So what is a Highly Reliable Organization (HRO)?

Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUB

Today, Part Two from ResFam reader Terrence Gilbey on what makes up a Highly Reliable Organization…

 If you read my first article – Accidents Happen – I talked about accidents being normal and using “slack” as a way to surf the edge of chaos rather than be pulled under by it.  Some companies and organizations have recognized that with forethought and “mindfulness”, on the part of their people, they don’t have to be the victim of events. With all that is unfolding in the world today, why shouldn’t we also leverage this knowledge to make sure we don’t get pulled under?

I spent some time in the military and on occasion I was witness to one of the most chaotic and dangerous places you can find yourself. That place is the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of night-time flight operations.  Despite it being dark and incredibly loud, with the deck of the ship moving on three axes, pilots must land their plane by snagging a piece of wire off the deck with a tail hook and then get out of the way before the guy behind them comes in and lands on top of them.  Just to make it harder, they do it at full-throttle with a deck crewed primarily by 21-year-olds.

This sounds like the recipe for disaster and yet, interesting enough, aircraft carriers are one of the most Highly Reliable Organizations (HRO) you can find.  That’s not saying that unexpected stuff doesn’t happen all the time, it does, but what makes them reliable is their ability to manage the unexpected.  To do that, they operate with the five basic HRO tenants:

  • Preoccupation with failure – A belief that if it can happen, it will.  Always think about what you’re going to do when plan A fails; have a Plan B.
  • Deference to expertise – Recognition that the person who knows the most about something is probably the person you should talk to about the problem.  How many times have you not listened to the grey-haired guy at the plumbing store because you thought you knew how to do it or do it better?
  • Reluctance to simplify – This means thinking situations through completely and not shying away from the gory details.  Introducing GMO’s into the food supply might have seemed like a really good idea at the time…but did we really think through the long-term implications of that decision?
  • Sensitivity to operations – In a nutshell, don’t get lost and unable to see the wood for the trees.  Sometimes we get so focused on the task at hand that we forget what is going on around us and how we are interacting with the world.
  • Commitment to resilience. – Last but not least, this is developing capabilities to detect, contain and bounce back from the inevitable errors and unexpected events that are part of our world.

This all sounds simple, but the key is how often we ask ourselves these questions — around big decisions, daily decisions, and even hourly decisions?  If we look at our world through the lens of HRO and build “slack,” we are more prepared and able to meet the failures that occur in our complex and tightly-coupled world and remain in control of it rather than have it control us.

About me: I was born and raised in England but have spent the majority of my life traveling and living around the world in the pursuit of military, corporate and personal adventures.  I currently reside in Seattle, Washington, and spend time in Panama, where I am building a small farm.  For the past 20 years I have spent my professional time working in the industries of healthcare, IT, energy, government, and retail, looking at the problems of complex systems and leveraging my life experiences and research to help companies build high-performance teams and sustainable organizations.  While living in the United States, I have come to recognize that we are a nation focused on “quantity of life” over “quality of life” – to me, this is not sustainable or healthy.  In response I am now focusing on how to take the best of what I have learned in the outside corporate world, and apply it in our daily lives.

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