Friday, May 3, 2013

High Reliability Organizations and Safety Culture

On February 10th, we posted about a report covering lessons for safety culture (SC) that can be gleaned from the social science literature. The report's authors judged that high reliability organization (HRO) literature provided a solid basis for linking individual and organizational assumptions with traits and practices that can affect safety performance. This post explores HRO characteristics and how they can influence SC.

Our source is Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty* by Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe. Weick is a leading contemporary HRO scholar. This book is clearly written, with many pithy comments, so lots of quotations are included below to present the authors' views in their own words.

What makes an HRO different?

Many organizations work with risky technologies where the consequences of problems or errors can be catastrophic, use complex management systems and exist in demanding environments. But successful HROs approach their work with a different attitude and practices, an “ongoing mindfulness embedded in practices that enact alertness, broaden attention, reduce distractions, and forestall misleading simplifications.” (p. 3)


An underlying assumption of HROs is “that gradual . . . development of unexpected events sends weak signals . . . along the way” (p. 63) so constant attention is required. Mindfulness means that “when people act, they are aware of context, of ways in which details differ . . . and of deviations from their expectations.” (p. 32) HROs “maintain continuing alertness to the unexpected in the face of pressure to take cognitive shortcuts.” (p. 19) Mindful organizations “notice the unexpected in the making, halt it or contain it, and restore system functioning.” (p. 21)

It takes a lot of energy to maintain mindfulness. As the authors warn us, “mindful processes unravel pretty fast.” (p. 106) Complacency and hubris are two omnipresent dangers. “Success narrows perceptions, . . . breeds overconfidence . . . and reduces acceptance of opposing points of view. . . . [If] people assume that success demonstrates competence, they are more likely to drift into complacency, . . .” (p. 52) Pressure in the task environment is another potential problem. “As pressure increases, people are more likely to search for confirming information and to ignore information that is inconsistent with their expectations.” (p. 26) The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness. “Instances of mindlessness occur when people confront weak stimuli, powerful expectations, and strong desires to see what they expect to see.” (p. 88)

Mindfulness can lead to insight and knowledge. “In that brief interval between surprise and successful normalizing lies one of your few opportunities to discover what you don't know.” (p. 31)**

Five principles

HROs follow five principles. The first three cover anticipation of problems and the remaining two cover containment of problems that do arise.

Preoccupation with failure

HROs “treat any lapse as a symptom that something may be wrong with the system, something that could have severe consequences if several separate small errors happened to coincide. . . . they are wary of the potential liabilities of success, including complacency, the temptation to reduce margins of safety, and the drift into automatic processing.” (p. 9)

Managers usually think surprises are bad, evidence of bad planning. However, “Feelings of surprise are diagnostic because they are a solid cue that one's model of the world is flawed.” (p. 104) HROs “Interpret a near miss as danger in the guise of safety rather than safety in the guise of danger. . . . No news is bad news. All news is good news, because it means that the system is responding.” (p. 152)

People in HROs “have a good sense of what needs to go right and a clearer understanding of the factors that might signal that things are unraveling.” (p. 86)

Reluctance to simplify

HROs “welcome diverse experience, skepticism toward received wisdom, and negotiating tactics that reconcile differences of opinion without destroying the nuances that diverse people detect. . . . [They worry that] superficial similarities between the present and the past mask deeper differences that could prove fatal.” (p. 10) “Skepticism thus counteracts complacency . . . .” (p. 155) “Unfortunately, diverse views tend to be disproportionately distributed toward the bottom of the organization, . . .” (p. 95)

The language people use at work can be a catalyst for simplification. A person may initially perceive something different in the environment but using familiar or standard terms to communicate the experience can raise the risk of losing the early warnings the person perceived.

Sensitivity to operations

HROs “are attentive to the front line, . . . Anomalies are noticed while they are still tractable and can still be isolated . . . . People who refuse to speak up out of fear undermine the system, which knows less than it needs to know to work effectively.” (pp. 12-13) “Being sensitive to operations is a unique way to correct failures of foresight.” (p. 97)

In our experience, nuclear plants are generally good in this regard; most include a focus on operations among their critical success factors.

Commitment to resilience

“HROs develop capabilities to detect, contain, and bounce back from those inevitable errors that are part of an indeterminate world.” (p. 14) “. . . environments that HROs face are typically more complex than the HRO systems themselves. Reliability and resilience lie in practices that reduce . . . environmental complexity or increase system complexity.” (p. 113) Because it's difficult or impossible to reduce environmental complexity, the organization needs to makes its systems more complex.*** This requires clear thinking and insightful analysis. Unfortunately, actual organizational response to disturbances can fall short. “. . . systems often respond to a disturbance with new rules and new prohibitions designed to present the same disruption from happening in the future. This response reduces flexibility to deal with subsequent unpredictable changes.” (p. 72)

Deference to expertise.

“Decisions are made on the front line, and authority migrates to the people with the most expertise, regardless of their rank.” (p. 15) Application of expertise “emerges from a collective, cultural belief that the necessary capabilities lie somewhere in the system and that migrating problems [down or up] will find them.” (p. 80) “When tasks are highly interdependent and time is compressed, decisions migrate down . . . Decisions migrate up when events are unique, have potential for very serious consequences, or have political or career ramifications . . .” (p. 100)

This is another ideal that can fail in practice. We've all seen decisions made by the highest ranking person rather than the most qualified one. In other words, “who is right” can trump “what is right.”

Relationship to safety culture

Much of the chapter on culture is based on the ideas of Schein and Reason so we'll focus on key points emphasized by Weick and Sutcliffe. In their view, “culture is something an organization has [practices and controls] that eventually becomes something an organization is [beliefs, attitudes, values].” (p. 114, emphasis added)

“Culture consists of characteristic ways of knowing and sensemaking. . . . Culture is about practices—practices of expecting, managing disconfirmations, sensemaking, learning, and recovering.” (pp. 119-120) A single organization can have different types of culture: an integrative culture that everyone shares, differentiated cultures that are particular to sub-groups and fragmented cultures that describe individuals who don't fit into the first two types. Multiple cultures support the development of more varied responses to nascent problems.

A complete culture strives to be mindful, safe and informed with an emphasis on wariness. As HRO principles are ingrained in an organization, they become part of the culture. The goal is a strong SC that reinforces concern about the unexpected, is open to questions and reporting of failures, views close calls as a failure, is fearful of complacency, resists simplifications, values diversity of opinions and focuses on imperfections in operations.

What else is in the book?

One chapter contains a series of audits (presented as survey questions) to assess an organization's mindfulness and appreciation of the five principles. The audits can show an organization's attitudes and capabilities relative to HROs and relative to its own self-image and goals.

The final chapter describes possible “small wins” a change agent (often an individual) can attempt to achieve in an effort to move his organization more in line with HRO practices, viz., mindfulness and the five principles. For example, “take your team to the actual site where an unexpected event was handled either well or poorly, walk everyone through the decision making that was involved, and reflect on how to handle that event more mindfully.” (p. 144)

The book's case studies include an aircraft carrier, a nuclear power plant,**** a pediatric surgery center and wildland firefighting.

Our perspective

Weick and Sutcliffe draw on the work of many other scholars, including Constance Perin, Charles Perrow, James Reason and Diane Vaughan, all of whom we have discussed in this blog. The book makes many good points. For example, the prescription for mindfulness and the five principles can contribute to an effective context for decision making although it does not comprise a complete management system. The authors' recognize that reliability does not mean a complete lack of performance variation, instead reliability follows from practices that recognize and contain emerging problems. Finally, there is evidence of a systems view, which we espouse, when the authors say “It is this network of relationships taken together—not necessarily any one individual or organization in the group—that can also maintain the big picture of operations . . .” (p. 142)

The authors would have us focus on nascent problems in operations, which is obviously necessary. But another important question is what are the faint signals that the SC is developing problems? What are the precursors to the obvious signs, like increasing backlogs of safety-related work? Could that “human error” that recently occurred be a sign of a SC that is more forgiving of growing organizational mindlessness?

Bottom line: Safetymatters says check out Managing the Unexpected and consider adding it to your library.

* K.E. Weick and K.M. Sutcliffe, Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty, 2d ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007). Also, Wikipedia has a very readable summary of HRO history and characteristics.

** More on normalization and rationalization: “On the actual day of battle naked truths may be picked up for the asking. But by the following morning they have already begun to get into their uniforms.” E.A. Cohen and J. Gooch, Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p. 44, quoted in Managing the Unexpected, p. 31.

*** The prescription to increase system complexity to match the environment is based on the system design principle of requisite variety which means “if you want to cope successfully with a wide variety of inputs, you need a wide variety of responses.” (p. 113)

**** I don't think the authors performed any original research on nuclear plants. But the studies they reviewed led them to conclude that “The primary threat to operations in nuclear plants is the engineering culture, which places a higher value on knowledge that is quantitative, measurable, hard, objective, and formal . . . HROs refuse to draw a hard line between knowledge that is quantitative and knowledge that is qualitative.” (p. 60)

1 comment:

  1. The first edition of Managing the Unexpected was published in 2001, Reason's first book Human Error goes back to 1990. I wonder sometimes: what to make of the reality that a few of us read the research and try to draw correlations to actual practice, but most of our nuclear industry colleagues go forward as if much of this literature didn't exist at all?

    Just now there is a slide deck from Commissioner Apostolakis ( that is the report of the internal NRC Task Force that he supervised on the regulatory framework of the future. It is difficult to see how these two schools of thought even occupy the same planet.

    We've got to be missing something about how these substantial but distinctively alternative (complex, high-consequence) world views manage to co-exist and yet have so little evident influence upon one another.

    I was just reading a 2009 paper by Leveson and friends at MIT taking both Perrow and Weick, et. al. to the woodshed for having incomplete perspectives. But the reality is that if these differences of models or methods are getting aired out where practitioners might make some use of them I'm not aware of at what venues those exchanges are happening.

    At least the economists blog & flog each other out in the open - less so it seems the Safety Management experts. Perhaps we're (well the rest of you all anyway) all too polite?


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