Crucial Conversations Training Helps Nuclear Power Plant Become a National Industry Leader
My name is Edward Halpin and I am the President and Chief Executive Officer of STP Nuclear Operating Company.
STP Nuclear Operating Company is an electrical generating station. We use nuclear power as our technology to generate electricity. We do so safely and reliably and emission free and we generate enough electricity to power approximately 2 million homes a year here in the state of Texas.
Describe the employee pains you were trying to solve.
Some of the reasons why we turned to Crucial Conversations go back to a very challenging year we had in 2003. We had some major equipment challenges that our team had to deal with. As we were dealing with those issues, the culture broke down in some areas, we got into some finger pointing, relationships were hurt, and our performance was not good.
After we made it through 2003 and fixed our issues, we recognized we needed some help and additional tools.
Why did you choose Crucial Conversations Training?
Out in the industry, I had a friend who suggested that I read the book Crucial Conversations and I did and I loved it. I loved the science behind it, I also loved what the book was recommending in regards to tools—tools that were definable, repeatable, teachable tools that we could transmit to our workforce and teach in the years ahead. And tools that people could enact out in the field to help make a difference. So, because of the science and the teachability of the tools, we chose Crucial Conversations Training.
Describe the training product and your roll out plan.
In regard to our rollout plan, we pulled together a pilot program. We took about 20 people from the station, from executives to the working level, and we taught them Crucial Conversations. We had an expert come in and teach a 2-day course and at the end, they loved it, they thought it was outstanding, so we forged ahead.
We pulled together a change management plan. We certified instructors, senior managers, working level—about 25 people, including myself. I’m a certified instructor and I’ve taught the course every year since 2004. We then rolled it out and taught our employees, all 1,200 of them. We run about 10 classes a year and with the 25 certified instructors we’re now teaching some of our contractor teammates that come to the station as well.
It is a part of our Leadership Academy—you’re required to have Crucial Conversations as you go through the Leadership Academy—and it will play a key role in the future of South Texas.
How have you shared Crucial Conversations with other leaders?
I highly endorse the whole concept of Crucial Conversations and the tools and I don’t think they’re just applicable to nuclear power or to a certain business.
I believe in them so much that I have brought other executives to South Texas, outside of our industry. I’ve had them watch and be part of the course. In some cases, I’ve gone to their organization and briefed them on this topic. I think it’s universal and I think it applies really anywhere to any culture.
What business benefits have you experienced as a result of Crucial Conversations?
Over the last 2 decades, STP’s performance has been very good. Over the last five years since we’ve introduced Crucial Conversations, the performance has been industry leading: top quartile in many areas, leading the nation in many. And we attribute that to the skills we’ve taught our employees in raising the bar each and every day and improving performance.
Crucial Conversations tools really are who we are each and every day. It’s ingrained now in our DNA. We speak the language of Crucial Conversations, we hold each other accountable to the principles and to the tools being used each and every day. It is something that has taken this organization to the next level when it comes to performance and it will be a very bright part of our future in the years ahead.
The South Texas Project Electric Generating Station is a leader in the nuclear power industry and one of the newest and largest nuclear power facilities in the nation. STP employs 1,200 people and operates two units which produce 2,700 megawatts of carbon-free electricity, providing clean energy to 2 million Texas homes. The company’s culture and core values focus on safety, integrity, teamwork and excellence.
When your company exists to produce electricity and you fail to generate power, relationships fray. That’s what happened to the South Texas Project (STP) when a series of complex technical issues resulted in the shutdown of a nuclear reactor.
“I saw a degradation of behaviors, finger pointing, and teams becoming siloed and failing to work together as we were trained to do,” says Ed Halpin, president and CEO of the 1,200-person company located 80 miles southwest of Houston.
Eventually, STP worked through the crisis and got the reactor back online, but the experience left emotional scars among longtime workers.
“I recognized that our leadership toolbox lacked the ability to engage correctly without getting emotional or telling stories about each other,” Halpin says. “That deficiency, in some cases, protracted the resolution of issues.”
The CEO set out to fill this skill gap.
The Training Course
A consultant pointed him to Crucial Conversations Training by VitalSmarts, and he was intrigued.
“The behaviors that Crucial Conversations promotes are very tangible and realistic— they are observable, repeatable behaviors that give us structure,” Halpin says. “Plus, it complemented our existing leadership model, which was really about collaboration and working together.”
Halpin looked into other training programs, but chose to run a pilot course of Crucial Conversations with twenty stakeholders from across the organization—from EVPs to craftsmen.
The pilot course was a success. Halpin describes it as “an opportunity to learn the content and put the skills into immediate action that improved performance.”
STP began offering the two-day course twelve to fifteen times a year, training twenty employees at a time, until all 1,200 employees had completed the course. The program is still offered ten times per year and is required for all new managers and supervisors. Contractors are welcome, too. Hal- pin himself is one of the company’s twenty-five internal certified instructors, and he teaches at least once a year.
Halpin looks at the station’s overall performance to gauge the impact of Crucial Conversations.
Since the program began six years ago, the company’s two reactors have led the nation in total generation of electricity for any two-unit plant. Because the plants are equally rated in capacity, such distinction is difficult and means STP’s employees are operating at a high level to account for the difference.
In 2007, one of the reactors was the most productive unit in the world in its ability to generate electricity—and it’s not even the largest unit.
The plant is also in the top 25 percent in terms of keeping costs low.
“These metrics speak volumes—these results count,” Halpin says. “Crucial Conversations played a major role in delivering these results.”
The way the training affects performance, he says, is that issues that typically wouldn’t get resolved are being resolved. When people don’t meet a commitment, they are being engaged rather than tolerated. Specifically, they engage in a way that is consistent with the company’s core values of promoting a teamwork-based collaborative culture.
“Every day we are able to get into the nitty gritty on incredibly difficult issues and that dialogue con- tributes to us not having the same problems occur again and again,” Halpin says. “I have seen problems that we used to tolerate for years disappear as a result of engaging in crucial conversations.”
For example, a scheduled shutdown was sup- posed to last forty days, but lasted fifty because of some problems with contractors.
“We could have walked away from that experience pointing fingers at one another and saying things like, ‘Get your stuff together,’ or ‘you better not repeat history.’ Instead, we engaged, used the tools, and talked about the issues.”
After applying those skills, the same team completed the next outage in just thirty-five days.
In another successful case, two employees at the craftsman level felt comfortable and capable to approach Halpin in his office and express what they felt were weaknesses with a new multi-million-dollar technical training program he had recently endorsed. Using his own crucial conversations skills, Halpin got to the heart of their real concerns and learned ways to adjust the technical training program to better prepare employees.
STP keeps the skills fresh by including a seven-minute Crucial Conversations refresher segment in weekly leadership meetings. These refreshers are taught by the company’s internal certified instructors.
“It has become a part of our language. We consistently ask ourselves, are we having a crucial conversation?” Halpin says. “Crucial conversations are part of who we are and how we address each other every day.”
He attributes the success of Crucial Conversations Training in part to the tens of thousands of hours of research that are foundational to the material.
“The science behind it amazes me,” he says. “The concept that our emotions generate our behaviors because they contribute to the stories we tell ourselves is so logical and on point.”
Halpin also likes the delivery of the material, with its blend of exercises and video, as well as mix of humor and seriousness.
Halpin is so impressed by the course that he volunteers his opinion to industry peers and anyone who will listen.
“These tools from VitalSmarts are outstanding—regardless of the organization or industry,” he says. “I want to promote the universality of these skills.”
He has invited other executives to visit his station and watch Crucial Conversations Training in action. They always walk away wowed. “I tell them Crucial Conversations is an essential part of the culture that has helped us raise the bar in overall performance,” says the CEO.
“Crucial Conversations was the missing piece that has helped us achieve the next level of performance. It has been essential in the overall success of our company and will be vital for STP in the years ahead.”