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5 Principles of a High Reliability Organization (HRO)

Posted by Greg Jacobson

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May 2, 2024 1:57:12 PM


A high-reliability organization (HRO) is an organization that has succeeded in avoiding catastrophes despite a high level of risk and complexity. Specific examples that have been studied, most famously by researchers Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, include nuclear power plants, air traffic control systems, and naval aircraft carriers. Recently healthcare organizations have moved to adopt the HRO mindset as well. In each case, even a minor error could have catastrophic consequences.

Yet, adverse outcomes in these organizations are rare. How is that possible?

When something terrible happens within an HRO, the public’s initial response may be shock and anger, but often an insightful observer will point out that it is actually amazing that these types of organizations can succeed with any regularity at all (or not fail more often).

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Researchers at Berkeley wanted to define the commonalities of high-reliability organizations. They did extensive research on United States nuclear aircraft carriers, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control system, and nuclear power operations at Pacific Gas and Electric’s Diablo Canyon reactor. They uncovered five elements that HROs have in common.

These traits are essential for avoiding significant failure or catastrophic events despite operating in a hazardous environment where lives are at stake. While your organization may not face such complexity and risk, applying the HRO mindset can help your team reach its highest potential and reliably keep its promises.

5 Principles of a High Reliability Organization (HRO) Infographic


Principle #1: Preoccupation with Failure 

Process Failures are Addressed Immediately and Completely

Some organizations can ignore or work around small process failures or deviations. HROs can’t. HROs do not ignore any failure, no matter how small, because any deviation from the expected result can snowball into tragedy. It is necessary, therefore for HROs to address any level of technical, human or process failure wholly and immediately. In fact, in an HRO even potential process breakdowns are identified and addressed. HROs are somewhat fixated on how things could fail, even if they have not.

In practice, this means that every employee at every level in a high-reliability organization is tasked with thinking of ways their work processes might break down. This sense of shared alertness is ever present. It applies to small inefficiencies and dangerous failures. Employees are encouraged to report their concerns for potential failures, which can help create best practices across the entire organization. Every person has the tools and language to share the culture, which supports process breakdown information and transparency.

Principle #2:  Reluctance to Simplify

Complex Problems Get Complex Solutions

High-Reliability Organizations are complex by definition, and they accept and embrace that complexity. HROs do not explain away problems; instead, they conduct root cause analysis and reject simple diagnoses.

Leaders in HROs must be willing to challenge long-held beliefs. They continuously look at data, benchmarks and other performance metrics. To prevent simplification, which is tempting when success is not achieved, leaders must constantly seek information that challenges their current beliefs as to why problems exist.

How to Manage Your Improvement Metrics


Principle #3: Sensitivity to Operations

Every Voice Matters

HROs understand that the best picture of the current situation, especially an unexpected one, comes from the front line. Because front line employees are closer to the work than executive leadership, they are better positioned to recognize the potential failure and identify opportunities for improvement. There are no assumptions in an HRO. A consistent concentration on processes leads to observations that inform decision-making and new operational initiatives.

Leaders in HROs don’t sit back and wait for employees to report concerns. They create conditions for openness by communicating frequently and regularly with employees. They show respect for individuals by taking their concerns seriously and providing feedback when information is shared. They visit the places where work is done to observe and ask questions, a practice commonly called Gemba Walks.Free eBook: Guide to Successful Gemba Walks


Principle #4:  Commitment to Resilience

Recovery is Swift

Resilience in High-Reliability Organizations means the ability to anticipate trouble spots and improvise when the unexpected occurs. The organization must be able to identify errors that require correction while at the same time innovating solutions within a dynamic environment. They prepare in advance for emergencies and have clear means of communication and control.

To foster resilience, leaders in HROs emphasize the importance of working together in multidisciplinary teams and removing barriers to cross-functional collaboration. They encourage flexibility in team members to accommodate changes in conditions or resources. Team members are explicitly trained on how to manage unexpected events.


Principle #5:  Deference to Expertise

Experts are Trusted

Expertise, rather than authority, takes precedence in an HRO. When conditions are high-risk and circumstances change rapidly, on-the-ground subject matter experts are essential for urgent situational assessment and response.

In order to defer to expertise, leaders must know who in the organization has what specialized knowledge. They also must be in the business of creating experts and helping adept employees keep their skills sharp and up to date.

These five principles form the foundation for the continuous improvement mindset of High-Reliability Organizations. Even if your business doesn’t deal in life and death affairs, there are lessons to be learned from those that do. It makes sense to consider adding these principles to your own approach to improvement.

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Topics: HRO

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