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What High-Reliability Organizations Have in Common

Posted by Greg Jacobson

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Mar 7, 2019 7:32:00 AM

Air traffic controller holding light signs at the airportHigh-reliability organizations (HROs) are those that successfully complete their missions despite massive complexity and high risk. Examples include the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control system, aircraft carriers, nuclear power plants, and NASA. In each case, even a minor error could have catastrophic consequences. Yet, adverse outcomes in these organizations are rare. How is it possible that we can go years without a commercial airline accident, but the guy at the drive through can’t seem to get your order right?


Defining HROs

Researchers at Berkley set out to create a definition 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 found that high-reliability organizations have the following characteristics in common:

  • Hypercomplexity
  • Tight coupling with interdependence across units and levels
  • Extreme hierarchical differentiation
  • Large numbers of decision makers in complex communication networks
  • Redundancy in control and information systems
  • A degree of accountability that does not exist in most organizations
  • Frequent and immediate feedback about decisions
  • Compressed time factors with major activities are measured in seconds
  • More than one critical outcome that must happen simultaneously


While lots of organizations have some of these traits, HROs display them all at the same time.

The types of organizations that can be considered HROs are diverse, but there are remarkable similarities. Their technologies are risky, and the potential for error is inherent. The scope and severity of consequences from mistakes mean that learning through experimentation is off the table. Finally, they all use complicated processes to manage their work and avoid failure.

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Principles of HROs

How are high-reliability organizations able to overcome so much risk? In their book Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity, Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe outline five principles that make it possible for these organizations to manage the unexpected better than other organizations. (All of the quotes in this post are from this book.)

High-Reliability Organizations are:

Obsessed with Failure

Not every failure causes a severe crisis. In reality, most big disasters are the result of a series of seemingly benign failures. In a high-reliability organization, no failure, no matter how trivial is swept under the rug. HROs never see process breakdowns as a one-off. They also don’t wait for a failure to occur; they spend time identifying what might fail and work to prevent it.

“Anomalies are noticed while they are still tractable and can be dealt with.”


Comfortable with Complexity

HROs recognize that no process happens in isolation. When the results from one process are imperfect, they can have a serious negative impact on the next. It is for this reason that high-reliability organizations don’t put Band-aids on problems. Instead, they dig deep to find the root cause of any failure and apply corrective measures that can be maintained.

Sensitive to Operations

Sensitivity to operations means understanding conditions in real time, regardless of intentions, designs or plans. This means that HROs pay attention to every front-line employee and that people are empowered to report the situation on the ground. According to Weick and Sutcliffe, you can tell whether an organization is sensitive to a near miss. Is it seen as a safety success or failure?

“Operations are in jeopardy when their soundness is overestimated. When people see a near miss as a success, it reinforces their belief that current operations are sufficient to forestall unintended consequences.”


Committed to Resilience

High-reliability organizations have backups for their backups. They also hone the ability to react quickly to problems and reduce their impact. The ability to identify problems and innovate solutions at the same time is highly valued in HROs.

“The hallmark of an HRO is not that it is error-free, but that errors don’t disable it.”


Deferent to Expertise

When lives are on the line, expertise is far more critical than the org chart. In HROs, the people who know most about a given subject are trusted to make the right decisions. This is even more critical when something goes wrong and the team is trying to recover.

“Rank and expertise do not necessarily coincide.”


Your organization might not hold lives in its hands, but all organizations face risks to profits, customer satisfaction, and reputation. The behaviors of HROs can be very instructive for those trying to figure out how to error-proof processes, avoid surprises, and deliver the desired outcome every single time.

Topics: HRO

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