When UT-Battelle assumed responsibility for managing Oak Ridge National Laboratory almost 10 years ago, one of its highest priorities was finding a veteran facilities manager to address the challenge of aging facilities, inadequate infrastructure and an ambitious new plan for Lab modernization. A decade later, Herb Debban's accomplishments have been a key to ORNL's resurgence. His day-to-day responsibilities include planning a billion dollar renovation for the Lab, implementing a landlord-tenant model for operating facilities, helping sustain a marked increase in safety and providing the infrastructure for a growing portfolio of world-class user facilities. And that's before lunch.
We asked Debban about his role in providing support for the Laboratory in general, and for ORNL's user facilities in particular.
Q. What in your background brought you to Oak Ridge?
Prior to 1999, I had worked with DOE contractors for years before I was asked to help write the proposal for UT-Battelle to operate ORNL for the Department of Energy. Most recently, I was at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and was responsible for facility operations. At PNNL we implemented customer-oriented processes that reduced cycle time and significantly improved research customer satisfaction. That's probably the main reason I'm at ORNL today.
Q. You have more than 30 years' experience in facilities operation, engineering and management. How has the proliferation of user facilities affected the way science is done in the national laboratory system?
User facilities have really encouraged collaboration among researchers. These facilities provide users with resources that they wouldn't have access to otherwise. They also enhance the quality of the science done at the national laboratories because the research conducted at user facilities is proposal-driven. The proposals are evaluated to determine which are most worthy to pursue. Only the best proposals are accepted.
Q. You have experience at a lot of other labs. Without naming names, how would you compare ORNL's management philosophy with that of some of those other labs?
UT-Battelle operates under a policy of simultaneous excellence. That includes excellence in science and technology, operations (environment, safety and health) and community relations. UT-Battelle genuinely believes that if an organization is excellent in science but not in operations or community relations, then the company will not be viewed by the community as a valuable asset. When laboratories have problems, it's usually a result of what they are doing—or not doing—in the areas of operations and community relations rather than the quality of their science. UT-Battelle probably emphasizes these aspects of laboratory management more than other lab operators.
Q. What areas of research do you think have benefited the most from ORNL's user facilities?
The areas that require the "big science" tools or highly specialized capabilities have benefited the most. For example, in neutron science, Oak Ridge has the really big tools—the world's most powerful neutron source and a nuclear reactor with a range of unique capabilities. In the area of supercomputing, Oak Ridge now has the world's foremost facility for high-performance computing. In materials science we have the High Temperature Materials Laboratory. For nanoscale studies, we have the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences. In the biological sciences, we have world-class facilities for both structural biology research and bioenergy studies. We also have exceptional facilities for energy, physics and transportation. Few places, if any, have such a collection of world-class research facilities.
Q. ORNL has several extremely popular user facilities. How do you deal with the competing demands of keeping facilities available for research and maintaining them at a high standard?
We are of course concerned with availability, but we are also dedicated to keeping all of our facilities in top-notch operating condition. This has become more of a challenge recently as a result of ORNL's dramatic growth. Since 2002, we have added large new user facilities, such as the Spallation Neutron Source and the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences. At the same time, we provided new offices for more than half the 4,700 staff at the Laboratory. The only way to manage such change is with facility managers and facility engineers who are highly customer-oriented.
We are also adding a "surge" team that can be applied to any area that has an urgent need, particularly to those facilities like the High Flux Isotope Reactor that have time-critical peak needs. When needs arise at several facilities simultaneously, there is a natural competition for resources. Our response has been the creation of a capability that we can apply in addition to the resources we would normally make available.
Q. How do you balance competing demands such as space, power and parking for a lab that is experiencing such rapid growth?
We do a lot of planning. Normally, we have a master facilities plan that outlines several years in advance how various demands will be accommodated. However, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding we recently received made it necessary to accelerate parts of our master plan. Competing demands for resources are addressed through our mission readiness process, where we collaborate with the Lab's research organizations to consider current research needs, as well as those 5 and 10 years in the future. We identify the gaps in our current capabilities and develop a plan to address those research needs with new facilities or whatever else is needed. In other words, we try to anticipate what our researchers' needs will be several years out and plan accordingly.
Q. What is the biggest challenge of managing such a diverse set of facilities?
Our biggest challenge is to understand the evolving needs of the users—what they need to perform cutting-edge science. Once we understand their needs, it's really just a matter of setting priorities, planning and implementation. I'm simplifying this somewhat, but if we don't understand what users need, then everything else is likely to be worthless. That's why we ensure that our people are very capable and customer-oriented. This is reflected in the results of our annual customer satisfaction survey, which have gone from 70 percent satisfaction in 2002 to 94 percent last year.
Q. What improvements have you been able to make in the operation of ORNL's user facilities?
Last year we conducted a study of the efficiency and consistency of our entire user facility program. The study considered the complete user experience—from the time they write their proposals to their arrival at the Lab to the day they leave. Every research program was involved in this effort.
A number of efficiency improvements resulted from the study. However, the one all users will experience by early 2010 is the ability to create a "boarding pass" for their visits to ORNL. From the comfort of their homes or offices, users will be able to go online to fill out the necessary paperwork, take their training and print out the boarding pass. When they arrive at the Laboratory, all they will have to do is show the pass to the guard at the gate and scan it into the system at the Visitor Center. They will then be ready to get to work, instead of spending hours or even days taking training and collecting administrative approvals.
We recognize the importance of our user facilities to the research community and to the mission of the Laboratory. In many cases, the users that visit the Laboratory make or break our reputation, so we want them to leave happy. We want them to achieve their objectives, and we will do anything we can to ensure their objectives are met.
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