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SLAC Subcouncils: Solving Problems


Bob Hettel, Accelerator Division Head at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, has a whole list of problems. They're things that people from around the lab have told him about, points where safety policy might benefit from input or gaps where new policy might be useful.

Hettel, who chairs the Environment, Safety and Health Subcouncil, uses the list to help direct the group. Working with Chief Safety Officer Craig Ferguson and his staff, items on the list are prioritized and the subcouncil starts talking about how the list can be shortened.

It's what the subcouncils are designed to do: Provide lab employees with the chance to give input on changes proposed by the Operations teams in charge of health, safety, facilities, human resources, business, computing services, information technology and lab management. For Hettel, the subcouncils provide an opportunity to create a meeting ground between policy requirements and the practical realities of day-to-day work.

"We need checks and balances, a channel of communication," Hettel said. "This is our chance to speak up and share our wisdom before policies are cast in concrete."

Engineering and Technical Support Acting Director Karen Fant, who chairs the Human Resources Subcouncil, said the subcouncils provide the kind of back-and-forth communication that's needed in order to enact fair and practical lab-wide policy.

As an example, Fant pointed to the HR Subcouncil's recent efforts to recalibrate the annual performance evaluation process. For HR Director Larry Young, the performance evaluations suffered from two big problems: what they measured and when they were completed. To find a solution, Young put the issue to the subcouncil.

The first point was fairly easy to handle, Fant said. People generally agreed that the evaluations needed to be more objective and that goal-setting needed to align with the lab's mission. Young proposed new evaluation forms for scientists, supervisors and staff. The subcouncil approved the proposal, and the new evaluations were drafted, giving HR better tools to measure employees' contributions to the lab agenda.

Moving the schedule around, though, proved to be more contentious.

"There was a lot of discussion and concern about moving the cycle around," Fant said. "It was hard to get alignment on it."

Young first proposed moving the evaluation period into agreement with SLAC's fiscal year, which starts October 1 and ends September 30. Performance evaluations would be conducted in September and any corresponding salary adjustments would be made the following January. The subcouncil members gathered feedback, which they presented at the next meeting.

For some people, moving the performance evaluations to September would mean adding more work to an already busy time of year. For employees with dual appointments between SLAC and Stanford, moving the salary adjustments carried the additional disadvantage of pushing them off of Stanford University's salary adjustment schedule.

These concerns where aired, and at the next subcouncil meeting Young presented several alternative scenarios. Again, the subcouncil members listened to the proposals and took the ideas to their directorates.

After several turns of this cycle, a consensus was reached—new evaluations forms would be drafted, and the performance evaluation period would be moved to June. The shift in the evaluation schedule would bring performance evaluations closer to salary adjustments without disrupting the adjustment schedule.

Other subcouncils have been just as busy. The Subcouncil for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, formerly the Business Services Division, has had plenty of its own projects as well. So many, in fact, that the subcouncil recently decided to increase the frequency of its meetings from once to twice a month to make sure it all gets done.

The immediate tasks facing the subcouncil, OCFO Subcouncil Chair Stephanie Carlson said, include helping Acting Chief Financial Officer Susan Calandra set priorities for the department, providing feedback on the reorganization of the OCFO and figuring out an effective way to phase out petty cash—something that has been mandated by the Department of Energy.

But the biggest challenge for the subcouncil, according to Carlson, will be facilitating the proposed transition to a new enterprise financial system. Such a system would bring all of the lab's financial service modules into one integrated system and would hopefully allow for integration with Stanford University's financial and HR systems.

"We have all these little home grown shadow systems," Carlson said. "We're going to try to get it to where we're all using the same data, same downloads and same templates to pull everything together."

Because of the complexity of many of these issues, the OCFO Subcouncil has even formed a special financial taskforce that meets weekly to discuss topics in greater detail.

The taskforce is already generating results of its own, with one of its achievements being the creation of a lab-wide signature authority matrix. The matrix lists the charge numbers for all of the lab's directorates in one file. Carlson said the matrix makes it easier for supervisors to track down the appropriate signature authorities for lab expenses.

Carlson said that improvements like these make it easier to conduct transactions, and help different departments work with one another to meet the lab's goals. And for her, the subcouncils are an essential part of the whole thing, helping to bring stakeholders in contact with each lab service and making sure that everyone is working with the same goals in mind.

"Getting this group of people together is just so valuable," she said. "We can all see how we can learn from each other and try to standardize our processes."

—Nicholas Bock
SLAC Today, June 23, 2009