How to Build a High Reliability Organization

A “High Reliability Organization” (HRO) is an organization that has succeeded in avoiding catastrophes in an environment where normal accidents can be expected due to risk factors and complexity. Having worked in a high profile public system and for numerous healthcare organizations, the key is high reliability. A reference on the matter is a group of researchers at UC Berkeley which examined aircraft carriers (in partnership with Rear Admiral (ret.) Tom Mercer on the USS Carl Vinson), the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control system (and commercial aviation more generally), nuclear power operations (Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon reactor), and their focused attention on HROs. Consequently, the phrase “high reliability” more generally has come to mean that high-risk and high-effectiveness can co-exist. It shows that some organizations must perform well under very trying conditions and that it takes intensive effort to do so.

Prime examples of HROs are the likes of the air traffic control system, naval aircraft carriers, and nuclear power operations.

Here are five characteristics of a HRO that have been identified as responsible for the “mindfulness” that keeps them working well when facing unexpected situations.

  • Preoccupation with failure
  • Reluctance to simplify interpretations
  • Sensitivity to operations
  • Commitment to resilience
  • Deference to expertise

Any comments, input, or experiences with HROs is, of course, welcome from anybody.

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