Am I going to turn ORNL into an applied laboratory to the detriment of basic science? I’d never think about it. There is a very healthy balance in the ORNL portfolio. Even the theoretical groups are bent toward applications. They are always looking to what comes next.

One of the ways UT-Battelle says it can realize its 20 percent overhead reduction goal is by getting out of expensive and unneeded space at Y-12. However, Engineering Technology Division’s move out of Y-12 to downtown has been delayed in hopes that facilities on-site could be ready fairly soon, saving the cost of moving twice. That seems pretty optimistic.
Bill Madia and others on the UT-Battelle leadership team have appeared before numerous Lab groups. Drawing a crowd has not been a problem.

It is. Here’s why we did it. The ETD move we hope to make will be the nucleating point for third-party financing. It’s an obvious need: They had a good, justified plan and a well-defined need. Their Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy customer and others in DOE have been supportive of third-party financing concepts. Because all the moons are lined up so well, we’ve asked ETD to hold up on their move until we can see the results of our third-party financing approach. Would I have liked six more months? Sure. But that’s the hand we’re dealt.

Another surprise was the desire to get out of Building 3019 and the uranium-233 business. I’m now learning that the U-233 storage facility increases the cost of doing business with ORNL. Would you care to elaborate on that?

We’re the repository for the nation’s primary stockpile of uranium-233. That is a substantial and complex financial, operational and risk liability for ORNL. We have about 500 kg of U-233, and that’s some pretty hazardous stuff. We have to resolve if that’s truly an asset for the department and the Laboratory. If it’s not, we should get it off of our books. Is it an asset for us? That’s the question we’re asking.

The presence of the U-233 makes the Lab a Category I nuclear facility and brings in the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board. That’s not bad per se if it’s a going-forward asset. But it’s an open question: What is the value to the Laboratory in view of the risk? We’ve seen the negatives, and we’re looking at positives that counterbalance them. And, frankly, there are some.

I understand the decision to hold up on HR reengineering was the lack of promotion opportunities in the concept.

It was basically promotion-less. The reengeeering proposal literally did not have promotions in the system. You would never be promoted again. That aspect was very troubling to me. Promotions are part of our culture, fundamentally ingrained as a way to recognize and reward. It’s central to how we manage.

The idea of putting promotions back in is not without controversy on its own. When you dig into why promotions were a problem, two major themes arise: complaints about paperwork and bureaucracy. Somebody’s making them too hard to do. There was also a feeling of lack of control. “The system won’t let me do the right thing.” But the system should support, not impede.

How do you and the other UT-Battelle folks who have moved here like East Tennessee?

Some interesting observations about East Tennessee: Folks are extremely friendly. They go out of their way to be nice to you. We’ve kind of come in as foreigners, and you wonder how you’ll be received by both the Lab and community. It couldn’t be better. I feel comfortable walking into any group because the reception and support have been so positive. The community has been that way—very, very nice to us.

Any closing thoughts?

The scientific depth of ORNL is impressive. The Lab is big and strong scientifically and it shows. When you meet with a particular division, a lot of good, really strong folks show up.

There are still some “we vs they” distinctions between research and support groups that we should work on. At the end of the day it takes all groups to be successful. If you’re a chemist working in the Lab and the facilities people, the contracts people, the finance or the HR people don’t do their jobs, we all fail. We’re all interdependent: If one falls down, the Lab falls down. Simultaneous excellence is the core belief.

These are hard jobs. No matter where you have a job in the Laboratory, it’s a tough job in a tough business. We’ve got to learn to have some fun while doing it—not careless fun, but you want to drive in to work and look forward to it being enjoyable. We had a good time in the proposal process and we’ve had a good time in the transition.

We try to bring in a positive attitude, and it can be infectious. ORNL can be a hard place to work, but it can also be a fun place.—B.C.


[ ORNL Reporter Home | ORNL Home | Comments ]