High Reliability Organizational Culture

Let’s take a look at the aspects of a culture that are necessary to support high reliability (see Our Last Blog to help describe your organization).  If you have determined that your organization’s work involves the interaction of complex technical, mechanical, legal or social systems, and small mistakes can lead to much larger, far-reaching and even catastrophic events, then you are likely in need of a high reliability culture.  Examples of High Reliability Organizations (HRO’s) are health care, aviation, aerospace, refining & chemical processing, nuclear power generation, offshore oil & gas drilling and production.  To achieve high reliability, organizations should aspire to create a culture that at a minimum reflects the following attributes.  Each of these attributes, in turn, is expressed in key “taken for granted behaviors” that govern how people operate in that culture.

1.  Sensitivity to operations

  • “At all levels of the organization,  we understand that operations are the key to success and impact every other function within the organization, and therefore we are constantly looking for what is and isn’t working.”
  • For example, this is displayed when employees at all levels make suggestions on new or improved operating procedures.

2.  Preoccupation with failure

  • “At all levels of the organization, we understand that things can go wrong and we do not assume that past success is a guarantee against future failure.” 
  • For example, this is displayed when leaders regularly ask their employees to identify and explain, from their perspective, how things might go wrong.

3.  Reluctance to simplify interpretations

  • “We resist the urge to reduce complex events to simple “cause & effect” explanations, which would lead us to overlook factors that might someday lead to catastrophic failure.”
  • For example, this is displayed when investigating failures. If a simple explanation seems obvious, leaders continue to ask “why” and look for less obvious explanations.

4.  Commitment to resilience

  • “We are honest about our failures, learn from them and quickly adjust our systems to prevent the same failures in the future.”
  • For example, this is displayed when employees quickly report failures and openly acknowledge their role without fear.

5.  Deference to expertise

  • “We listen to those who have the most knowledge and expertise when attempting to solve a problem, even if those people do not have high status in the organization.”
  • For example, this is displayed when leaders bypass the organization’s hierarchies to talk directly with people who have the most experience, knowledge or expertise on a subject.

These HRO attributes and their associated “taken for granted behaviors” do not simply happen on their own; rather, they are the result of the conscious development of an organizational context that supports, reinforces and encourages them.  They are modeled by management at all levels, talked about at all levels and, when violated, are evaluated, learned from and used to make changes for future success.