Organizational Resiliency: How Does the Way You Handle Mistakes Drive Reliability?

By Lowers & Associates,

One of the most common descriptions of the High Reliability Organization (HRO) is that it is “resilient.” Here is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines resilient:

  1. The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
  2. The ability of a substance to spring back into shape; elasticity.

The definition points directly at two important characteristics of organizational resilience. First, organizations show resilience in response to a difficulty or deformity. Resilience is reactive, not predictive. Thus, it is not the kind of capacity that is based on a careful analysis of potential faults, with mitigating solutions pre-positioned to cope. In fact, the resilient organization will invent solutions to unexpected problems on the fly.

The second feature is that when an unexpected problem occurs, the elastic—resilient—organization will continue to function normally. It continues to produce desired outcomes despite the problem (and internalizes the solution so that a future response to the problem is even faster).

Weick and Sutcliffe summarize the resilient organization very clearly:

In moments of resilience, conditions vary yet the effect remains the same. That difference lies at the heart of a commitment to resilience.[1]

The “commitment to resilience” implies that the organization’s management and culture have the proper attitude toward unexpected conditions or failures. It emphasizes the central point that high reliability organizations (HROs) are not organizations that do not experience failure. Rather, they continue to generate the main outcomes of their mission despite failures.

To adapt to something unexpected, the people in the organization are ready to recognize the event for what it is, avoid complacent assumptions, and refuse to oversimplify or routinize—the problem before an effective solution is identified. This is a capacity that organizations with a commitment to resilience will develop over time.

Workers in resilient organizations will create innovative responses to failures as needed, almost improvising in real time. However, they are not working in an unstructured system when they do this. They need to have both exhaustive expertise regarding the portion of the organization affected by an event, and need the confidence to act as developed by prior empowering support from all levels of the hierarchy.

For a more complete review of the High Reliability Organization, download our newest whitepaper, Building a High Reliability Organization.

[1] Weick, Karl E. and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe. Managing the Unexpected: Sustained Performance in a Complex World, 3rd Edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2015. p. 98.

  Category: High Reliability Organizations
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Why a Preoccupation with Failure is a Necessity for HROs

By Lowers & Associates,

The very first sentence in Weick and Sutcliffe’s important book about High Reliability Organizations (HROs) is “Nonobvious breakdowns happen all the time.”[1] A “breakdown” is a failure. The first of five principles of HROs they discuss is the “Preoccupation with Failure.

Why is failure so important in the concept of the HRO? More importantly, in the day-to-day functioning of HROs?

The first answer is that in the HRO, every failure or anomaly is treated like the canary in the coal mine. Even the smallest failure is an indicator of a potentially significant problem, and every failure calls attention to an aspect of the HRO’s operations that can be improved. Failure is treated as an opportunity.

Putting this in the context of what an HRO is helps to understand why failure is such a core component. Writers continually refer to HROs as adaptive or resilient organizations. HROs are learning organizations that observe on-going operations closely and objectively, making changes as needed to maintain and improve performance over time. This ability to learn is increasingly embedded in the culture of every operating unit so that eventually, every part of the organization is contributing to the overall on-going success of the whole. This capability gives the HRO the ability to adapt to unexpected, “nonobvious breakdowns.”

The information needed to make adaptive course corrections is found in the failures.

Weick and Sutcliffe say that HROs are preoccupied with failure in three ways:

  1. They strive to detect small, emerging failures because they may point to more dangerous or systematic failures elsewhere in the organization.
  2. HROs try to anticipate failures, and ensure that those risks are mitigated.
  3. HROs accept that knowledge is incomplete, even about their own operations, and do not make complacent assumptions about “obvious” events.[2]

The preoccupation with failure points at the fact that much of the strength of the HRO is through the widespread adoption of attitudes and behaviors in the cultural domain. Members of the culture learn to recognize anomalies in performance, and to do that they must first know the expected operation deeply. Then, when anomalies/failures occur they must report them into an accepting chain of communications.

In the HRO culture, members learn to recognize “emerging mistakes”—they refuse to deflect attention from small anomalies that might evolve into major failures. They refuse to normalize small deviations from the expected and they avoid complacency. The organization institutionalizes the experience of failure to build on it and support the effort to recognize pattern failures. Members of HRO organizations are skeptical, they allow themselves to experience and express doubt.

A popular view on individual performance is that people should not be afraid to fail. Failure is a learning opportunity that can help the person perform better in the future. This metaphor captures the HRO’s preoccupation with failure accurately.

To learn more about the HRO, download our latest whitepaper titled, Building a High Reliability Organization.

[1] Weick, Karl and Kathleen Sutcliffe. Managing the Unexpected: Sustained Performance in a Complex World, 3rd Edition. Hoboken, NJ, John Wiley & Sons: 2015. p. 1.

[2] Weick and Sutcliffe, Ibid. p.46.

The Making of a High Reliability Organization [Infographic]

By Lowers & Associates,

The High Reliability Organization (HRO) is an irresistible topic. How can any organization (like an aircraft carrier) or organized system (like American commercial aviation) operate in a totally threat-filled environment without frequent catastrophic failure? How can any organization realistically seek perfect reliability under conditions where the unexpected is routine?

Organization design experts have been working out the answers to these questions over the past 20 years. What has emerged from this research is a growing understanding about how an organization in a complex environment can become a resilient, adaptable HRO.

People working in HROs continuously seek ways to improve processes, and use every failure as an opportunity to install beneficial changes. They do not assume that just because something has worked well in the past that it will always continue to do so. The people and the system they are part of are open to change.

Early research focused on “heroic” organizations like the U.S. commercial aviation system. In 2015, there were about 24,000 commercial flights every day, operating through a network of 476 control towers and 14,000 controllers. Yet there were zero fatalities due to operations in commercial aviation that year.

Vivid outcomes like this helped to highlight how HROs operate to manage the unexpected. These same principles can be used in more ordinary organizations and systems to improve performance. A prime example is how healthcare organizations of different types are working diligently to adopt HRO principles.

This infographic, The Making of a High Reliability Organization, gives a fast summary of the characteristics of an HRO. Managers of every organization should be familiar with HROs to evaluate how they might adopt operational and cultural factors that lead to very high reliability to their own environments.


3 Essential Domains of High Reliability Organizations

By Lowers & Associates,

High Reliability Organizations (HROs) achieve such a status through persistent and detailed efforts to improve outcomes, even seeking “perfect reliability.” But, how do you get there from where you are?

Chassin and Loeb, writing about healthcare, have summarized the requirements into three broad domains: leadership, process, and culture. The approach these authors describe is intended to help hospitals and other healthcare organizations adopt HRO principles and performance, but it applies equally well to other types of organizations. All complex organizations seeking to improve outcome quality and reliability will have to scrutinize the same domains and begin to install changes. … Continue reading

Can the Cash Processing and Transport System Become a High Reliability Organization?

By Lowers & Associates,

A High Reliability Organization (HRO) is one that achieves desired outcomes consistently, despite operating in a highly complex environment characterized by high risks. It learns from its failures, even those unanticipated, and uses them to improve over time.

Could the Cash Processing and Transport System (CPTS) operate like an HRO? Let’s begin by determining if CPTS shares the characteristics of an HRO. … Continue reading