The very first sentence in Weick and Sutcliffe’s important book about High Reliability Organizations (HROs) is “Nonobvious breakdowns happen all the time.” 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:
- They strive to detect small, emerging failures because they may point to more dangerous or systematic failures elsewhere in the organization.
- HROs try to anticipate failures, and ensure that those risks are mitigated.
- HROs accept that knowledge is incomplete, even about their own operations, and do not make complacent assumptions about “obvious” events.
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.
 Weick, Karl and Kathleen Sutcliffe. Managing the Unexpected: Sustained Performance in a Complex World, 3rd Edition. Hoboken, NJ, John Wiley & Sons: 2015. p. 1.
 Weick and Sutcliffe, Ibid. p.46.