Before I spent a lot of time learning, thinking, and writing about how businesses operate and what separates those that successfully achieve their mission and those that don’t, I took a lot of things for granted. I never worried that my plane would crash, I wasn’t afraid that the power plant near my house would explode, nor was I concerned that the aircraft carrier my neighbor’s son calls home would come to harm. Sure, all of those adverse events do occur, but they are so rare that most of us just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them.
But when you do think about how it is possible that such high-risk operations so rarely fail, it almost seems incredible. The guy at the drive-through can’t remember to leave the tomato off my chicken sandwich, but 87,000 flights crisscross the USA every day almost always without serious incident. How can that be?
Fortunately, we don’t have to guess at the answer. Thanks to researchers Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, we know precisely which attitudes have taken root in these “High Reliability Organizations.” The good news is that your organization doesn’t need to deal in life-or-death risk to apply the principles that create an environment where error-free operations are the norm.
Here are the ingredients to the “secret sauce” of highly reliable organizations. (HROs)
Preoccupation with Failure
In a high reliability organization, everyone is continually thinking about the potential for failure. This isn’t a passive activity that comes up only when something goes wrong, team members actively think about new threats that might emerge and situations that no one expects to occur. The absence of errors doesn’t mean that they aren’t possible; it just means that they haven’t cropped up yet. Near misses don’t create a false sense of security; instead they trigger a full investigation and the need for corrective and preventative actions.
How can you make this part of your cultural DNA? Start by never letting small failures be swept under the rug. This will require leaders to focus on the process that failed, not the people who operate the process. By doing this, people become more willing to discuss flaws and defects and less incentivized to make them invisible.
Reluctance to Simplify
High reliability organizations can not afford to slap simple explanations on complicated processes. Team members understand that operations are not performed in isolation, and therefore the state of work is complicated and dynamic. In order to address problems, HROs dig into the underlying issues that drive outcomes.
One easy way to apply this to your processes is to use the Lean technique of the 5 whys. You start with an undesirable outcome and ask why it happened. Take the answer and ask why again. This process is repeated until the root cause of an issue is uncovered and addressed. For example, if an order was delivered to the customer late because an incorrect shipping method was entered into the order by the service rep. The simple response is to reprimand the representative. The 5 whys may lead you to uncover as a systemic training problem and the need for tooltips within the application.
Sensitivity to Operations
Being sensitive to operations means having a big picture understanding of current conditions, also known as situational awareness. It requires leaders to understand how processes are operating in the real world today. Processes and results are seen in context, not evaluated as abstract ideals.
Gemba walks are an excellent way for leaders to gain this “ground-level” understanding by going to the place where work gets done, observing, and asking questions. Building trust between front-line workers and leaders is an essential first step on the path to becoming an operationally sensitive organization.
Deference to Expertise
In a high reliability culture, leaders believe that the people closest to the work have the greatest knowledge of the situation. When something goes wrong, expertise trumps status and seniority. While there may be a hierarchy in place, it is not the deciding factor in decisions that are better made by people local to the problem, or people with subject matter knowledge that leaders don’t share.
You can begin to implement this principle by first understanding who has expertise on important subjects, and who sits most closely to each process that might need improvement. It is also a good idea to employ the CQI technique of Catchball to make sure that ideas are evaluated and improved by everyone who might be in a position to add unique insight.
Commitment to Resilience
While highly reliable organizations do everything possible to prevent failure, something will inevitably go wrong. These organizations are ready when it does. They practice quickly assessing issues and responding to unexpected situations. They outline plans for damage mitigation and have pre-assigned roles for rapid response.
A necessary element of resilience is cross-functional collaboration because many failures happen where processes or operations meet. Teams can begin to cultivate the skill of resilience by working together and establishing reliable, consistent methods of communication. It helps when process documentation is centralized and easily accessible in an urgent situation.
Consistently demonstrating these five traits is critically necessary for organizations with complex and risky missions. But any organization that wants to deliver excellent quality and maximized customer value can live them as well.