Change at Los Alamos

Keywords: organizational change, change management, restructuring

Several management writers have identified common threads to successful change, including focus on the organization's mission and core competencies while re-designing structures around processes. But what happens when an organization's mission becomes obsolete, and its core competencies have sharply diminished in value? Find out in change at Los Alamos.

Several management writers have identified common threads to successful change, including focus on the organization's mission and core competencies while re-designing structures around processes.

But what happens when an organization's mission becomes obsolete, and its core competencies have sharply diminished in value? This situation reflects the reality at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, United States.

LANL was formed in 1943 as an effort to consolidate the widespread research into nuclear weapons. However as we step into the next century, the world is fundamentally changing and LANL must change with it. The end of the Cold War has reduced the need for the development of nuclear weapons, and the budgetary problems of government create challenges for organizations that rely on the government for funding. Such factors illustrate the need for change at LANL.

And so it became that LANL embraced change. Terms such as TQM, re-engineering and leadership became part of the corporate lexicon. However the change has been far from easy. The changes have been so far-reaching that almost no aspects of the organization have been left untouched.

View from the top - the deputy director

As a result of the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a 'global' economy and marketplace, it was important to re-evaluate what LANL did and develop a new mission. The guiding principle of this mission was to become a customer-focussed organization that builds on historical strengths in science and technology.

The restructuring at LANL eliminated an entire level of management and created a new top management team. Top management felt there were four key challenges during the changes:

  • How do you keep an organization running while you are selecting a new top management team?
  • How do you continue to make big decisions in the midst of major leadership change?
  • How do you ensure the continued operational functioning of the organization in areas such as finance and personnel while undergoing such fundamental change?
  • Since all management positions were opened up to competitive hiring, what do you do with those former top managers who do not "win back" their jobs?

What has top management learned?

  • Changing behaviour takes time - especially in a large organization. Even after a year, only minor changes in behaviours were detectable in the workforce. Leaders should extend the time horizon for significant change and not look for instant results
  • Mid-level supervisors were empowered and they have responded with better decision making and improved LANL's efficiency.
  • Many top managers took an early retirement package and left during the restructuring. Although the loss of such seasoned leadership was initially viewed as detrimental, this in fact was not the case. New leaders brought new energy and new ideas.
  • An employee survey conducted soon after the restructuring indicated high levels of disenchantment among LANL staff. Top management realized they still have much to do in terms of employee motivation, trust and empowerment.

View from the outside - the contract consultant

Once the change initiative was underway, representatives from the laboratory visited the Motorola University and this proved to be a great awakening for many of those who attended. Representatives from Motorola also visited LANL to carry out an organizational needs analysis. This analysis was frank in nature and spelled out problems such as a lack of an accepted mission, a lack of management accountability and too much bureaucracy.

"Employees wanted answers to questions such as "why are we reorganizing?" and, as is usually the case in major change initiatives, rumour control is paramount."

LANL management also carried out a basic employee survey in which staff seized the opportunity to jump all over management and voice their criticisms. It was found that during the second year of change, people began to get impatient with the rate of transformation. Two teams re-examined laboratory activities and as a result the decision was made to reorganize LANL from top to bottom.

So much emphasis had been put on the reorganization that people had come to believe that all of LANL's problems would disappear as soon as change had been fully implemented. They didn't. In fact things got worse as people at all levels had to learn how to make decisions. LANL was now operating with a significantly flattened structure, yet people were still behaving as if the structure was hierarchical.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen that LANL faced organizational issues too early in the change process. The Motorola perspective is that "form follows function." As a result, Motorola would have put more emphasis on working the vision and mission issues, then trying to figure out how work gets done at LANL.

View from the middle - the director of public affairs

A crucial problem in undertaking fundamental change at large organizations is that such change creates a demand for information not frequently recognized prior to implementation.

Employees wanted answers to questions such as "why are we reorganizing?" and as is usually the case in major change initiatives, rumour control is paramount. But how can the company continue to communicate efficiently when the old lines of communication have been eliminated through restructuring?

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Some of the internal changes in communication policy included ideas such as adding a question and answer column and a letter to the editor section in the employee newsletter to allow employees to specifically respond to organizational issues. The public affairs department has learned many important lessons from the change program including:

  • The demand for information during organizational change from both internal and external audiences is enormous and constant
  • Themes and visions must be repeated constantly throughout the reorganization process
A report published by ProSci Learning Centers ( revealed that More than 50 percent of survey participants had implemented dramatic process change, more than 90 percent implemented process changes that crossed departmental boundaries and almost 50 percent expect the change to impact their entire enterprise. Read organizational change and find out more.

View from the inside - the Human Resources department

During the changes at LANL, the HR department saw three primary challenges:

  • Training and development needs
  • Implementation of new personnel policies and procedures
  • Addressing employee concerns and fears

The HR department is facing the challenge of helping to change the historical mindset of LANL employees from passive workers into empowered decision makers.

The change plan has brought about many new HR practices such as performance-based appraisals and employee empowerment.

During major change a key role of a HR department is to identify employee annoyances and eliminate them wherever possible. It is also especially important in such an environment for the customers of HR - the employees themselves - to understand the commitment of HR to their well-being and development as individuals.


It can be noted how several of the contributors mentioned the difficulty in transforming the organization without a clear definition of a new mission. It appears as though top management realized the historic mission of the lab was rapidly declining in social value and a new one was needed. However they may have failed to take the necessary time to fully develop a shared sense of the new mission and common vision for the organization. If an organization has no viable mission to guide its change efforts, then the first step must be to develop and communicate a new mission prior to any discussion of organizational form.

A second lesson learned from the situation at LANL is that the time frame for meaningful change needs to be extended, perhaps even dramatically extended. Management was disappointed that behaviour change was almost negligible one year after initialization. But Kotter argues that the time frame for major change may exceed ten years.

The changes at LANL involve significant culture issues which raise an interesting paradox: how do you manage an organization on a day-to-day basis which may be culturally bound to a mission it no longer wants to pursue? As communication regarding a mission change moves through an organizational culture that emerged to achieve the old mission, the changes may not make sense and employees will find it difficult to change their behaviours.

LANL's story is illustrative of the challenges and difficulties that face any organization undergoing major change.

20th October 2001

This is a précis of an article entitled "Managerial perceptions of change at a national laboratory" which originally appeared in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal Volume 19 Issue 1, 1998.

The authors were Richard C. Ringer of Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, USA and Kelly C. Strong of Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Michigan, USA.

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