How coaching can support ‘Continuous learning’ in the nuclear sector

This final blog in the series is about the third category of WANO traits – ‘Management systems’, and in particular the role of coaching in continuous learning. The coaching mindset is one of continuous learning, and coaching models provide a framework for the process. Coaching skills are also of real value when gathering operating experience feedback.

My last three blogs (see links below) have been about non-directive coaching and how it’s relevant to the nuclear sector. I’ve used the WANO ‘Traits of a Healthy Nuclear Safety Culture’ to draw parallels between those traits and the mindset, skills and tools of coaching. This final blog in the series is about the third category of WANO traits – ‘Management systems’, and in particular the role of coaching in continuous learning. The coaching mindset is one of continuous learning, and coaching models provide a framework for the process. Coaching skills are also of real value when gathering operating experience feedback.

The coaching conversation – a framework for continuous learning

As mentioned in my first blog on this topic, coaching is effectively a conversation, but one with a specific structure, purpose ……. and shape. The structure, purpose and shape are designed to facilitate the process of continuous learning.

‘DIAMOND’ CONVERSATIONS- a coaching model

At Beehive we describe coaching conversations as diamond conversations for two reasons:

OSCAR Coaching Model, used with kind permission of Worth Learning, showing the diamond shape of a coaching conversation.
The OSCAR Coaching Model, used with kind permission of Worth Learning, showing the diamond shape of a coaching conversation.
  1. Partly because, taking the OSCAR Model we use as an example, they begin with a sharp focus on a clear outcome; they expand to consider the current situation, they expand further as choices and consequences are considered before narrowing the focus down to a point of action and review
  2. But mainly because coaching conversations are priceless.

the ‘Three Whats’ Model of Review

Another example of a coaching-based, continuous learning model is this simple process of three open questions, the Three Whats. It’s a quick and dirty approach to gaining operating experience feedback on the go:

  1. What? (ie what happened, simple description)
  2. So What? (ie so what are the implications of what happened? What worked, what didn’t, what impact will this have?)
  3. Now What? (ie now what do we do differently next time?)

It’s not in-depth or complicated, but it might just be enough to stop people repeating unhelpful actions or behaviours, start improving the process, and give those people working a voice so their thoughts, feelings, experiences and expertise can be taken into account. And it encapsulates the continuous learning process – taking time to reflect and review after a task rather than mindlessly doing what’s been done before.

In summary….how coaching supports a healthy nuclear safety culture

Coaching in organisational life

Coaching has become a standard feature of organisational life, recognised as good management practice across sectors and organisations. Research has shown that coaching has a significant impact on performance, skills, well-being, coping work attitudes, and goal directed self-regulation, and can improve the functioning of individuals in organisations.

The role of coaching in health and safety

In the past rules, regulations, process and procedure have been the dominant modalities through which health and safety has been delivered. The overarching intention has been to achieve compliance. But compliance is no longer enough. Developments in safety thinking including ISO 45001 show that the next big shifts in the field of health and safety will be cultural, where compliance is no longer aspirational but a minimum. There’s a growing awareness that technical skills and capability aren’t enough to supervise or lead in a safety critical industry, and bodies like IOSH have recognised the value and adopted coaching with enthusiasm as you can see below.

Coaching and the WANO traits

My intention in these blogs is not to suggest that coaching skills are unique to nuclear – coaching skills are generic and transferable; just good communication skills, good management practice. My intention is more to show how closely the mindset, skills and values of the discipline of coaching match the WANO traits. Bitter experience has shown that shortfalls of these traits contribute to plant events, and when they’re present they contribute to a positive safety culture. Therefore, through a simple process of logical deduction, developing coaching as an activity and skill set can help an organisation move closer to a healthy nuclear safety culture.

‘Coaching to support a Healthy Nuclear safety Culture’ one-day workshop

Our nuclear workshop, designed and delivered in partnership with the National Skills Academy Nuclear and with the help and feedback of nuclear organisations, is intended to give a taster, an introduction to coaching and how it might support your safety culture. We want to share what we know because we genuinely believe it can make a difference to nuclear safety. A one-day workshop won’t change the culture of a whole organisation directly. However, if you use the practical tools and skills you learn you can change the safety climate, and potentially improve everything from near miss reporting to contractor management and engagement. And who knows, that might be enough (though we’ll never know) to avert a disaster like Chernobyl.

Join us on June 12th

Three reasons why coaching skills are invaluable for nuclear leaders

Coaching skills are invaluable for nuclear leaders. They help increase accountability, improve decision making and create a respectful work environment, all vital elements of a healthy nuclear safety culture

In my previous blog I used a quotation by Karl Weick. The basic message was, in high reliability organisations, when technical systems get too big and complex it’s impossible for a single person to understand them or anticipate problems. Humans need what Weick describes as ‘rich, dense talk’ (Weick, 1987) – communication that generates enough data to help inadequate humans make sense of what’s going on. Face to face talk is richest, and coaching encourages it to be richer. This is why coaching skills are invaluable for nuclear leaders.

This has real relevance to building ‘Management commitment to safety’, the second category of the WANO ‘Traits of a Healthy Nuclear safety Culture’. I never fail to be in awe of the managers in nuclear facilities. The responsibilities are so great, the risks so profound. They need every bit of support that can be given to help them do this. I don’t just mean technical training, or safety by design, organisation or even behaviour. I also mean in developing ‘soft power’ skills like coaching.

The problem with human cognition

I started studying human psychology and communication back in the ’90s. When I became aware of how complex it was, I was astonished that humans ever manage to create any kind of shared understanding, or get anything done at all. This familiar Youtube clip shows some of the problems with human perception – how easy it is to miss things when you’re looking for something else. Our senses are not, in many ways, reliable.

‘Nuisance alarms’ and ‘sign blindness’

The need to be constantly alert – to be paying attention at all times – is contrary to the way our brain works. From an evolutionary perspective we are designed to ‘tune out’ things that are constantly there that seem to present no threat, so we can save energy and attention for the real threats. This is why we have ‘nuisance alarms’ and ‘sign blindness’ – we switch off from things we don’t need to pay attention to any more. It’s one of the biggest issues with having achieved a safe working environment – when things are safe we automatically let our guard down, and we’re fighting against our cognition when we try to keep vigilant.

Coaching and ‘Management commitment to safety’

In the face of how challenging it is to keep vigilant, and in view of the nuclear safety culture traits associated with the second WANO category, ‘Management commitment to safety:

  • Leadership accountability
  • Decision making
  • Respectful work environment

Coaching, and the mindset, skills and tools associated with it, help managers to stay vigilant by using the knowledge, experience and perceptions of the people around them, rather than having to rely entirely on their own resources.

Three ways in which coaching skills support nuclear managers:

  1. When managers use coaching models and tools they:
  • help people think through and ‘own’ a course of action. This improves confidence and accountability. It therefore improves ‘Individual commitment to safety’
  • help people think through the choices and their consequences. This helps to ensure ‘conservative bias’ – making sure the safest course of action is taken

2. When managers use open rather than closed questions they:

  • gain valuable information from the people around them, which they couldn’t get themselves. Therefore, while accountability still rests with the manager, they have better information on which to base decisions
  • understand the thought processes behind how people act. This helps to highlight gaps in knowledge or awareness, and identify training needs

3. When managers adopt the Adult – Adult coaching mindset, the work environment automatically becomes more respectful:

  • the coaching process is one which treats people with dignity. They are treated as if they are capable of thinking and as if their opinions matter
  • in addition, people feel valued because they are listened to. Trust automatically increases

Coaching skills for nuclear leaders

The results can be transformational. However,I’m not suggesting that simply changing to a coaching style of management will solve every problem a nuclear leader faces. Nor am I suggesting that open questions are the only type of questions that are useful – that would be absurd.

My point is that coaching provides a set of skills that will increase the flexibility of response of nuclear managers. Managers need to be able to move along the ‘ask/tell’ continuum of management styles to respond most flexibly to a situation, particularly when things are going wrong. Coaching skills, and the mindset and tools of coaching, provide an alternative set of tools for those people with the awe-inspiring responsibility of keeping our nuclear facilities safe.

Ref: Weick, K,  ‘Organisational Culture as a source of High Reliability’ (California Management Review, Volume XXIX, Number 2, Winter 1987

Coaching and nuclear safety workshop