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7 Ways to Test the Reliability of Your Organization

byLowers & Associates | October 10, 2017

If you are a manager in an organization, especially one that faces a complex, dynamic environment, you should be interested in learning how the principles of the High Reliability Organization (HRO) can help you. Your aim should be to develop an organization that moves continuously toward greater reliability of critical outcomes, using every failure as an opportunity for improvement.

To get started, it is very helpful to understand the interaction of perception (evidence, seeing, measuring, identifying) and conception (theory, understanding, generalizing, classifying). When we see something, we evaluate it through the lens of our concepts of what it “should” be based on experience, training, beliefs, or just wishful thinking. In fact, our conception can sometimes overwhelm the evidence in front of our faces, ruling out possibilities that don’t “fit.”

In the HRO, “mindful organizing” breaks the complacent connection between the standard conception of operations and typical events. It encourages an open-minded perception of events without simplifying them with preconceived ideas. The HRO pays attention to the smallest of failures as indicators of potentially significant problems.

We have identified 7 factors that help to make this abstract nature of HROs more concrete, with more actionable steps toward installing HRO principles in your organization. These are further explored in our whitepaper Building the High Reliability Organization.

1. Your Mission Isn’t Just Lip Service

HROs refine their mission over time to zoom in on the critical outcomes that truly define the organization. The mission is not just a blurb with happy-talk: it is the focused goal of the organization that justifies its existence.

2. No One Pulls Rank

The tone from the top matters in most organizational endeavors, and achieving HRO capacity is one of them. In the HRO, leadership includes group, unit, and team leaders as well as top management. There is a shared understanding about how to address and communicate failure, and communicating failure is accepted and expected as it moves up the chain of command. No one pulls rank.

3. You Know Where to Find the Experts

A corollary of leadership, one of the main principles of HROs is to recognize that expertise resides in the people closest to, and most knowledgeable about, a given operation. Solutions are identified by the facts on the ground as experienced by someone who knows what should happen in an operation, not by someone up the hierarchy.

4. The Blinders are Off

HROs do not permit what “everyone knows” to prevent it from seeing what is actually happening in a given event. It is open to new information and adapts accordingly. This is a cultural trait that exists at every level in the organization.

5. You Don’t Set-it-and-Forget-it

The cultural conditions of the HRO aren’t something they set, then forget. Leaders create the mission and framework to transfer the mindful mindset of the HRO to every worker. This takes time and it takes training. The HRO makes local experts of its people who share a common worldview about perceptions and failure.

6. Good Enough is Never Good Enough

Although the proper cultural domain is a pervasive characteristic of HROs, these organizations will also avail themselves of tools like Six-Sigma to refine processes. Good process design is a foundation for good performance. However, process routines are never assumed to be perfect. People managing the processes will always watch them critically.

7. You Mind the Mistakes

At its core, an HRO is an organization that pays attention to even small failures or anomalies as evidence of potentially larger problems.

In the end, the HRO is a learning organization that continuously adapts to variability in its environment, including its failures. It is always paradoxical in the sense that it seeks perfect reliability knowing that perfection is never possible. It is a process, not an end point.

For more on HROs, download our newest whitepaper, Building the High Reliability Organization.


Lowers & Associates provides comprehensive enterprise risk management solutions to organizations operating in high-risk, highly-regulated environments and organizations that value risk mitigation.
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